Creators Are Not Wassailers

In a wonderful book called The Battle for Christmas, author Stephen Nissenbaum relates the evolution of this holiday from its pagan roots to the modern Christmas as it came to be celebrated in the United States. He tells us that in agrarian England most labor would be done by December and that it was often a time of bounty because only so much of the year’s harvest and slaughtered livestock could be stored for winter. Thus, the ancient Roman tradition of the Saturnalia became manifest among the English working classes in the form of drunken revels, often lasting the entire month. Landlords would throw open their doors and provide food and drink to the commoners, and it was custom for these visitors to sing “good tidings” to the master and his family in the form of a wassail song.

Of course, as one might expect, weeks of drunken, orgiastic wassailing could turn rather nasty at times—less an exchange of goodwill than an expectation that landowners will provide generously or face the consequences.  This is why if you listen to the lyrics of a traditional wassail song, there is usually an element of a threat, some variation on the theme of “Bring us the good stuff, or else.”  And the or else could mean violence or vandalism.  As a result, a sense of entitlement ran in both directions with regard to the keeping of Christmas—certainly among the rabble that exercised its right to caterwaul outside a home at any hour of the night expecting to be compensated with “a bowl”; but also among some of the gentry who grew to resent these traditions, blind to the fact that class division was the source of any underlying tension in the first place.  Hence, Dickens’s Ebenezer Scrooge is an expression of these sentiments.

Keeping Christmas in this traditional English sense was certainly not a practice that would be transported by way of the Puritans to the American colonies.  As Nissenbaum explains, Christmas lay somewhat dormant (by our standards) in America until it was effectively rebooted in the early 19th century by key members of New York society. Most notably, Clement Clarke Moore’s 1823 poem A Visit From St. Nicholas provides a cultural transition from the ultimatum inherent in the wassail to a more genteel celebration marked by a visit from a commoner who lets the master know he has “nothing to dread.” Thus, Christmas in America becomes a more peaceful tradition—a hodge-podge of cultural influences as it should be—and a time to bestow gifts upon one’s own children as a revision of the wassailer’s demands.

Wassailing comes to mind, not only because it is that time of year, but also because I recently encountered the criticism, often made by those who reject creators’ rights, that creative people reflect a sense of entitlement in their expectation to make a living from their works.  Usually in the context of a discussion about media piracy—or even the fees paid by legal streaming services etc.—this theme of the entitled artist will be referred to as if the artist were a drunken wassailer outside the door in the middle of the night expecting compensation for his unwelcome noise.  And because creative expression is typically personal to the author, I don’t doubt that there are creators—likely younger ones—who might feel that they deserve adoration, fame, or wealth for their work; but this is not the attitude of most people who take their work seriously, whether artistic or otherwise.  More to the point, however, those who belabor the entitled artist trope in a conversation about business and economics are usually playing a semantic game with the word entitled.

In a broad definition, entitlement is almost always negative in my opinion because it excuses the entitled from any responsibility to earn. To have a sense of entitlement is to believe that by virtue of merely existing, the individual–or even a whole society–has a natural or “God-given” right to certain things.  And although the principle of Natural Rights surely provides a philosophical framework for our own governance, when a sense of entitlement goes too far, the individual or society can forget that even civil liberties and basic needs must be consciously and responsibly earned or maintained by means of some effort. We may feel, for instance, that we are entitled to potable water and breathable air, but if we are remiss in our labor to preserve these things (i.e. we fail to earn them), we will quickly discover that the only thing to which we are truly entitled is our own self-destruction.

In a narrower sense, of course, once some benefit earned—be it compensation, credit, an award, or even potable water or free speech—then the individual, group, or society can certainly be described as entitled to that which it has earned. And with regard to creative work, the onus is unquestionably on the author to earn the appreciation of the market.  If her work does not earn in this sense, she can be expected to fail financially; but if her work does earn market appreciation, then she can be expected to succeed financially.  And of course, in the context we’re discussing, if the author earns market appreciation but does not succeed financially, solely because the mechanism which should compensate her has been expropriated by what we call piracy, then she has most certainly been robbed of something to which she was, in the narrow definition, entitled.

Of course, what the critic of creators’ rights tends to do in these discussions is to accuse creators in general of having a sense of entitlement, which is a character flaw, and then let that accusation stand as though it applies to the narrower definition of entitlement after having earned the acceptance of the market.  So, whenever I encounter the entitled artist theme, it’s hard not to picture the speaker as a member of the landed gentry sneering over his frilly collar at the revelers approaching his manor and muttering to himself Humbug.  Of course, those who invoke the entitled artist trope do seem to believe the consumer is entitled to the fruits of the creator’s labor without any obligation in the exchange.  As stated, this is the very definition of what it really means to have a sense of entitlement.

So, we should have conversations about creative industry—or any industry for that matter—in the digital age; but no serious discussion should tolerate a view of creators as though they are 18th century wassailers bleating at the windows for more cider than they deserve.  Artists are fully aware that the world does not owe them success, but consumers should be equally aware that the world doesn’t owe them art either.

Happy Christmas!

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