In primitive societies every able individual was capable of making for himself all that was needed for a living: bows, arrows, shoes, tents, pottery, etc. From early on the social organisation, with a complexity originally so far from today’s, gradually evolved towards a specialisation of functions: the stronger ones became warriors, those good at making traps or hunting game went out to get food, the wiser ones became advisors to the tribe’s chief and the cunning ones were sent to negotiate with other tribes. Even so, individuals had to rely on just themselves for most matters a lot more than is even conceivable today.
As society grew more complex, specialisation of functions affected the individual in a deeper way. While still generally capable of making most of the tools of their daily life for themselves, those in need of a sword had better go to a good blacksmith if they did not want to run the risk of finding themselves at a disadvantage in time of real need. To impress the beloved one, it was advisable to go to a capable craftsman and buy a nice necklace, otherwise one would risk one’s chances. If a visit from an important person was expected, hiring a good cook to offer the visitor a sumptuous meal was a necessity, if one wanted to get the much sought-after contract.
From the oldest times and under a variety of civilisations and social orders, people have happily parted with some of their wealth for the purpose of laying their hands on some physical objects, produced by the skill of some craftsman, to achieve some concrete goal in the wider world or for their own personal enjoyment.
With the growing sophistication of daily life, there were other cases where humans became ready to part with portions of their wealth for other, less physical, but for them no less important, matters. Somebody, realising his own lack of knowledge or inferior intellectual capabilities, might decide to “borrow” the missing abilities from somebody else who has a reputation for being endowed with them. In case of illness the medicine man might be called because his potions, magic formulas, dances and prayers were said to work wonders. After many months of drought, the shaman might offered huge rewards if he only could get rain (but he was probably clever enough to request payment before his prayers took effect). The same ritual could happen if a tribe wanted abundant game or a good harvest. The making of these “wonders” required compensation to the person who effected them.
With the further progress of civilisation, the ability to use words skillfully gave more and more benefits to those who mastered that skill. They could persuade somebody else to do something he had otherwise no intention of doing. The person able to give good advice to others would be considered a wise man and he could get many benefits if he exploited his skill. His ability to make strong arguments would convince people in trouble with the clan elders to enlist such services and defend themselves better. Great ideas about the current form of society would prompt the head of a social organisation to enlist the holder of such ideas in his ranks so that the status quo in society would be preserved. If the ideas were radical and promoted a new social order, and if the holder of these ideas was smart enough, he could himself become the head of a new social organisation.
History provides countless examples. Demosthenes earned a living by offering counsel to Athenians in trouble with the law, but his political ambitions were thwarted when he failed to rouse Athenians against Alexander the Great. Cicero attacked Catiline and successfully exploited that case for his social standing and fame, but had to succumb to Anthony’s wrath when his party was defeated. Confucius preached his philosophy in the hope that one of the rulers of the Chinese kingdoms of his time would hire him. Moses became the leader of his people within a reshaped religion and Mohammed became the founder and head of a new religion.
There is another type of intellectual ability that has existed ab immemorabili, possibly even before speech actually took shape. Humans use songs, often accompanied by rhythmic movements of the body or by some musical instrument, to convey a message that could otherwise not be expressed, or expressed poorly with words alone. This communication medium makes words more effective because rhythm heightens their effect as it allows performers to convey them with a passion that the rational product called “word” often cannot.
Public Authorities, civil as well as religious, have always been good at getting control of those social moments when people forget their daily troubles in those opportunities of social relaxation called festivals. The authorities often lavishly remunerate those involved in the musical and scenic events because of the role that these moments have always played in preserving and fostering social cohesion and because of their functions in maintaining the essential elements of individuality of a social grouping.
But, alongside the lucky ones, those groups of people or individuals who cannot get the support of some authority, or simply want to follow their own artistic inspiration without compromise, can likely meet with a very different fate. Artists and performers can be very good at playing a musical instrument or dancing or reciting a poem and people would even come from far away just to listen to or watch them. The artists and performers may personally be very fond of being surrounded by a crowd of people enthused by their performing ability. Those around, if they feel like that, might even happily give some coins, just to show the performers how much they like the way they sing, play, dance or recite. But others would give nothing thinking that the very fact that they have been listening to or watching them is sufficient reward to the performer.
All this does not really matter if the artists and performers are wealthy persons and their only purpose in life is to express their creativity, possibly for their own exclusive pleasure. However, if they are poor or average persons, possibly with a family to raise, we can see a blurring of the border between an artist, receiving a reward for his creativity from the good will of onlookers, and a person who lives on the goodwill of others.
This description of artists and performers is not something recalled from past antiquity, it is still with us today. The sad fact is that people take it for granted that they must pay for the work of a blacksmith or an attorney, but they consider it an option to pay for the performance of a singer or an actor. Maybe because art and business flair seldom go together, artists have often felt the need for somebody else to take care of the promotion of their work.
Of course there are excellent artists who have a good life, but it is a sad fact that the excellence of too many great artists is recognised only after they are dead.