The Myth of the Starving Artist

I am a believer that living a life doing something you love for work every day does not mean a life living on tins of baked beans in a cold and dark bedsit (unless that’s what you want). But I never used to be this way. I spent four years stuck in an accountancy job I hated, because I was afraid that if I did what I really wanted to do – in my case, writing for a living – I wouldn’t be able to pay the bills and end up starving on the street. I have been writing for a living for just over three years now, and have definitely been able to pay the bills – not to mention occasionally satisfy my love of fine dining, foreign travel, and even start investing (yeah, I’m a bit of a nerd – blame the Maths degree).

IMG_3091 (I also like to take many gratuitous pictures of food. You’ll have to humour me.)

It turns out I wasn’t alone: many people are afraid to leave a job they hate for work they love, because they are afraid they won’t be able to support themselves or their loved ones – particularly if the ‘work they love’ involves a creative or artistic career. There is this belief in our culture of the ‘starving artist’: the idea that if you want to make a living from your own creative endeavours, you won’t ever earn enough to pay the bills.

I want to tell you that it’s not true. There are many others making a living from their own creative endeavours – some are making a very good living as well – who will also tell you that it’s not true. I’m not even talking about wildly successful people like, say, Harry Potter author J K Rowling, photographer Mario Testino, or artist Damien Hirst; ordinary men and women like you and me are making a living from their own creativity. So why does our culture continue to perpetuate the ‘starving artist’ stereotype?

Damn you, Vincent van Gogh

It’s not clear when the ‘starving artist’ figure came about, but some suggest it started in the 19th century with the Romantic movement. The French novelist and poet Louis-Henri Murger wrote a collection of stories about starving artists living in Paris’ Latin Quarter in his work Scènes de la Vie de Bohème, published in 1851, which became the basis for an eponymous play and the operas La bohème by Puccini and Leoncavallo. Murger drew from his own experiences of being a desperately poor writer living in an attic in Paris, and those of his friends.

The romanticised image of the starving artist was also a popular one in paintings and literature during the 1800s, and there are very few artists that symbolise the starving artist better than Vincent van Gogh – relatively obscure during a life beset by poverty, despair and mental illness, he became wildly successful after his death at the age of 37: today, his paintings sell for millions. Van Gogh has often served as both an inspiration and a warning to anyone embarking on a creative career – but (despite my half-jokey subheading above) it’s this image, this stereotype, that I believe harms a lot of would-be creatives today.

Why? Because this romanticised stereotype, perpetuated by great artists like van Gogh, is often accepted as ‘truth’ in modern society, and has led to some powerful, unhelpful, limiting beliefs – such as the belief you will be poor if you choose a creative or artistic career, and even more harmful still: the corollary belief that by making money from your art or creativity, you are ‘selling out’, you are destroying the purity and nobility of your art by ‘selling your soul’ to the highest bidder. And that particular belief is the one that REALLY pisses me off.

It pisses me off because it leads to creative types massively underselling themselves, because they’ve massively undervalued what they have to offer. It pisses me off because it encourages our society to massively undervalue what they have to offer. And it REALLY pisses me off, because it encourages other would-be creative types to undervalue what they have to offer – it encourages other creative people to think their own talents are worthless when they aren’t.

If someone really wants to live his or her entire life as a ‘penniless artist’, fine. Personally, I doubt I can work very well when I’ve been starving for days – I can devote more time and energy to my craft when I’m not using that time and energy to worry about how bills will be paid – but each to their own. Just don’t peddle the idea that a ‘true artist’ should be poor, or that someone who makes a living from their creativity is ‘selling out’ or somehow less noble than the ‘starving artist’, because in doing so you are actively destroying the value of art and creativity for everyone.

The world needs its artists; the world needs creativity. The world needs its artists and creatives functional, healthy and not-starving, so that they can carry on producing the art, literature, photography, wisdom and so on that everybody needs and appreciates.

Renaissance polymath Leonardo da Vinci, often regarded as the greatest painter of all time, spent much of his working life in the service of the most wealthy and powerful individuals of that era. If anything, making a good living from his talents likely allowed Leonardo to indulge his creative genius (and produce more wonderful inventions, art, literature, philosophy and scientific breakthroughs) far more than if he’d spent most of his time wondering where his next meal would come from – and I doubt anyone today would argue that Leonardo wasn’t a ‘true artist’, or that his artworks are less ‘pure’ or even ‘tainted’ by the money he received from his rich patrons.

But, here’s a warning

A career in the creative arts – whether that’s writing, painting, sculpture, music or any other form of art – is, more often than not, NOT a path to get rich or famous. If fame and riches are your primary concern, you really are much better off finding another path.

That’s not to say you can’t become rich or famous, of course, but there are far less painful and difficult ways to do that. The level of wealth and fame J K Rowling has, for instance, is remarkable precisely because it is so rare. But listen to any interview she has given and it’s clear she didn’t write for fame and fortune – she started writing because she couldn’t not write. She started writing purely for the love of it.

Any creative career has to be pursued for the love of it. That doesn’t mean you can’t dream of possible fame and fortune one day, but it shouldn’t be what motivates you first and foremost. The path of the creative is often difficult, and often riddled with self-doubt, and it is highly unlikely in the beginning that you will make any money from it – and if you don’t love what you do, really love what you do, you are unlikely to find the resolve to keep going.

I’ve previously said that while I started in a recession, within a year I was able to pay the bills and earn a living from my writing… but if I’m honest, that came towards the end of that year rather than at the start. With the number of rejections I received on starting out, for the first few months I considered myself lucky if I managed to earn just £200 in a month – some months I didn’t earn anything at all. (This is where having at least 3–6 months of cash saved up comes in useful – or more if that’s what makes you feel comfortable.)

Most people starting a creative/artistic career won’t do it like I did – by quitting their job and jumping right in (which I really only recommend if you have A LOT saved up and you’re absolutely confident you know what you’re doing). Most people will start their new creative career on the side, in addition to their main job or income source, and gradually build it up to the point that it becomes their main income source – and then they can quit their jobs. Others are happy to leave it as a side source of income, or as part of a portfolio career.

You definitely don’t have to starve for your artistic endeavours. You can earn a living from your art, from your creativity. It is time to put the myth of the starving artist to bed once and for all.


6 thoughts on “The Myth of the Starving Artist

  1. I can totally relate to that feeling. I even got a university degree that i didn’t really want because I felt that I could never make a living from my art. I wish I could go back and have a talk with “past me” about that now 🙂

    • I know, me too! And I know you’re making a great living from your photography now, and best of all – you love it! This is exactly why I think it’s time the ‘starving artist’ myth must die 🙂

  2. Well put. The “starving artist” myth, for me, is up there with “if it’s popular, it must be rubbish” and “mental illness = genius” (I don’t mean, as an aside, to diminish the achievements of all the people, like Van Gogh, who have created wonderful things in the face of crippling mental illness, but it’s pernicious bullshit to suggest that you can’t have the art without the illness, or that, if the artist were to get the help they so badly need, their art wouldn’t be “authentic” anymore). Incidentally, I love La Boheme but, it’s true, there’s a fair bit about the message that I’m not keen on (and even more so in Rent, which I loathe). What I admire about my friends who work in creative professions is that they all work damn hard to market themselves and get their work out there, and none of them are ashamed to take on unglamorous commissions, or even second jobs, to pay their bills. The idea that being a “true artist” is about sitting around feeling sorry for yourself because the world doesn’t understand your genius is kind of insulting to all the bloody hard graft that I see them put in every day!

  3. Interesting piece. I’m certainly right behind you on the awfulness of the idea that it’s wrong for artists (of whatever type) to make money from their work. I think there is such a thing as “selling out”, but to me that’s not the simple fact of making money from what you do; rather it’s changing what you do in order to make money from it – but not simply any change you might make to your work to make it more profitable, instead specifically changes that leave you feeling unhappy with the outcome. In other words, it’s selling out if you end up thinking less of your finished product because of changes that had to be made to get the people paying you to think more of it. I wouldn’t necessarily look down on somebody for doing that – even though “selling out” is a pejorative phrase – after all, as you say, we all have to eat, and they might have had little other option. I would look down on someone though – at least a bit – if they had a the possibility to earn a comfortable income keeping their art the way they liked it but instead made the choice to earn a huge income by selling out. I suppose at the end of the day it comes back to the point you’re making: do what you love to do, not what you hate but think will keep you financially secure. It’s certainly possible to be pursuing an artistic career and still going more for the financial gain than for the what-you-love element.

    One of the things I love about the internet, which I hope won’t be lost if some of the proposed legislation that’s been floating around does actually get passed, is that I think it makes it so much easier not to be in the position of only having the options of “selling out”, starving, or not pursuing an artistic career at all. There are quite a few webcomics I love reading, none of which are very like the bulk of what gets published in the form of print comics or graphic novels, so without the internet I imagine they would at best get sold in tiny print runs that just cover the artists’ costs at conventions, and I’d never get to see them. But the internet allows these artists to reach all over the world and find a market that, although very spread out, actually adds up to a reasonable readership. Some of them, sure, aren’t making anything from their webcomics. But others have managed to go part-time in their “proper jobs” or even, in a few cases, give them up entirely, due to the money they make from merchandising and/or selling print versions of the comic. I love how there’s this new business model emerging where you can give your core product away for free and still make money – it makes me feel happier about human nature. Anyway, while these artists certainly get feedback from their readers, which they do genuinely seem to engage with, I get the impression that they are in control, and in a position to accept suggestions when they think they really do improve their work, and reject them when they don’t. Pre-internet, if they wanted to make a living from comics, they’d most likely have had to apply to one of the big comics publishers (who have strict in-house styles) or else try to get published in newspapers (more freedom of style, but definitely firm rules on what content is and is not allowed).

    I wonder though, do you really believe that literally anybody can pursue a creative career if they want to? I’m honestly not sure what I believe about talent – is there something inborn (whether it’s genetic, or due to influences before birth or in early life)? Or is it all about hard work? Or is it both? There was that Malcolm Gladwell book that suggested that anyone could become an expert at anything if they put in 10,000 hours’ practice, and that was quite persuasive; but I’ve also seen a lot of criticism of the book (and of Malcolm Gladwell in general). One of the webcomic artists I like insists it’s all just damn hard work, citing her own improvement over time, and gets quite angry at the suggestion that there’s such a thing as talent (or at least, that there’s such a thing as talent that’s sufficient without that hard work), and looking back at her very earliest stuff that’s available online, indeed you can’t really see signs in it of how amazing her work would become in later years: both in terms of the quality of drawing and the story, it could have been done by any 14 year old. I’m fairly persuaded by that that hard work is necessary, but not that it’s sufficient: sure, she needed to put in the time to improve, and probably there isn’t anybody who could miraculously be amazing without that work, but would everybody who had spent as much time writing and drawing as she has be as good as she is now?

    Then there’s questions of luck and opportunity. As I mentioned, the internet does make things easier, at least for some kinds of creative output. But I’m still not convinced that everyone whose work is of an excellent quality is getting the recognition they deserve. Part of it is marketing skills. Once you get to a certain point people will be helping you along with word of mouth recommendations, reviews on websites and so on. But you’re not going to get there in the first place without some self-promotion. You can produce the most amazing webcomic ever, but if you’re clueless about how to let people know it’s there, it will continue to sit unviewed and unlinked to on your website. Again, I guess it’s a question of the extent to which self promotion skills can be improved and the extent to which some people have them and others don’t. There are guides out there which suggest things you can do to promote your work, and I’m sure those help a lot of people. But there are still going to be some amazing artists who are too shy to do anything that involves approaching people. (I have a friend with a brother like that). And then, there’s only so much you can do with self-promotion. Once you’ve reached as big an audience as you can with the means available to you, you rely on enough people among them liking what they see and passing the message along. That’s got to be at least partly a question of luck. And then there’s all those creative endeavours that are more challenging to get out there. With a webcomic, you can put it right there for anyone to see whether they like it or not, and it’s naturally a serial (so people will keep coming back), and it lends itself well to money-making opportunities through merchandising and selling book copies of the comic. With something like pottery or painting it’s got to be harder. Although you can still have photos up to show people what your stuff’s like, you’re now needing to cover your working time through just one purchase: all the hours you spend making a vase have to be paid for from the money from just one person buying that vase, whereas with the book of a webcomic (or a t-shirt featuring one of the characters), the time you spend on creating it can be divided up among all the people who buy the book or t-shirt. Obviously, there are people who buy pottery and paintings, and potters and painters who make their living that way, so it’s not impossible. But I just wonder to what extent there are also lots of skilled would-be potters and painters out there who, whether through bad luck/ an absence of good luck or through their own inferior self-promotion skills, have failed to get noticed enough to make a living from their art. (I have another friend who has several friends who have been trying for several years to break into professional illustration, and have only occasionally found work – though admittedly I haven’t seen their stuff, my friend says it’s good and she should know).

    Sorry, I didn’t mean to write such an essay! But I would be genuinely interested to hear what you think about this.

    • Hey Becky,

      Thanks so much for your comment – and no worries about writing an essay, it’s good that this topic engaged you so much! Apologies for not getting back to you before now, but that’s mainly because I knew how long my response to your comment was going to get!

      My husband and I actually had a debate about the whole selling-out thing: he was arguing it is entirely possible to do so, citing an artist (can’t remember the name) who got so famous for one of his paintings – I think it was a painting of some boats – that all he ever did for the rest of his days was produce exactly the same type of boat painting for sale, over and over again. My husband argued that by playing solely to popular tastes, the artist ruined the quality of his work, and it meant he didn’t innovate or produce anything ground-breaking – all he was producing and selling was the same painting of boats. There is a risk that could happen with any form of art – but I’m not sure the artist in those cases always means to “sell out”, as it were. Perhaps it simply stems from a fear that no-one will ever appreciate any other art that you do ever again – in which case, it wasn’t the money or the acclaim that was the problem, it’s the artist’s own fears coming into play. Or perhaps he genuinely did enjoy painting boats, and was glad of an opportunity to do lots of it. However, this is speculation on my part – I don’t know the artist, so I can’t comment for them – but I don’t think it’s as simple as accusing someone of “selling out” because they’re making money for their art, or for producing a particular type of art.

      The internet does indeed make it easier for people to reach a wider audience, and also to find their target audience, than it did before, and you are right about that. But you are also correct that it isn’t enough to just do the work and be good at it (although that is very important, so one shouldn’t skip it), and that some of it is down to self-promotion and marketing skills… but I’m not sure that’s really any different from before. However, the internet and social media has definitely made it easier (and much cheaper!) to promote yourself and market your work, and certainly more so than in, say, van Gogh’s day. Luck and opportunity certainly do come into it, but I believe they don’t play as much of a role as some think: you still have to put in the necessary work, you still have to hone your craft, and you still have to learn to market or promote yourself in the right way (or reach out to the right people to help), so that you are totally prepared for when those lucky opportunities do come your way. Harry Potter author J K Rowling once said ‘I believe in hard work and luck, and the first often leads to the second.’ (As an aside, I was once watching an interview with Rowling, and when the interviewer – who may have been Oprah, but I can’t remember – asked ‘Do you think it was lucky that Harry Potter got published and became the huge success that it was?’ Rowling replied, ‘I think I was lucky I had the idea.’)

      Finally (I think I’ve addressed everything else in your comment) you also asked if I believe absolutely anybody can pursue a creative career if they want to. The short answer is: Yes. Yes, with all my heart, I do believe it. I really really do, and I also believe talent is not something that people are born with. I believe talent is made, and I also believe that what people call ‘natural talent’ does not matter as much as people say – what is the point of having that ‘natural talent’ in your creative field if you don’t put the work in to create something that lives up to your talents?

      You’ll note that I put ‘natural talent’ in some very snotty quotation marks, but it really is because I don’t believe, for the majority of so-called talented people, that such a thing as talent you’re ‘born with’ exists… or that if it does, then it is far, far rarer than what people think. There is actually some good evidence to suggest that talent is made rather than born with, and to keep this short(ish) I recommend you read a book called Talent Is Overrated: What Really Separates World-Class Performers From Everybody Else by Geoff Colvin, which is a far superior read (and contains more solid scientific studies to support the arguments contained, as well as practical advice) than the Malcolm Gladwell book on the same topic.

      In his book (Talent Is Overrated), Colvin argues that great performers in any field become so because of a specific kind of work and teaching that has been taking place since the individual was born. He takes the formative environments of well-known top performers in certain fields (e.g. Tiger Woods in the field of golf, Mozart in the field of music) and compares the specific and systematic teaching and ways of practice that others have done, and finds a correlation that is backed up by studies on unknown but highly talented people e.g. teenage musicians. Some of the correlations the studies showed were astounding: the people who had learned to read and write precociously early as children, had been read to as babies long before they even learned to speak. The teenage musicians who were ‘naturally’ able to instantly recognise musical notes/pitch played at them, were sung to frequently as babies (I can attest to this one). The children/teenagers and adults who were able to pick up or learn new languages more quickly and easily than most, tended to have been exposed to more than one language during their formative years. Tiger Woods’s father put a golf club in his hand as soon as he could walk and taught him how to play before he even had the motor skills to do so; before that his father plied his baby son with videos and images of professional golfers at work. There’s a lot more in the book, but these the few points that I can remember off-hand. Basically, the scientific evidence doesn’t seem to support that people talented in one area become that way naturally: for most of them, since birth, every muscle, every thought, everything in their environment has been explicitly geared – unwittingly or not – to ensure they excelled in that area they are ‘talented’ at.

      Colvin actually had difficulty trying to locate anyone who was actually ‘naturally talented’ – i.e. displayed specific talents without their environments and thought-processes being such that they would become that way – and while in the end he DID find one (everyone else who was claimed to be ‘naturally talented’ were, on further investigation, raised in an environment where their ‘talents’ would become self-fulfilling), this did suggest that if natural talent DOES exist – and after all his research Colvin was dubious that it did at all – then it is a far, far rarer occurrence than what people think.

      So, yes, I believe that anyone can pursue a creative career if they want to, and if they’re prepared to put the necessary hard work in (emphasis on ‘hard work’). Also, not only do I believe that talent is made and not born, the correlation in the book’s studies suggest overwhelmingly that that view is true. While it may be too late to undo anything lacking from our formative years (babyhood to early childhood, and again during the pre-teen to teenage period) that may have caused us not to be as ‘naturally talented’ in an area that we’d like – such as creativity – there is nothing to stop us practising (as long as it’s the *right type* of practice, as Colvin argues) and improving now, even if it takes the 10,000 hours of practice that Gladwell suggests. Hope this long post sufficiently answers your questions! x

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