youth, artistry, and liberalism


If there are any groups that one would immediately associate with liberal and progressive ideology, it would be the young and the artistic. I’ve heard many people say that you are liberal in your youth and conservative in your old age. A reductive axiom no doubt, but not entirely without merit. There is something to the young and the creative that brings out progressive ideas, and it is not because those groups are wide-eyed dreamers, unknowledgeable, or simply naïve, denigrating notions used to reject out of hand what they bring to the table. I would argue that it is the youthful and the artists who, having the least to lose because they are the least invested in the economic system, are therefore among the most unbiased observers to our current order. The reason why many begin as liberals and become conservative with age is because they find little recourse in engaging against the colossal system that is inherently resistant to change. They lose heart, and find a way to live the most comfortable life available, which comes by adhering to the economic system that brings with it judgments of who deserves what. Conservatism is a means of conformity necessary for the system to properly function, which rewards conservatives who don’t question the system in the same way that liberals do.


Of course I don’t mean to assert that liberals are not compensated by the capitalist economy. One only need to look at George Soros. What I do mean is that with conservatives comes an attitude of who deserves what, and that the wealthy deserve their all their wealth, that working to the top, ambition, all that is good not just for the individual but society. They are more accepting of the profit motive, with all the cynicism that it entails. I’ve met many conservatives that want a more compassionate society, but not with their hard earned money, and not for the lazy (i.e. the poor).


Artists and the young, on the other hand, often don’t have that hard earned money (at least, not yet anyway). Creative work does not always reward the artist monetarily, and more often than not it won’t. Herman Melville and F. Scott Fitzgerald died destitute, despite writing two of the most important novels in the American canon. Would you argue that the makers of Candy Crush had a better impact on American society? Likely you would not, yet they were far better compensated for an insipid mobile app. Perhaps a more illustrative example is art.


It is not uncommon for a painting of a long dead artist to sell for millions at auction. The principal of scarcity applies here, meaning that the exclusive nature and greater desire for an artwork makes it more valuable. But the artist who painted it is often never compensated for the aggregation of its financial worth. Instead, the owner of a van Gogh can purchase a painting and then sell it for more money. From this it is easy to see that making money comes from ownership of property more than it comes from the labor of the individual. Banksy, arguably the most famous artist of the day, could sell a work for a million, but the resale of the work will make more money, even though the seller did nothing to add value to it other than possess it while its value accumulated as the artist’s reputation rose. There is, unfortunately, no mechanism for the restitution of the artist for his cultural contribution other than the fickle, “free” market, which fails for artists as much, if not more than it rewards. And that is without taking into account piracy, whose cost publishers and record companies push onto the artist.


Most artists will labor for years in obscurity without any guarantee of success. Sure, there are the prodigies, but there are also those who need many years to develop their craft. Similarly, if one looks at the average age of entrepreneurs, they tend to be around forty or fifty. Imagine spending two decades on building your skills, with little compensation, and then not making it. It takes a lot of courage to persist in a creative endeavor, and it is far riskier than most realize. We only hear about the success stories because the success stories that make the most visible works. This pursuit places the artists outside of the conventional, which is why artists tend to be described as weird, and because artists don’t just question the economic system, they question societal norms, religious conventions, and all other beliefs and values that constitute “normal.”


Let’s look at Percy Bysshe Shelley. Writing toward the beginning of the 19th century, Shelley was a radical, atheist, vegetarian, advocate of nonviolence and free love. John Milton in the middle of the 17th century was putting forth his arguments for complete freedom of the press and the ability to divorce, and argued that marriage should be for love. Some of these ideas we take for granted now, and some are still radical. At the time, of course, they were mocked.


The young can be equally as radical, and especially among the student populations because, rather evidently, they are the group in best position to agitate politically. They have fewer responsibilities than working parents, are most often not engaged in the work force, and are involved in intellectual endeavors. What working stiff has the time between job, kids, and the myriad other obligations, to actually spend time philosophizing or questioning the world around them? The honest answer is not many, because work is tiring, and raising kids is tiring.  Most people don’t question the rise in hours they week each week because they welcome it, the extra pay keeps them from drowning in bills, or helps them get their car repaired, or allow for some money to actually be saved. But we should question it, because the more time we are working, the less time we have to think about what is actually happening to the world around us, and the less we have to enjoy the life we have left.


Again, it is worth saying that it is easiest for the youth to question our world, and practically a necessity for the artist. Those who have the most success in the economy have the least impetus for questioning it because they profited from the system. Those trying to succeed, in the midst of working up the ladder, are unlikely to question because they are focused on their own affairs, and the distribution of wealth, for instance, has seemingly little impact on the new opening in a higher up position. The young, at the beginning of their lives in the workforce, don’t automatically see within the system. They don’t think “that’s the way it is,” quite yet.


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