A Meandering History of the Starving Artist

(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.

Let’s see…

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?

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2 thoughts on “A Meandering History of the Starving Artist

  1. Picasso was a decent painter. But not ‘great’. (Perhaps not even very good). Early on Picasso was able to feel the suffering of humanity and could on occasion sublimely express it on canvas during his so-called blue period.

    Picasso was courageous enough however, to face the facts. His paintings would never be good enough to pay the rent. He realized that he wasn’t a particularly good painter, and lacked the discipline to push his craft further.

    So why does Picasso’s paintings bring the most money at the Sotheby fine art auctions? A recently published writing by Picasso revealed a few very important secrets to this dilemma:

    Picasso, a practical man, knew that critics were pretentious creeps with huge egos. And he knew people rely solely on these critics (bureaucrats) to “tell them” what art is. If he could somehow harness their ego, like Cleopatra, he would have them on his string!

    Picasso did his homework: he soon realized that critics were driven by the power they felt as they crushed brilliance with savage criticism. Over time he figured out a novel way to boost the critic’s fragile egos by actually praising his works!

    Thus began Picasso’s charade: his frivolous doodles in cubism form.

    What was most important was to create sphinxlike paintings that actually defied rational description, (essentially a bunch of smoke and mirrors). The trick was energized when Picasso was able to encourage a few key critics to evaluate his paintings while suggesting that only the most astute critic could recognize the true meaning in his works.

    Following this other critics felt they had to see Byzantine meaning in Picassos mysterious paintings or else lose face as a relevant critic! In fact, soon it became a kind of ‘one upmanship’ among critics over who could see the most in Picasso’s clever nonsense!

    As the charade played out, the critic who could make claim to the most fabulous interpretation of Picasso’s works would seem the most brilliant among his fellow critics. So each critic would endeavor harder than the last to further this trend by coming up with yet more incredulous meaning to Picasso’s ridiculous cubistic paintings.

    Bravo Picasso for his mastery! Not in the arts, but over man’s illogical lack of ration and reason.

    Starving artists and would-be successful artists should learn something about the harsh reality of humanity: Sheeple are too stupid to neither recognize nor appreciate true art; and so they rely solely upon bureaucrats to tell them. If you want to get paid well you likely must work hard to boost egos and attend to the bureaucrats – And pay far less attention to skill and merit (in fact, rule number one in the 48 Laws of Power: Never outshine the master)!

    The earlier renaissance painters who catered to the royal egos of the wealthy in their day always became the wealthiest. This was because it was very popular for the wealthy to commission their bombastic portrait on canvas. To have such an ego-serving painting was considered a measure of substance and aristocracy. Soon all the wealthy felt they needed to commission their portrait if they wanted to maintain social status.

    Portraits for shallow egos were hardly a sublime artistic endeavor! But who cares? The sharp artist laughed all the way to the bank! “Live for yourself, there is no one else more worth living for. Begging hands and bleeding hearts will only cry out for more!”

    Vincent Van Gogh, Johannes Vermeer, El Greco (ironically his brilliant works like “The Assumption of the Virgin” would loosely inspire later forms like Expressionism and Cubism), Monet (most of his life), Paul Cezanne, Georges-Pierre Seurat, Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec, Edouard Manet, Paul Gauguin, Alfred Sisley, and others suffered dearly for his inability to grasp the game of life: that self-appointed bureaucrats decide who is charmed because the sheeple can’t tell the difference when left to their own thoughts. Life is a wonderful, wonderful opera – Except that it hurts!

    Late in his career, artist Peter Paul Rubens figured all this out. He created a system: In a very large studio he employed dozens of outstanding (but starving) painters, one specializing in robes, another in backgrounds, and so on. He created a vast production line in which a large number of canvases would be worked on at the same time. When an important client visited the studio, Rubens would shoo his hired painters out for the day. While the client watched from a balcony, Rubens would work at an incredible pace, with unbelievable energy. The client would leave in awe of this prodigious man, who could paint so many masterpieces in so short a time.

    Success is not based upon principle, justice, merit, ability, or usefulness! The sheeple are too ignorant to know the difference; so bureaucrats have placed themselves well to profit from their ability to tell them!

    • Thanks for the thoughtful comment. You make a lot of interesting points, however, I do think that some people can emotionally relate to art and decide what they think is moving or beautiful or enjoyable, which might be able to be defined by some sort of forms like color, structure…

      On the other hand, do you know of any bureaucrats I can kiss up to?

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