Can You Be Creative and Poor?
As an artist, I have a strange relationship with money
I never minded the rain, but if it rained for more than three days in a row, I began to feel trapped.
I was in my twenties and trying my best to scrape together a living as an artist. Since I didn’t own anything classifiable as waterproof, when it rained and the puddles grew into ponds and buildings began to spit on me, I felt I was under attack. Countless times I went out and returned with waterlogged clothes that took the rest of the day to dry out.
I began to understand that having no money would be about living with a hundred inconveniences like this. Yet for most of the time I took pleasure from the creative life I was pursuing and the sense that my self-imposed poverty was intrinsic to my unusual career path. I think many artists must think in the same way: that despite the precarious nature of their income, they carry on, believing that the sacrifice of income security yields the higher reward of creative freedom.
There are different types of poverty, of course. Mine was a poverty by choice, which in the scheme of things is not much of a hardship. It had none of the panic that goes along with enforced or random abjection. In truth, I am very lucky to come from a comfortable middle-class background, so the economic leanness I had elected for myself was by no means absolute. In fact, it gave my situation the aspect of something evaluated and preferred. Something chosen among other options.
I suppose I’ve always had a strange relationship with money because part of me savours the prospect of staying free of its claws. I always had a clear sense that money was a distraction, both in the getting it and in the spending it. Of course, having no money is a distraction too. An artist has to consider where they will turn to to make ends meet and what effect this will have on their art. We all need to consider the ‘marketplace’ and our potential value within it. This is a distraction of a different order.
Artists just don’t care about money
The expectation that to be an artist also means being poor is a cultural stereotype, yet whilst artists haven’t lived in attics or garrets since the heady days of Picasso’s Montmartre, there is some research that suggests that artists are actually — physiologically — hardwired not to care about money.
Whether or not artists are naturally averse to money or if — as I suspect — they have simply to come to terms with the improbability of ever being wealthy, many artists I know certainly seem to think that money is a consideration that comes lower down the list of priorities; somewhere around eating in posh restaurants or buying a pair of waterproof shoes.
For my own part, I have always had this idea that money is a convenience that can embroil you in lots of unexpected inconveniences, if you’re not careful. For years I listened to friends of mine with cars, for instance, complaining about the expense, the road tax, insurance and yearly repairs. Traffic is always bad and is getting worse. And parking is a nightmare. I was 32 years old when I got my first car, a hand-me-down from my girlfriend. It lasted six months before the chassis went and the cherished vehicle took its final journey to the scrapyard. Until that point, I walked most of the time or relied on lifts from friends and family. If anyone had thought to keep a ledger of those car rides, then I must be in debt to the tune of several thousand miles.
But as I went through my twenties, certain things about having no money did begin to bother me. I noticed it first in social settings, which were becoming increasingly awkward. With friends, who habitually took it in turns to buy rounds of drinks, my ploy was to hang back and attempt to acquire my own drink separate from the rest. For a while I developed a reputation for stinginess, which only got worse as my peer-group climbed their own career ladders and our socialising evolved from cheap bars to more expensive restaurants and nightclubs, where the price tag of a night out rose two- or three-fold. On such occasions, I tended to arrive later and leave earlier, and hoped nobody thought the less of me for it.
The English author George Orwell described the peculiar lowness of poverty as a “complicated meanness”. I understand what he meant by this. People begin to wonder why your behaviour changes and why you seem so petty-minded. They monitor you with suspicion, as you connive to eek out your meagre circumstances as far as possible.
When Orwell wrote Down and Out in Paris and London in 1933, he was intent on living among vagrants and tramps to get a sense of what real destitution feels like. For Orwell, the situation he found himself in was half by choice — to provide material for his book — and half by happenstance. He was a young man living in Paris when illness struck, a situation that got worse when he had money stolen from him. As he slid into poverty, he wrote, “You discover what it’s like to be hungry. With bread and margarine in your belly, you go out and look into shop windows. Everywhere there is food insulting you in huge, wasteful piles.”
Yet Orwell also saw a silver thread to his pauperism: “Within certain limits, it is actually true than the less money you have, the less you worry. […] It is a feeling of relief, almost of pleasure, at knowing yourself to be genuinely down and out.”
My own self-opted hardship was nothing like as grinding as Orwell’s or his street comrades. Besides which, when I turned 30 something in my attitude shifted. I suddenly felt like a wanted to shore-up my life with a commitment to something longer-term. I had no retirement plan, no house, no car, and never any credit on my phone. The only things I did have were a stack of unsold paintings and wardrobe of old, leaky clothes.
For the last ten years I’ve been wrestling with the question of money and how much of my practice as an artist ought to be directed towards it. I don’t go in for the romantic notion of poverty anymore. Undoubtedly, when money becomes a genuine concern them I find my ability to be creative is always diminished. I may become more resourceful or find myself working harder, but my sense of genuine connection with my work — that connection that is the underpinning of propitious inspiration — is always harmed.
So these days I tread an awkward tightrope between seeking money and not really wanting it. I live in what people call the gig economy: I still paint, and write, and also do some design work — which, out of all my activities, pays the most money. My income is fine, but it is also erratic. The strange thing is that I worry about money far more now than when I had much less of it.
Where my imagination dwells these days is not on how to spend money, or even to make more of it, but how to reinvent myself in such a way that money becomes less important again. It’s all about balance, of course, since too little money will worry me far more than too much. Most of all, I would like just the right amount so that it becomes invisible to me, and as such, secondary. The art must come first. Always.