The Myth of the Starving Artist and Other Misconceptions about Creativity

Should creativity be a vehicle for commerce, or something divorced from the marketplace? Is art for art’s sake a noble pursuit, or an exercise in vanity? The truth is a little more complicated.


Art for art’s sake was a creed of the 20th century bohemians, and on the surface, it sounds like a good idea.

We should not create work that is functional or commercial, the argument goes, but rather because it is an end in itself. After all, what kind of creative would confess to wanting to make as much money as possible off her art?

That just sounds greedy.

But at the same time, what writer, designer, or musician wants to be irrelevant or ignored? Who longs for their work to not be discovered? Doesn’t your best work deserve to be heard and seen and even compensated?

What I think we all fear is not discovery of or compensation for our work. But I think that we creatives are afraid that in caring too much about marketing or business, we will somehow lose the purity of our art. And that’s a valid concern, but not an entirely rational one.

If you want to avoid the trap of becoming a starving artist, you must face three important myths about what it means to be creative.

Myth #1: You Have to Starve to Be an Artist

Many of us have this idea that the more impoverished and unpopular a creative person is, the better his work will be. But what if that just wasn’t true?

Honestly, I’m guilty of this. I think we all are.

We look at the most recent Hollywood blockbuster with a more suspicious eye than some unknown documentary. We rally around underground musicians and pride ourselves in listening to those who eventually become popular “before they went mainstream.”

There’s something about obscurity that we love in art. Sometimes, maybe even often, our suspicions prove correct and the commercial art isn’t as good as what comes out of Bohemia.

But as a whole, this a limiting belief. As I argue in my latest book, Real Artists Don’t Starve, art does not have to be obscure to be meaningful and you don’t have to starve to be an artist.

Art does not have to be obscure to be meaningful.

In fact, studies have revealed that the portrait of the starving artist is a myth. Sure, some artists were not wealthy. But others were rich and comfortable, like many members of the Bloomsbury Group.

Some, like Emily Dickinson, were shut-ins; and others, like Scott Fitzgerald, were quite charismatic. But as a whole, there is no such thing as a “typical” artist. They come in all shapes and sizes and levels of income.

When we hold in our minds a certain ideal of what a creative person should look or act like, we put unnecessary obstacles in our path and do a disservice to the magic of creativity.

You do not have to be poor to be creative. The Muse may visit whomever she likes.

Myth #2: Artists Shouldn’t Care About Marketing

What, then, of obscurity and “art for art’s sake”? Is this an ideal worth holding onto, or does it hold us back from our best work? When a creative cares about marketing, are they selling out?

Today, I hear many writers and artists scorning the need to blog or tweet or build an email list. They want to avoid appearing sleazy or “self-promotional.” But the truth is artists have always had to worry about how get their work to spread. That’s part of the job. And the good ones embrace this.

Marketing isn’t evil. At least, it doesn’t have to be. Marketing is only evil when people use it for evil causes.

So when Hitler used art to create Nazi propaganda, that was marketing. But when MLK created grassroots networks to champion the civil rights cause, that was also marketing. One was evil, and one was good.

In 1872, George Sand, a French novelist, wrote that the artist has a “duty to find an adequate expression to convey it to as many souls as possible.” To put it more succinctly: Art needs an audience.

The good artist serves the audience, the bad artist exploits it.

The good artist serves the audience, the bad artist exploits it.

Of course, there is a problem with caring too much about what people think about your work. The best work does not come as a result of giving the market exactly what it wants, but by sometimes subverting their expectations in exchange for something better.

This, of course, was the magic of Apple. But it was also what made Disney great and the secret to the magic of The Muppets.

Being more inwardly focused, artists have a sensitivity for what people really need even before they realize it. This is not pandering; it’s empathy. And the best businesses profit from it.

People tend to evaluate their experiences of a product or service based on what is expected, so we need to understand both how we are serving the needs of others. But we cannot stop there.

Innovation begins with identifying people’s expectations and ends with exceeding those expectations.

Myth #3: Making Money Making Art Is Bad

And now, what about money? Should we care about the bottom line or just about being creative? The answer is a little complicated, but here’s the good news:

You don’t have to be sleazy to succeed.

You don’t have to sell out or starve. There is a middle ground in which you can use money to make art. Elizabeth Hyde Stevens, author of Make Money, Make Art: Lessons from Jim Henson on Fueling Your Creative Career, explains it like this, examining the career of one of the most creative entrepreneurs of the 20th century:

If we examine Henson’s work in earnest, we can find an inextricable quality running through it, a constant that we can rightly call character… These works are not just making a buck for the buck’s sake. There’s a willfulness in them, a refusal to ever place the market’s demands above one’s own values.

In other words, money makes a better means than master. Don’t give income too much importance in creative work, but give it its due. We need money to keep the lights on and buy supplies, but it’s not everything. As novelist Steven Pressfield says, “Money buys you another season to create.” It gives you time, which gives you options.

Money makes a better means than master.

When you leverage the systems available to you to create enduring work, as Jim Henson did, you create the kind of art that impacts a culture.

You join the ranks of what I call the New Renaissance, those who were able to change the world by being both creative and entrepreneurial.

It’s a challenge, of course, to be both marketer and artist, but one worth embracing.

Where Do We Go from Here?

The opportunity to do creative work that both pays the bills and gets noticed is unprecedented in our world today — as long as we are willing to challenge preconceived notions about what it means to be creative.

With access to tools and technology we’ve never had before, this is truly the best time to be creative. It’s also the best time for companies and organizations to leverage the advantages of creative people.

So here are three next steps worth taking:

  1. Let go of the starving artist stereotype. It’s just not helpful. Creativity can come from all socioeconomic levels. And just because an idea comes from a more obscure place does not necessarily make it better.
  2. Use the advantages of art to earn the attention of an audience.Then serve that audience with empathy. You will have a built-in market that will help you innovate and grow much more quickly.
  3. Use money as a means, not a master. Don’t make art to make money.Make money to make more art. Use business to create meaning in the world and to help that work spread.

To ignore the opportunity of the age in which we live is to do a great disservice to the work of those who have come before us, who paved the way with their innovation and courage.

And as long as we leverage these tools in ways that do not compromise our character, we honor their legacy.

If you enjoyed reading this article, please share it and recommend so others can find it!

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