Why the Idea of "Starving Artist" Doesn't Exist Anymore
If you're a creator, you've probably come across or heard the term "Starving Artist" before.
When someone mentions this term to me, for some reason I imagine a grungy artist with disheveled hair, likely living in New York city. A cigarette hanging from his mouth and empty canvases lie around in his "studio", where his unmade bed is scattered with dirty clothes and empty plates. He'll make it big one day, he just needs to get noticed or picked up by a gallery. His big break is coming!
This is of course, a tad dramatic, but I know that a lot of artists, well-meaning parents, and directors in Hollywood believe this notion of what it is to be an artist. I was guilty of it too.
So what is a starving artist? Where does it come from, and is still applicable today?
I am here to tell you it's time to ditch the starving artist mentality. You can make art and earn money doing it too.
What does starving artist mean?
To be a starving artist means that you give up a "normal" career in pursuit of creativity, which ultimately leads you down a path to being broke af all the time.
I remember wanting to be an artist when I was 6 years old and family members or their friends lovingly saying "that's cute, but you can't make money as an artist!"
I had it engrained in my brain growing up that if I did become an artist, I wouldn't be able to make any real money from it. It's been a massive mental block I'm still working on.
My family wasn't the only one to think this way. A lot of new artists think that pursuing art will not make them money. Well, there is a bit more to it than just churning out paintings all day.
The starving artist - it's cliché, and it's a mindset that no longer serves creatives in this day and age.
Where does the term starving artist come from?
The term starving artist was first mentioned - wait for it - over 250 years ago. A writer by the name of Henri Merger wrote about 4 starving artists, romanticizing the idea of making art just for the sake of making art.
This idea was mentioned again a couple times later in novels in the late 1800's and early 1900's, playing up that lifestyle.
These days, it's become sort of a cultural understanding, an assumption if you will, that to 'become an artist' is synonymous with 'not make money'. Again, I have been guilty of thinking this myself.
Now, I'm happy to report that through studying my art idols on social media, working with an established artist over the past year, and via my own business, I've been able to see that each artist must go on their own journey in order to make good art and sell their work.
You can absolutely make money selling your art. But first, it starts with your mindset.
Why is the starving artist mentality flawed?
1. Access to Resources
Well, a LOT has changed since the idea of starving artist came to light 250 years ago. Today, right now, this very second, we live in an age where artists of all types have access to the largest amount of information, resources, and reach that has ever been available. EVER.
You have something that artists 250 years ago, and even artists back in the early 90's when the internet first became publicly available, did not have.
You have access to the nearly 3.6 BILLION people who use social media. And even more people than that have access to the internet. That is insane.
Facebook, Instagram, Snapchat, Twitter, TikTok, the list goes on. If I know who I am selling my art to, I can go to any of these media sources and reach people. I can reach out to galleries via email, submit to worldwide art competitions, and the power of the internet could even make my piece of work go viral. I can run ads to people I didn't even know exist, or work on an email newsletter on the little supercomputer in my pocket while I sip coffee on the bus.
There are so many ways for artists to make money nowadays (a blog post for another time), that it's almost laughable to think that artists today have it tough.
Look, I know it's not that easy to just make art and start selling. Finding your market and actually reaching out to them takes a lot of research and hard work. But it's so much easier now than it was a few years ago.
I remember making my first online sale to a stranger. It was a goal I had for a full year. Imagine, this stranger, who I'd never met before, in a different country, stumbling across my website and buying something I created because my art made them feel something. That was a small, but major milestone for my business, and I think it's still so amazing that people order my work from all over the world.
These sales happened because I took advantage of what tech was available to me. The internet and how it connects us.
Another point is that art is not all physical any more, not like artists back in the Renaissance thought of, anyways. Art is not limited to just oil, acrylic, watercolour, pastels, etc - you can make beautiful work within photoshop, or on an iPad using an app like Procreate.
I've seen artists use leaves and sticks to create collages, needles or threads to make paintings, and others out there using their own beautifully unique creative minds to go outside of the boundaries we traditionally considered art.
As artists, we are rich with resources that will bring people to us, and our art to others. But you need to use them.
2. Marketing and selling your work is undesirable to a "true artist"
There is an idea that a "true artist" only makes art for the art itself. This is the same notion the Bohemians played up when it was first mentioned in the 18th century.
I have worked sales, done cold-calling, had to sell something I didn't believe in. It was the WORST. There is something so slimy and off putting with trying to sell a product you are not 100% behind or don't fully trust. I'm pretty sure the people who you are selling to can feel this too.
Sales and marketing has a bad rap because a lot of us think about a sleezy salesman trying to make us buy something we don't want. It feels pushy or annoying.
Selling your own art however, can be a beautiful thing. You are selling something that you believe in. You had an idea that you put to paper/canvas. You get to explain why you made this painting, what it was inspired by, and the emotions you hope others feel looking at it.
Most of my work, for example, centers around urban sketching and travelling because it's a big part of my life and I want to give people warm happy fuzzy feelings of nostalgia. Especially nowadays when we are stuck home and there is a global pandemic, when people look at my work of a place they've been to, I want them to think "Damn, what a great memory". A little dopamine hit for the day, and a win win for the both of us.
If you tell your story and the story behind your work, you can't help but create a connection that will draw others to your creations. You are showing people a piece of your heart and soul. So when you sell your art with the same passion and voice you use to create it, sales and marketing suddenly doesn't seem so bad. It becomes natural, and good things happen.
It is not unsavoury to market and sell your work. It's your opportunity to tell your story to others.
3. It focuses only on creative endeavors
There seems to be an implicit and collective belief that 'artist' and 'entrepreneur' are separate entities, and neither are synonymous with one another.
I don't know how many of ya'll have started a business but... it's HARD work. There is so much that goes into being successful: passion, strategy, failures, patience, drive - it's a long list. It's common knowledge that new businesses do not usually make any profit in the first 2 YEARS into their operations.
When you pursue art full time as your career, you are not just an artist. You become your own sales team, marketing expert, copy writer, inventory manager, and more, ON TOP of being a creator.
For example, this is just some of what I need to do once I finish a painting:
- Scan, edit on my iPad, and create digital files for my website
- Product photography (original paintings)
- Add product images to my website and Etsy
- Create a product description that's compelling to read
- Make sure shipping settings are right
- Post about it on social media
This doesn't include other parts of running my business, like fulfilling orders, working on commissions, ordering supplies, or my social media/marketing strategies.
So why are other 'non-creative' industries not seen in the same light? Why is it entrepreneurial when two friends start a restaurant business that makes no money for the first 2 years, but foolish for an artist to do the same thing in pursuit of selling their art?
This thinking is severely flawed because the starving artist mentality assumes an artist pursuing art full time will fail, while entrepreneurial failures are just 'opportunities for growth'. And while not all artists find themselves successful after working on their art full time, neither are most other businesses and start-ups.
I don't know, maybe it's time for "Malnourished Merchant" or something similar to become a thing in the non-creative sector.
Making Art is Personal, Selling Art is Business
This, I believe, is the major thing about seeking to do art full-time that a lot of artists don't get right.
If you decide to make art your full-time job, you need to understand that it is no longer a hobby. It is not something that you do when you feel like it.
It is a career. It's your job.
Making art is personal, but selling it is business.
The reason why the starving artist mentality is so prevalent is because artists either can't or don't understand that they need to run their art like a business.
When they fail to realize this, their chances of success drop because they are only doing the creating side, not the business side of things. To have money come in, it requires both.
Artists have a unique opportunity that non-creative businesses usually do not. People will always need and seek out art.
Creating is a fundamental part of us humans. From cave paintings over 60 000 years old to a handmade card you received for your birthday, we are always seeking art, appreciating it in some form or the other, and I believe that we always will.
Think of this pandemic - what are you doing to comfort yourself, as acts of self-care? If you're like me, you're probably sitting in front of the TV binging shows. Or listening to music. Or reading. All of those things came from a creative mind at one point. Whether we realize it or not, most of the things that entertain our time was created by an artist.
It takes a lot of hard work, dedication, passion, and patience to earn enough as an artist, but it is absolutely possible. When you combine the passion and heart of creating with the not-always-fun-but-necessary parts of running a business, great things happen.
Why it Comes Down to Your Mindset
To me, there is just something so sexy about saying "I'm an entrepreneur".
I have always wanted to run my own business - it was something that fascinated me since I was little. The idea that I could make something with my own hands and people would give me money in exchange for this thing, was (and still is) extremely appealing.
Unfortunately, adults, books, media, and even university to some extent made me think that you could only be an entrepreneur if you worked with large numbers, had investors, memorize an elevator pitch, and really had to sell my product (slimy sales, yuck!) to everyone I met in order to make it work.
I am so relieved to say that it can be like that, but it doesn't have to be. I've chosen NOT to do that, and it feels goooood.
And this is where the change in perspective and mindset need to come in.
Pursuing art full-time means you need to stop believing in this 'starving artist' nonsense. If you believe that you will never make money from your art, you won't. Plain and simple.
There are dozens of books and articles talking about the "entrepreneurial mindset", and in fact even going beyond just business, how important having a growth mindset is for your own growth.
A growth mindset can help you overcome obstacles that you will inevitably face as you try to sell your work. It helps you to see things more objectively, to build confidence, and to set goals that are attainable for you at the time of your journey. It helps you see that your progress is proportional to the amount of effort you put in.
So. Stop giving this starving artist notion your energy and thoughts. It is only a societal construct aimed at making you feel self-doubt around your work.
Here's how I look at it. If you are putting in a bunch of your time, passion, and resources into creating, and you believe deeply in what you are making, then hell YES you should be making money from that!
Creativity comes from ALL walks of life and through different means.
Earning a living doing your art is absolutely possible, but it does not involve thinking as a starving artist. Work hard, keep on creating, believe that you can do it, and be patient with yourself.
You have magic happening in your brain - embrace it!
I wish I knew who took this image, but I hope it speaks to your soul like it did mine. Go create!
Andie Lafrentz has been working as an artist full-time since August 2019, after she quit her job at a tech company. Through watercolour and ink, she combines bright, lively colours and her love of travel to create pieces that express the way she sees the world.