It's an old question, one that is more discussed in Europe than America. But the juxtaposition of two articles in today's Guardian makes me ask it again.
The first, is more a press release than an article, and demonstrates how in certain realms of artistic expression there is no longer much difference between the ad industry and "art."
The story tells of someone I had never heard of previously, Francesco Vezzoli, who has, according to the headline, planned a "24-hour museum to vainglorious decadence" and managed to "charm" Helen Mirren into a toga.
Links embedded in the piece take you to the Gagosian Gallery website where we learn that our artist does work for Versace and Prada etc. I am mindful that by mentioning this and the names of the designers I am doing precisely what they hoped - keeping their brands in the global conversation in a time when austerity might just be making people question why they were obsessed with their products in the first place. Most ordinary folks can no longer even dream of buying their clothes, except maybe the pret-a-porter stuff sold used online at eBay.
The second, is a call from Ian Rankin, creator of the Inspector Rebus novels and one of Britain's most financially successful authors, for tax breaks for writers.
Rankin says the British tax authorities should emulate the long-standing scheme in Ireland that allows a writer's first 40,000 euros ($51,000) of income derived from writing to be tax free.
Speaking from experience, I don't think most published authors come close to earning that much annually. Since the downturn began in earnest, advances for new books have been reduced by 50 to 70 percent - if you can even get offered one.
That anecdotal fact is backed up by research from the Society of Authors showing that 75% of British writers earn less than £20,000 ($30.7 thousand) a year and 46% less than £5,000 ($7.7) and have to earn their money doing other things. That income is taxed as usual.
The Guardian quotes the Society's Kate Pool, "I would have thought that incentives that encourage diversity of the marketplace might be a better way of ensuring that good writers have a chance to flourish."
But do those incentives mean hanging out with brand executives from Versace and Prada and agreeing to write stories about the lifestyles of those who can still afford to pay retail for their clothes and accessories?
That almost seems to be the view of British Prime Minister David Cameron. A couple of days ago he got into hot water when he said that any government subsidy of the perpetually ailing British film industry should be steered towards blockbusters rather than supporting young filmmakers or non-mainstream directors.
The dilemma is an old one, as I said at the start, and I've reported and written about it throughout my career but it is now framed in a very contemporary way. Like so many other industries in the first world, it seems that culture has less and less need of workers. The difference is that there is a compulsion beyond the need to earn a living in choosing a writing or artistic career (unless you're basically an advertising art director claiming to be an artist). So there is an ever-growing pool of writers, artists, musicians, filmmakers - culture workers - for whom the prospect of even minimal livelihoods, something that was available pre-crash, is a receding memory.
What to do with this human capital? Should they all be put int he service of products? Something to think about.