(Before I begin, let me declare the inclusivity of the term “artist” which I am using here. I include all kinds of visual, performance, literary, and other artists, but speak more from the experience of the painter, crafter, and of course, writer.)
The starving artist is such an iconic personage in our history that it merits almost 4,000,000 hits on Google, as well as an entry in various encyclopedias. There’s a Starving Artist Gallery, a Starving Artist Cafe, Studios, Creperie, Cookbook, and even a moving company, to name a few. And when I chose the blog moniker, I was not the least bit afraid anyone would miss the allusion. Wikipedia (oh, Wikipedia!) says that the starving artist “is an artist who sacrifices material well-being in order to focus on their artwork. They typically live on minimum expenses, either for a lack of business or because all their disposable income goes toward art projects.” It refers generally to the unfortunate struggles of the dedicated artist and more specifically to Bohemian ideals.
I say unfortunate, and I sort of mean it. I am an artist, I have always wanted to be an artist, and I am committed to pursuing my art. I also live well below the American poverty level. We’ll talk more about lots of the issues I just brought up later in my blogging. But for now let’s delve back into the history.
These days, there are those who claim that the starving artist is a myth. There are, after all, plenty of ways that an artist can make it–and even make it financially big–by selling their talents and wares. Sure there are. There are really rich artists to prove it. And plenty of artists who make enough to live the Jones’ dream. (My personal life would attest to the myth of this myth, but again, more later.) This assertion uses figures that show a large percent (like 40 per cent) of art grads being still employed as artists, but it also notes that these artists–while happy in their work–generally hold two jobs and make a median of $34,000 annually, with little to no job security. Hmm… Wouldn’t that be the whole starving artist deal? After reading some stuff, it seems clear that many artists feel the same way I do; they feel unprepared for the difficulty in breaking into the field, in supporting a family, but are committed to doing what they feel driven to do and what makes them happy.
Of course, on the other side of this tarnished coin is the sell-out. As an artist, you face judgement if you do one of three things as an alternative to starving: choose a more practical career and make art your hobby or side-job; change your artistic principles (if you ever had them) and make arts and/or crafts that make money (like become a copyrighter, editor, greeting card designer for Hallmark, painter of realistic puppies in humorous situations, etc.); or get lucky enough to make big bucks doing what you love.
So where did the perception of the starving artist arise?
I know that I have heard someone somewhere pontificate about the economic life of the artist before the French Bohemian. I, however, can find no easily available information on it. I will just ask a series of questions, instead. How were artists regarded in cultures before the 1600s? In various cultures around the world? Were there societies where artists consistently ranked high in earning power? All I can think of are traveling acting troupes and court jesters. Traditionally scraping together a living. Egyptian temple carvers? African orators? Native American dancers? No idea. But I bet a lot of them didn’t do art as a day job.
Now for the Bohemians. All over the internet people credit them with the introduction of the starving artist. I say that it is entirely possible the Bohemians encapsulated the ideal; defined it in their own way. After all, isn’t it possible that, like gender roles or the reputation of tax collectors, the image arose from issues inherent to the role? For example: who is the first person off the boat when there is a pirate attack? Or put up for human sacrifice during a famine? It makes utilitarian and even evolutionary sense not to value the artist as much as, say, the doctor. (In the long run, I don’t actually believe this to be true, but you can see how it would work out.)
Wait. Where did I go? Back to the Bohemians. Henri Murger wrote Scenes of the Bohemian Life, about artists in the Latin Quarter of Paris, in the 1840s. By 1896, La boheme by Giaccomo Puccini debuted (an opera), and has been popular ever since. Both portrayals romanticized the perceived life of the Bohemians. See Moulin Rouge if you do not know what I am talking about it. You should see it anyways. They took what may or may not have been an entrenched reality and made it en vogue. And eventually it led to this way of living as an artist: if you do not suffer for art, you are not an artist. Artists like the Bohemians chose a life of poverty–at least in theory. Suffering, in this case, is requisite for meaningful art and/or is good for the soul. (Note that some naysayers have said this belief arises only when someone who has attained some amount of success looks back and reminisces about the trials along the way. I would argue: well really, how many bankers make this claim?)
Furthering the idea of the starving artist is a litany of actual artists who have gained fame and money (if you can put it that way) posthumously. Like VanGogh. How many times have you heard someone say at a cocktail party, “And then when you’re dead you’ll make a killing! Har har! Like VanGogh.”
Which leads me to this question: Can we really unseat the starving artist perception by looking at examples like VanGogh, Rembrandt, Dickens, and Warhol, and even modern wealthy artist/heroes like Brad Pitt and J.K. Rowling? Because as far as I can tell, that’s what the “myth debunkers” use, consistently: a lack of data (like earnings statistics, which I did look at to the best of my ability), and a dearth of anecdotal evidence. If I made it you can make it too! If he/she made it, everyone can! There is a saying that goes something like, “You can find an example for anything.” Highly unhelpful. Especially when on this ten-years-and-counting road to my own “success” as a novelist I have found, more than anything else, a whole lotta people on this same darn road with me. Writers Digest and Poets & Writers practically ooze the same stanza every issue: Keep at it long enough and you will make it. It takes luck, and above all, persistence.
Or you die first.
What other career needs to remind you of this on a twice-a-month basis?