There’s an old joke that I hate — and that I frequently think about.

The joke goes like this:

   The science major asks, “Why does it work?”
   The engineering major asks, “How does it work?”
   The business major asks, “How much will it cost?”
   The liberal arts major asks, “Do you want fries with that?”

For me, this perfectly illustrates the American viewpoint that economic value and social value have a 1:1 relationship. Science improves our health, our productivity, and the quality of our products, allowing us to do more with less and do it more quickly. Engineering improves the facilities, tools, and infrastructure that allow us to effectively and efficiently be part of a global economy. Business ensures that the whole system makes a lot of people a few dollars and few people a lot of dollars, which I am told is the definition of success. Liberal arts, though? Let’s just say there haven’t been any US presidents with an MFA. Even George W. Bush and Donald J. Trump had the good sense to get a MBA and a B.S. in economics, respectively, and both are best known for being utter failures as commanders in chief.

That’s not to say we here in the United States think art — and by extension the artist — holds no importance. Creative projects simply hold no value until they hold economic value, even if that economic value is purely perceptual. There is an entire book’s worth of material here that we have neither the time nor space to really explore, but suffice to say there’s a reason why we describe the success of a film or a book or an album or a painting first and foremost by its financial value or sales performance. The box office, the Billboard charts, and the New York Times best seller lists do not measure innovation or artistic merit.

Which brings us to this week’s episode, a conversation which never seemed to escape the issues of money and economic success. It was one of the first episodes I recorded when I was first starting this project, and listening back now I wish I had pushed my guest Diana Oliphant on how she thought money has shaped her career. I wonder what she thinks her internship at the Victoria and Albert Museum made possible, or how graduating college in three years without enormous student debt affected the launch of her career, or whether her ability to survive in Seattle as an art model affects her belief that the subject of a piece of art has no ownership over their depiction — that an artwork belongs solely to the artist. But I was new then to interviewing in this way, and so I did not. Opportunities for the future, perhaps.

There are many things that I disagree with Diana on when it comes to art, fine or otherwise, and that’s ok. Important even. However, I can’t stop thinking about these questions of success and how we quantify it; how, even in a Zoom call for a podcast which was still taking shape, we never fully escape the orbit of money. It seeps into everything we do.

So far this podcast does not make money, but while I hope someday it could at least break even on all the various costs of a venture like this, I can safely say I find great value in creating it just the same. I hope you find some great value in it too, whatever form that might be.

Thanks for listening,
Mason Hershenow


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