The Starving Artist & Do What You Love Myths

This month was full of interesting conversations with people about art + money and why follow your passion is mindless career advice. Asking questions and interrogating these topics certainly uncovers unsettling realities about the nature of ambition, luck, hard work, class, elitism and social inequality. But getting real about the personal, cultural and systemic dynamics of the art world, helps empower artists (and those who engage with artists) to value their work more. It allows us to explore alternative options, to support those who bravely call out exploitation, and to unravel the deeply internalised idea that to be an artist you must forgo financial security.

Andrew Simonet points out, that artists are fed up with the fact that at every level of success they are “exhausted, overwhelmed and broke, panicked about the present and disheartened about the future.” Additionally, Neha Kale explains: “somewhere along the way the starving artist myth convinced us that money was the enemy of artistic ‘purity’. It also made our willingness to subscribe to it proof of our commitment to being artists rather than the product of a broken system that undervalues creative work.”

As a disruption to this broken system, many artists have stepped into the sphere of creative entrepreneurship. The world is brimming with potential partners in industries you never thought of who need the insight, creativity and skills of an artist. Plus, when you go outside the art world often the money is much better. Some artists are able to use their creative skills to pay the bills, making it a career, while still maintaining an art practice as a vocational love pursuit.

However, being an artist entrepreneur making a career from your creative skills, which neatly falls into the do what you love, love what you do movement, is problematic. To reiterate, I’m talking specifically about turning something you love (art) into an income-generating endeavour. In my opinion, the disheartening realities of the do what you lovemovement are too easily glossed over by the 1% of life-coaches, self-help authors, professional creatives and entrepreneurs who promote their recipes for success, whilst simultaneously capitalising on us. The reality is that it’s not only hard to make it as an artist, but it’s also hard to make it doing what you love.

The ‘starving artist’ myth

Why is it so hard to make it as an artist? Well, in the art world, as Ben Davis details, class directly affects the functioning and character of the sphere of the arts. The dominant values given to the arts are ones that serve the interests of those currently holding power. So the functioning of the art system is dictated by large corporations, auction houses, corporate collectors, art investors, private collectors, patrons, the trustees and administrators of large cultural institutions and universities and galleries.

What benefits these power players? The starving artist myth. It allows people to take advantage of and capitalise off artists. An example of this is, if you are a fine artist and want to exhibit in a traditional gallery context, not only do you need to pay for the gallery space, but also a 50% commission from every sale. Of course galleries have it set up like this because they need to run their business. But what about the financially precarious position that this puts most artists in? Don’t they also need to make a living? Does it make sense that most artists never break even for the time and money they pour into the creation of their work, so they are always running at a loss?

With this sort of setup the only artists that can really thrive in the art world are, as Neha Kale writes, “those with the resources, contacts and trust funds; often white middle-class kids for whom dressing in rags is a temporary, romantic exercise; with a safety net slung above rock bottom.” Those who don’t have the privilege to sustain an art career with pocket money are left out of the equation in this system.

Thedo what you love’ myth

The socioeconomic exclusion that occurs in the art world similarly happens in the entrepreneurial world. As Mika Tokumitsu explains, do what you love “ is the secret handshake of the privileged with a worldview that disguises its elitism as noble self-betterment. According to this way of thinking, labor is not something one does for compensation, but as an act of self-love. If profit doesn’t happen to follow, it is because the worker’s passion and determination were insufficient.”

What a damaging world view. For those who have something that they love, and want to try and make money doing that thing — the frustrating reality is that not everyone can succeed. But if you strike out, it doesn’t mean you are a personal failure or a b-grade human. There are complex dynamics at play, plus the barrier to entry is high. Most people who have successfully found a way to do what they love, have failed many times before. This takes time and almost always costs money. You need access to personal savings, other jobs you can work on the side, the ability to get a loan, or financial support from friends and family. And not everyone has access to those resources.

On a less heavy note, do what you love, love what you do is also just downright crappy career advice. Most people don’t have one overriding passion they can capitalise on. As Thomas Merton observed back in 1955, the pressure to find your true calling, leaves the world “full of unsuccessful businessmen who still secretly believe they were meant to be artists or writers or actors in the movies.”

For most of us, finding something close to what you love is a messy and long process of trying, learning new skills, pivoting, failing, trying and eventually investing in something. Jessica Abel writes a great short piece about this and points out the reality that you don’t just find your passion, it is grown through investment and attention over time. So, don’t blindly follow your passion, follow your effort. Sometimes you end up liking things that you never thought you would. As you get better at something, the more important it becomes. This approach opens up a space to explore skills that might not be your true passion, but are valued by other people can potentially pay well.

Of course, if you find yourself in the wonderful position to make money doing what you love, relish it. Do something great. Chill out about your class position. Use your visibility, voice and privilege to enable others. Just don’t live in a bubble and be sanctimonious about it. Mika Tokumitsu writes: “do what you love disguises the fact that being able to choose a career primarily for personal reward is an unmerited privilege, a sign of that person’s socioeconomic class.” In the world more people than not are forced to do unlovable work to make ends meet, and are excluded and made invisible, because of structural injustice and inequality limiting access, agency and opportunity.

So what to make of all this?

The starving artist and do what you love myths are huge topics, and there aren’t easy answers. But challenging both of these ideas is useful. It helps us see through the damaging stories that operate in both the art and entrepreneurial worlds, and be more realistic about just how many people are excluded from these spaces, and how much privilege and elitism bolsters success.

Only by interrogating the art world system and starving artist myth can we hope to disrupt the status quo. Asking questions like: Why can’t we improve the infrastructure, opportunities and provide protections extended to workers in other industries? How can we cultivate and properly compensate the talented voices and alternative perspectives that are so often excluded from the art world? How can we support creative professionals to protect their work and get paid? How can we hold corporations accountable for theft and exploitation? How can we actively improve arts policy and promote the creation of a living wage for artists? What enables artists to value themselves and make empowered decisions?

Attempting to become a creative entrepreneur and to do what you love is equally fraught. Some people are able to hone their art into a career and make money from it (with huge investment, luck, ambition, strategy, and hustle). Other people can’t, or don’t want to make their art into a career. And in my opinion, there is no point in damaging the creative integrity of your art by insisting that it become a career, and then making career decisions that end up destroying what you love — making you feel like a sell out. As author Elizabeth Gilbert kindly points out, “there is absolutely nothing wrong with going through your entire life working whatever jobs to pay the bills, and enjoying your art as a hobby or a vocation and never making it a career of it.” And for those of us who don’t have any clear passion, that’s ok too because good enough is good enough after all.

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