Thoughts on the “Starving Artist”

I was only six when my career dreams were crushed for the first time. I had known better than to share my aspirations with my parents, who would surely disapprove. It was my sister who broke the news to them: I wanted to be a writer. My parents took me seriously for half a second, before laughing and telling me that it was a suitable hobby for when I became a doctor. 

I would only see more of the same response for years to come. At an elementary school event, a classmate’s parents insisted to mine that said classmate was considering a career in medicine, even though I knew that he wished to pursue music and nothing else. One of my friends was told by her parents that math and science homework took precedence over the visual arts projects that “wouldn’t get her anywhere in life.” Another friend shared her plans for an arts major with a classmate, only to receive a “good luck getting a job with that.” I’ve overheard classmates calling arts subjects meaningless, and a theatre student told by his friends to “get ready for a life on the streets.”

Attacks on the arts come in different forms: dismay, judgement, pity, condescension. Often the negative backlash comes from the people closest to the artist, like friends and family. Are they all wrong for providing their well-intended advice? The problem isn’t limited to a handful of opinionated people. We can hardly expect a different attitude from a society that subscribes to the “starving artist” mentality: those who create art for a living must be sacrificing their material well-being to do so. 

Thoughts on the "Starving Artist"

Cartoon depicting an arts patron… (Image source: Medium)

Artists must concede that they generally do not make as much as certain careers in the science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) industries. A Canadian musician’s annual income of $36 thousand seems paltry to a Canadian mechanical engineer’s salary of $65 thousand. In the United Kingdom, the average actor earns £20 thousand, or $35 thousand CAD, less than the average astrophysicist. In Australia, the average fine artist makes the equivalent of $51 thousand CAD, while the average forensic psychologist makes $69 thousand CAD.

This doesn’t mean that artists are starving. An American study demonstrated this in their income-to-poverty ratios, which are assigned values that compare the individual’s income to the officially established poverty thresholds. While the average worker had a ratio of 3.7, the average artist had a ratio of 4.4. It seems that the average artist resides a comfortable distance from “starving.”

Thoughts on the "Starving Artist"

American income-to-poverty ratios by type of artist. (Image source: National Endowment for the Arts)

Yet the argument on the validity of arts careers is not about income. People pursue art for art’s sake. After all, if one doesn’t enjoy the art itself, financial incentive might direct them to another career.It’s safe to say that most artists choose their job based on personal enjoyment. From a sample of 36 thousand arts alumni across the United States, 97% of those who worked as a dancer or choreographer were satisfied with their careers, despite only 9% of these respondents making over $50 thousand a year. The list goes on: 94% of fine artists, 93% of musicians and 87% of actors also indicated their job satisfaction. Comparatively, overall job satisfaction in the U.S. stands at 54%.   

It doesn’t take a lot of time or thought to understand why artists love art. From the cave paintings of hunter/gatherer society, art has been, and will remain, a defining characteristic of our species. Whether it takes the form of books, music or movies. Whether it means Kindle, Spotify or Netflix. No matter our background, art is a part of our culture and identity. This is a fact that has endured over millennia of human history, even if today’s art forms have evolved since those cave paintings.

Thoughts on the "Starving Artist"

Paintings from the Lascaux cave, dating back to the Upper Palaeolithic period. (Image source: ResearchGate)

Art endures because it can mean different things to every individual. We often equate art with entertainment, since we can use it to fill our free time. Yet our reasons for consuming (or producing) art extend beyond the simple hobby. 

On the surface level, music is just entertainment, another way of distracting the busy mind, of relaxation, even of escapism. Music can also be a form of self-expression, like singing along to a song that captures our emotions, or emulating the admirable traits of an artist. It can be a way to spend quality time with others, like having a karaoke night, or going to a concert with friends. Amongst acquaintances, discussing your favourite music genres is a meaningful way to get to know each other, without overstepping the comfort zone in a way that politics or religion might. We use music to invoke past experiences, like nostalgic top hits from childhood, or songs that we associate with specific people important to us. 

Thoughts on the "Starving Artist"

Attending a concert is just one way to enjoy music.

Art is interwoven with who we are or how we live. Even in the possibility that music has no bearing on you specifically, any art form might fill the same role in your life. From painting to poetry, everyone has some method of fulfilling their own artistic needs, whether they desire to express emotion, spend time with friends or wallow in the past. Art is universal.

It only follows that we should respect the people who bring it into our lives. While we may be comfortable singing in the shower, not all of us are ready to call the record labels. Professional artists swallow their pride and surrender their privacy for the chance to do what they love, and to share their creations with the rest of us. As the renowned Henri Matisse aptly put, “creativity takes courage.” 

We are mostly comfortable with supporting the artists who are already celebrated, but reluctant to do the same for the budding talents in our own circles. We can’t expect art to continue to thrive if we discourage young artists at the start of their paths. 

Thoughts on the "Starving Artist"

We need our young artists.

Artist hopefuls do not deserve the flak that they get. Six-year-olds shouldn’t be steered away from their arts aspirations, university students shouldn’t be mocked for making those childhood dreams a reality. Artists don’t always starve. At some point, we need to retire the stereotype. Sure, that six-year-old is probably never going to be the next J. K. Rowling. Yet maybe she never asked to be. Maybe she’s asking for a chance to explore what she loves, to see if she has what it takes. 

Doesn’t she deserve that chance?


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