THE IDEAL OF THE STARVING ARTIST
As it is a romantic ideal that an artist sacrifices material well-being, in order to focus on his or her artwork. He or she is the anti-hero facing the storm of reality, while nothing can falter his or her resolve.
For me, Beethoven is the true classic icon of the starving artist. He did not starve, but he was widely believed to have struggled in a heroic way.
Is it romantic, noble, or even necessary to be a starving artist?
If any, it was an outdated ideal now serves nothing but nostalgic needs. Although most starving artists are not made by choice, here are 3 reasons why you shouldn’t choose to be a starving artist.
Notice the Substantial Opportunity Cost of Being a Starving Artist
Ask yourself what is the most important yet limited resource you and everyone else have in the world. Is it money, friendship, family or knowledge?
None of the above.
It was and it will always be your time. Being a starving artist is a heart wrenching way of wasting time.
To be able to understand time in a realistic way, you must first try to see time from the perspective of opportunity cost. The concept of opportunity cost is simple: if you spend time in doing one thing, you will inevitably lose the opportunity to do something else during this period of time.
The time you could have spent on long term projects that may one day become masterpieces, is now being spent on less ambitious, fragmented projects, which may only have immediate value.
It is not who you are, but who you could have been, that is damaged by being a starving artist.
Now you may say, “I didn’t choose to be like this. I already know what you are talking about, but what then?”
Fight it, even if you are without resources. Fight it like how a programmer would not sleep at night to code in a garage, in order to build his company out of nothing. Merely realizing that you do not have enough time to complete your greatest work is a giant leap.
“I never lie down at night without reflecting that — young as I am — I may not live to see another day.” wrote Mozart, in his 1787 April 4th letter.
As talented as he was, he never ceased to contemplate the limitation of his time.
Avoid the Extremes in Risk and Stability
RISK AND STABILITY
When applying the thought of not having enough time to fulfill your ambition, the amount of the risks you face may affect your decisions.
Too little risk bores you, takes away your hunger for ambition, and finally forces you to live old even when you are young. A medium work load stable job is an example of it.
Too much risk exposes you to constant danger, uproots your long term plans, and finally… makes you clingy to old authorities and become fearful of change.
Risk changes you, like how hunger does. George Orwell wrote in Down and Out in Paris and London -
“Hunger reduces one to an utterly spineless, brainless condition, more like the after-effects of influenza than anything else.”
Many could not see this ultimate result of too much risk, because don’t risks and dangers make us adapt and survive?
I believe that nothing can be built without at least a little bit of consistency.
One of the professors I had, when I studied computer science, Ken Perlin, once said in class -
“Building things is the combination of draining your bath tub and magic. Most of the time, it is draining, repetitive and boring, but occasionally, you will have little moments of magic.”
Since programming is more of an art than science, I believe this applies to other art forms as well.
Therefore, the usage of the little bit of consistency, stability, or comfort in life, is there to ensure that you will have the patience to complete the tedious, draining part of your art.
However, too much stability is equally toxic as too much risk, and even more ironically, the result of them are similar, which is a rigid hierarchical system you will find yourself in.
Why? If you observe civilizations originated in the deserts and those originated in overly fertile lands.
The former’s utmost challenge is to survive with scarce resources, so it usually develops a military style of hierarchy to organize itself.
While the latter, the civilization originated in overly fertile lands, resources are abundant, but the civilization often forms a complicated aristocracy to deal with the distribution of these resources in a centralized fashion, to the point where it favors stability and traditions more than innovation. The same applies to your choice in making art.
Both extreme stability and extreme risk starve you.
When you are choosing a career in art, find the sweet spot that drives your creativity, and never fall into the trap of both extremes.
Realize that your Resource Scale Level Matters
If you have decided not be a starving artist. Here is another simple concept that can help you along the way, namely scale matters.
By scale I mean the size of the question you are looking at.
For example, the question can be how to engage your fans. To look at the scale of this question, is to look at how many fans you have. The strategy that works on talking to 100 fans does not work well when talking to 1000.
I am fond of Peter Thiel’s theory of from zero to one, in which he pointed out the process of creating something out of nothing, which is from zero to one. This process is dramatically different from the process of multiplying the existent creation, which is from one to N.
Further more, there is something more urgent than 1000 fans, which is the ability to look further away from immediate events and surroundings, allowing you to plan ahead, to take greater risks, and to create true masterpieces.
This ability is not available to you at certain resource scale levels. Getting to the scale levels that can afford such eye sight is critical to you as an artist.
Now you may say, “Fine, look at the scale of the situation. It is not a big deal. In fact I have been doing it all the time. What is special about it?”
After paying attention to the scale of things, you may feel limited by the stage you are in, but instead, what it can actually help you is to remind you to spend your resources on taking yourself to your next scale level.
Before you have this perspective, you may think that your goal is to reach the break even point where you can maintain your current project, but that should not be your goal.
Your goal is to spend your resources wisely so that your project can move onto the next scale level, say from 1000 fans to 5000. To do this, you need to fight your nature of being afraid to spend too much, or even have to abandon the break even point that you so desire.
This is the mindset of an entrepreneur, not a starving artist.
A great artist is not afraid of the entrepreneurial mindset, for example, look at how Michelangelo took on the almost impossible task to carve David out of a thin piece of marble, with the perfection of idealism and practical knowledge.
The End of the Starving Artist
THE END OF THE STARVING ARTIST
“It was not the hunger artist who was cheating, he was working honestly, but the world was cheating him of his reward. Many more days went by, however, and that too came to an end.” — Apache Kafka, A Hunger Artist.
I want to see the end of the starving artist ideal. I want to live in the days when art and technology flourish.
As for the timing to put an end to the starving artist ideal, I believe there is not a time in history that is better than now.
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