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).
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.