The Myth of the Starving Artist
“How nice for you to have an interest like art, but really, how are you going to make money from it?”
So many people I have met have shared a similar story with me. One where well meaning parents, teachers, or other authority figures tell them that their interest in the arts is “cute” or “great for a hobby,” but “what about a real job?”
This kind of interaction demeans creative interests. It suggests creativity is less important, less valuable and thus, why would we ever invest our time and energy into it? It’s as if there is a list of other more important priorities in life we should be focused on rather than our creative interests: how “cute” you aren’t grown up yet and facing “real life.”
The irony is, if you investigate those naysayers and their stories further, you often discover an inner artist who was rejected and ignored. That story is a means to justify personal decisions not to engage with their creative interests. When I realize this, I’m no longer angry; I’m sad.
Two sciences; No art.
I worked in a school system where students had the same classes for the last two years of school. When it came time to choose their last two years of classes, countless students who enjoyed art told me they had to take two sciences because their parents wanted them to become a doctor. I didn’t feel it was my place to say anything, but my insides screamed with frustration and even a bit of anger; I saw the disappointment in their eyes.
One student decided to stick with her art class. She really committed to her art and she did very well in her exams. When she applied to a prestigious school in her home country, she was told her artwork and her research based studies via the visual arts are what made her stand out. She was accepted! All of a sudden her mother was a huge convert for the arts, telling all of her friends how her daughter’s acceptance was notable because of her art.
Choose yourself as an ally.
When the world continues to tell us our arts based interests are unimportant, who can we turn to for support, acceptance and love? We can’t always rely on the people around us, but there is one person that will always be there for you, who can always make choices to support and celebrate your art. (Or not.)
For whatever reason, most cultures worldwide assume the arts are jobs without money and thus, without satisfaction. This is the prevailing attitude, despite more and more research that tells us engaging in arts based activities helps with stress, personal connection, and our overall health.
Finally, we have some research to support the truth we all know: the starving artist is a myth.
If there was one article I could read to everyone in my life, it’s this one. I want to send it to every high school counselor I know, every principal and every teacher I have ever worked with, then to the hundreds of thousands of parents who have told their kids it’s better to have a steady job than to follow their creative passion.
A survey of over 13000 arts graduates found that 92 percent found work after they graduated and 70% of those employed in their creative interest were “very satisfied” with their job.
This has amazing contrast to a Gallup poll that found 70% of American workers are “‘not engaged,’ or ‘actively disengaged’ and emotionally disconnected from their workplaces.’”
Put those party shoes on! We have meaningful data to share with the world that supports the argument we’ve known all along: that embracing our creative interests makes us happier human beings!
This may be my favorite quote:
“Let’s do the math, then. On average, more than 70% of professional artists like their work, while 70% of executives, doctors, teachers and other workers dislike theirs. Fretful parents, who is better off?”
Schools can claim to support the arts, but when parents come banging down doors insisting arts based grades should be based on effort not skill, or that arts should not be a mandated subject, institutions often heel. I’ve even heard teachers dismissing each other’s subjects as more or less important, which cultivates a competition based environment rather than one that truly values learning and experience for students. (Anyone heard of STEM versus STEAM? Yet another institution based initiative that omits the arts.) We all know which programs are first cut from schools when times are tough.
Lack of support from institutions as well as well meaning parents and teachers are all pieces to a larger pie that discourage the arts. Together it creates a space where people feel their art interests are unimportant or less valuable than other endeavors. I’m not surprised so many people who are a part of Artist Think have told me they feel guilty making time for themselves, especially when it comes to making time for their creative interests.
If creative expression is the least important thing we could spend our time on, where does our family or work rate if we choose our art? This whole paradigm sets us up for creative shaming, and ultimately, a whole lot of regret.
It’s time for a revolution. It’s time we stand up as creatives and say: No more! It’s time to support and encourage a world where people can fully embrace their creativity, professionally or personally, or both. It should be an open choice we can make, without judgment.
What can we do?
Show compassion when people say something demeaning about the arts.
Don’t be aggressive when someone says something dismissive about arts based interests. (This can be easier said than done, I know I get really riled up about this! Just remember, we are out to change the world. It means we need to be dedicated, patient, and open to alternative opinions). Aggression has never been a way for disparate minds to come to a shared conclusion. All aggression can ever do is bully someone into submission.
Ask questions. Listen. Try to understand where their idea comes from… ask them: “why do you think that?” “What evidence do you have?” “Did you once enjoy the arts?” I find those speaking against the arts do need our empathy and support. Usually these are people justifying their own experiences of hurt that dismissed their creativity. They don’t need our anger, they need our love and acceptance. Bring them to an art class with you and help them reconnect with their inner artist.
Be the example you never had.
Are there young people in your life? Be the model you never had as a child. Show them how you can live a life as a creative adult. Integrate your love of the arts into your life in a way that feels authentic to you. Not everyone wants a job that is based in the arts, but most people have a secret or not so secret creative based interest. Action speaks louder than words. Be a quiet, but ever so loud example by taking time to honor your own interests. For those of us who feel ashamed or guilty for making time for our art, remember that changing world values starts with one person at a time. It starts with you.
My dream world is possible. I’m here working on it and every day I meet someone else who resonates with Artist Think’s mission I know we are getting closer to it. There are cultures in this world where there are no words for art. This sounds alarming at first, but it’s amazing. And wonderful. The arts are such a natural, integrated part of their lives there was never a need for a word to describe art.
There was no need to delineate art as something different and set apart from the rest of their lives. I want this attitude to permeate our world. I’m confident if people found and embraced their creative interests, our world would be more empathetic, peaceful and connected. Sounds like a pretty awesome place; will you join me?
I still remember how it felt when I had a counselor tell me I was too smart to take vo-tech classes. It was during school hours, so I could work on developing an artist portfolio; I was thinking about going to art school.
As soon as I heard those words I felt small. Something that lit me up was being put down; I was told by someone of authority my interest was not valuable. For a time I pushed away my art interests, “because what was I going to do with them anyway?” I wish I could have asked him: “why do you think people in the arts aren’t smart?” or “Why is my interest in the arts unimportant?”
Take steps today to honor your creative desires. The first step is to acknowledge your desire to be creative. Then make a list of what lights you up. What activities did you enjoy as a child? Often it’s the very same activities that can lead us to our creative path.
The next time someone suggests your creative interests are less than important you’ll know what to do. Give them a big hug and get out some coloring books or artist materials. And say, “The arts are so important to me. Let’s sign up for a class together, I’d love to show you why.”
“Finally, we have some research to support the truth we all know: the starving artist is a myth.” (Click to Tweet)
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