As an English major, I’m intimately familiar with the stereotype of the starving artist. At thanksgiving, my relatives often ask how my study and my art is going, and ask subtle but not-too-subtle questions about whether I’m struggling financially. I’m used to the look I get when I tell people that I’m an artist and a writer. Let’s talk about it.
The stereotype of the starving artist is an old and well-established one. The starving artist is associated with low-income and poverty, and is often shown as a struggling artist, barely getting by on whatever artistic job they can find. The title is a bit misleading, because the artist isn’t necessarily starving — it’s just a metaphor to indicate that they have little money.
The stereotype is well-known; just about everyone has heard of the starving artist, and knows what it refers to.
Why are artists portrayed as poor?
There are a few reasons why artists are portrayed as poor. The first is that we tend to romanticize the lives of artists. The artist is a loner, a rebel, someone who is passionate about what they do and doesn’t care about the money. Especially in the modern era, we value the idea of a starving artist. It’s romantic to think about the starving artist, struggling in their painful life in order to do what they love.
Secondly, it’s easy to see how the stereotype of the starving artist is reinforced. Artists often don’t make much money, and sometimes aren’t good at managing their finances. Most writers remain undiscovered, except for a few who write bestsellers, like J. K. Rowling, who I love. The same is true with painting, and even worse, sometimes the artist doesn’t get recognition until they have passed away, with their estate inheriting the huge sums paid for their (now scarce) paintings.
There have been many rich artists in history, including the likes of Pablo Picasso and Vincent van Gogh. Some of them were rich when they were alive, and some became rich after their death, when their artwork became highly valuable. Arguably, Steve Jobs was an artist, and he was certainly rich in his lifetime.
The idea that the artist is poor is an illusion. I’m not saying that all artists are rich, but it’s important to realize that there are many rich artists in the world, and that the majority of artists aren’t poor, in fact, if you have time for art, you’re probably not working three jobs. The idea that artists are poor is a stereotype, and it’s not the whole story.
Blaming the artist
The stereotype of the starving artist can also be harmful. There are many reasons why artists are poor, including the lack of opportunities, and the lack of support. However, it’s also important to realize that some artists do struggle with their money, and it’s not always because they are lazy or because they don’t know how to manage their money. Sometimes the artist really is struggling with money, and the stereotype of the starving artist can make it harder for the artist to get help.
The starving artist stereotype can also be self-fulfilling. If you believe that artists are poor, then you’re going to be more okay with not trying to make money, and you won’t listen to people who are putting pressure on you to make money, even if they want the best for you. I’m not endorsing that artists should be lazy. The work of an artist is hard, and they should be compensated for their work. However, artists often are poor because they have little opportunity to make money, not because they’re lazy. The bottom line is that the idea of the starving artist is a bit of a myth. It’s not true that artists are necessarily poor, and it’s not true that all poor artists are good artists. You can be a good artist and be rich too.
My own life
I’ve done a lot of different jobs, not because I’m a writer, but mainly just because I’m a college student, and that’s what we all do. Most people have to work, and I’m fine with that. I need to let go of the idea that people are judging me as a starving artist, and realize that they’re really just judging me as a starving student, along with the rest. Somehow, that feels much better to me.
I’ve worked as a waitress, I’ve worked doing labor at a power washing company, cleaning down big-rig trucks, I’ve worked as an administrative receptionist (for a short time) for a local law firm whose owner was friends with my parents, to help me get on my feet when I first arrived at college. I’ve done lots of jobs that artists generally don’t do, so I suppose you could say that each person’s journey is unique. We all have our own struggles.
I’ve done art and writing, and I’m proud of that, but I’ve also had to work hard to help myself out. I’ve had to learn how to manage money on my own, and I’ve had to learn how to manage my time. I’ve had to learn how to be a good waitress. I’ve had to learn how to be a good administrative assistant.
Sometimes, I’ve had to put my art and writing aside, because I need the money, or because I need to put in a lot of time on a new job. I’ve had to figure out how to balance work and school. I’ve had to learn to manage my money, and I’ve had to learn how to be a responsible adult. I’ve had to learn how to eat right and take care of myself. I’ve had to learn how to balance my time. I’ve had to learn how to be organized. I’ve had to learn how to be a good writer. I’ve had to learn how to be a good artist. I’ve had to learn how to be a good person. It’s been a learning curve and I’m just so glad to be on it, rich or poor, artist or not.