Should Artists Starve for Their Art? — by Georgina Lester

To suffer for one’s art has long been taken for granted as the only way to succeed. Monetary gain for any kind of artistic or creative work can to some be outrageous and unforgivable. Artists who demand high prices are frowned upon for being too money orientated as if they are sullying the arts profession by prostituting their own style and talents. Art for money is not considered to be the acceptable primary directive as we should all be purists in heart and mind manifesting our art for the satisfaction of being able to express ourselves through our chosen medium.


OK, an extreme view maybe and probably quite far removed from many of our own realities. However I would suggest that this is an argument frequented in our minds every time we try to achieve that balance of creating our hearts desire and keeping the roof over our heads. How can we justify creating art for arts sake when we have bills to pay? This is especially pertinent when considering that slapping out hundreds of replicated non-emotive splodges of colour and fobbing them off on unsuspecting passers by as being original hand crafted works of art, can far more readily keep us fed and clothed.

Arts critics would not even deign to look at works stationed on the lower rungs of the ladder of creative genius despite the fact that they may be the very works that are a part of that journey to genius. Snobbery, misunderstanding and fashion can keep an artist in a state of poverty for as long as the masses so choose. It may only take one person to recognise the value in the work but it can take many beatings and rejections before an artist has passed the test of time. Years of trial and error, hard work and extremes of financial fluidity can test an artist’s capacity for endurance allowing them to acquire the accolade of ‘Survivor’.

This can be completely irrelevant if their definition of that survival means that they are a starving and weather beaten tramp on the street outside your front door. Sadly, our human nature dictates that if that artist is unable to pay their way then our animal instinctive reaction is to ostracise him as being a weaker member of our species. We may fondly reminisce about inspirational creations, sighing in mourning for its loss expressing terrible sadness for the artist’s downfall. But few may do much to change the demise of a struggling artistic individual.

Whilst this may not be entirely true for the many that choose a career in the creative industries, it is perhaps a picture representative of the many demons within us. Fear of failing is a known spanner we freely throw into our own workings. If we are sensible and grounded we are able to find practical solutions to living in an environment that demands financial interaction. The difficulty being of course is that creative’s by their very nature have a tendency to lose that sense of being earthed. Instead they have accumulated many frequent flyer miles from travelling through the realms of fear and fantasy – the very inspiration for their creativity.

It can be accepted that not every artist is a dippy, forgetful, chaotic being that shivers in fear every time you show them a logical filing system but it can also be accepted that to constantly change our mantels from business man to artist and back again can be at least a pain the backside and at worst be enough to give you a nervous breakdown. The question is – can a solution be found to help every artist create that happy balance of being able to feel safe and secure enough to push out the boundaries of their own creativity knowing that they are not going to be chucked out into the cold for not being able to pay their way?

We could choose to live for the sake of our art. As a spiritual novice may choose a vow of chastity and poverty enabling them to forgo the distractions of our society so too an artist can completely immerse themselves in the world of their creativity. How easy would it be to abstain from the seductions of our consumerist world especially when everything around us is so jet powered and dependent on our many labour saving devices?

In an ideal world we would be able to retain the sacred space required for the purist form of creative expression whilst regularly visiting the zone of our so-called real world. Endeavouring to be business like whilst keeping our inspired life alive is an incredibly difficult balance to keep. Whatever happens it requires discipline and a desire to not only survive but to thrive. To do this we must really begin to question not only our belief in our art and the contribution it makes to civilization but also our belief system of our own self worth.

For some to create great art they must suffer. They have to dive into the dungeons of humanity to live the experiences that they later represent to their audience using a medium and a language that they can understand. A purist would say that for an artist to truly capture the essence of that human experience they cannot pretend to go through it. They have to live it for real. Their soul has to become a part of the very molecular structure of that environment to be able to develop the depth of understanding required to express the truth about it. That requires a certain genius which can easily trip over into a state of madness.

What motivates us to forgo the safety of a 9 to 5 existence? What drives us to delve into the complexities of the human mind and study how it interacts with the world? Is it a strange addiction to suffering and confusion? Is it a drug induced need to wage war on or glorify the dark? Does the human body need that regular kick of adrenalin to prove it is still alive, that it has survived and will continue to survive? Who rewards their endeavours with medals for bravery shown when revealing the truth about our humanness? Are the suffering artists and their patrons a part of some bizarre scientific experiment where the patrons send the performers into the maze of the mind to see how long they learn how to navigate the psychology of the labyrinth? Or are the artists merely journalists reporting on the human condition paid for by our society’s subscription to the belief that the world is a terrible and ugly place to live in? And this of course, is only one perspective – but is it a true one either in your own domain or in others who you know?

Of course not all artists represent or glorify the grim and grimy. Some are positively pink and fluffy whilst others have an incredible sense of humour. Their genius lies in their ability to get us thinking, challenging our own safety nets of what we thought was reality.

Some frequently surprise us by pricking us with pins of wit reminding us that we have much to live for and that we are very much alive. To those artists we can be forever grateful as they can provide the much needed antidote to the latest religion gripping the world – the belief in Terrorism, Credit Crunch, or some other fashionable, albeit tragic and frightening phase. These artists would no doubt find humour even in the darkest recesses of our humanness inspiring positive attitudes that can help us all rise above the negativity that can all too easily weigh us down. May we all thank the gods of all arts for the creation of such creatures.

No doubt however that the humorist will be in the same boat as all the other creative individuals – laughter doesn’t always pay the bills either – especially when the laughter machine needs service or re-fuel. In our modern day era where the adventurous entrepreneur is being applauded for independent and innovative thinking, is it possible to emulate their attributes and apply them to the creative industries? Is it possible to use our imaginations to create multiple sources of revenue that can supplement and support our art?

For that to work we have to be a little logical, consistent and to know the techniques required to manage our business in such as way as to be profitable. We have to know how to create several sorts of income using the skills and talents that we know best. We have to know how to find our target audience and market ourselves to not only get their attention but to keep it. We have to know how to delegate to others and for that we have to hone our abilities to find suitable staff/partners/service providers who are not only going to do a good job but also stand up for the principles and ethics of our enterprise. We have to be able to choose professionals who are going to give us good advice having truly listened to who and what we are whilst not fobbing us off with techno jargon that only confuses and destroys our confidence. Added to this we have to create an inspiring business enterprise that is going to feed not consume us. And then we have to be able to ask ourselves at the end of our working life has it all be worth it in the end?

In an ideal world a talented artist should not have to think of all these things. They should be able to immerse themselves in their fantasy world creating their own commentary on what they see. That detachment from the so-called real world allows them to see us from the outside and sometimes we need to have these commentaries reminding us how ridiculous things can get. For that do we need to bring back the art of patronage? Can we revive the lost art of that mutually beneficial relationship between the artist and his benefactor? Would it lead to other trials and tribulations best left to the centuries gone by?

Whatever we do, as artists we have to be true to ourselves. A great deal of how we earn our crust and how we behave is going to be dictated by our upbringing and our sense of self worth. In all it has to be said that everything that we experience is a necessary part of our journey, the journey of self discovery. As such we perhaps have to embrace the society with all its foibles as it is the culture that provides us with our growth and learning. In the end it is not about the destination it is about how we get there –we’ve just got to remember that! For the time that we are the impoverished artist imprisoned in our Rapunzel tower we have to retain that will to not only stay alive but also to keep creating. It is up to us to find the beacons of inspiration to light our way on our quest all the while remaining true to our ideals. How do we find those beacons?

Emulate the successes of artists who have gone before us. Keep our minds open to wisdom gained in other people’s life adventures, wherever they may be experienced, yes even a bank manager or an accountant can be full of inspiration, we just have to know how to find it, see it and remember it. Regardless of where the wisdom may reside, in the holy robes of the homeless tramp, or the opulent residences of the multi-millionaire, cocooned in the innocence of youth or enfolded in the time worn wrinkles of old age, we just have to keep listening and watching all that surrounds us. And when we truly see and hear, we will find the tools to make the best of our dreams.