Ever heard the term “starving artist”? Yeah, I think we all have.
It’s a condition that doesn’t plague every artist (I, for one, am not starving, but I am getting a bit hungry so I should probably go grab some food soon) but I’m willing to bet anyone who has ever expressed an interest in pursuing the liberal arts has had that image of their future thrust upon them. By concerned family, joking friends, even snide strangers.
I wrote, when I first started this site, about the comments I received whenever I revealed I was studying English Literature in college. Since graduation, I’ve attained full-time employment in a writing field, and have thus stuck my tongue out at all the naysayers. That’s not to say the job doesn’t come with its unique set of challenges, which includes figuring out how to survive on less than $30K a year. Starving artist, indeed.
I’ve seen that term depicted, so many times. In books, in movies, in comics. A struggling painter sets up her easel to make caricatures for pennies. An aspiring musician composes her songs on the rooftop of her shabby apartment building. A writer waits tables at a coffee shop. Back in the day, I watched this show Girls, because the main character was a post-grad writer and I wanted inspiration for my chosen lifestyle. While I did enjoy what I watched of the show (I stopped after season 2 because the other seasons were not free on Amazon Prime), I found myself inexplicably sad after each episode.
We, as artists, know what we’re getting into when we pursue our crafts. We pursue them anyway. We join in the dark jokes about working in fast food with our creative degrees and making magic by moonlight. But then the sun comes up, the episode of Girls ends, and we’re left wondering if this is really it? A series of missteps and grinding work with little to show for it outside of our immediate circle?
We’re taught to believe this isn’t the path we should take. That down it, there’s nothing but unpaid bills and crappy jobs. We’re taught we don’t matter, because money is what matters in this world, right? And we’re certainly not making a lot of it.
So then why are some of the highest paid members of society artists?
Film actors rake in anywhere from six to eight figures, depending on the movie. Writers for television can see $50K per hour-long script. Fine artists can make a decent annual salary of $50K, on average, and we all know about the six to seven figure advances given to best selling authors. And I know, I know, this is not indicative of every artist, and there aren’t enough of these high paying jobs for all the people who’ve ever picked up a pen. But if we’re measuring salaries, any salary, it’s clear what occupations seem to be valued so highly.
Let’s talk about the needs of society for a minute. Society needs engineers. It needs doctors, of course. It needs lawyers, and accountants, and computer scientists, but we’re convinced that it doesn’t need us. Performers and creators are scorned for their interests, mocked for their dreams. But ask any one of those doctors, engineers, or lawyers if they’ve ever listened to a song, watched a movie, or lost themselves in the pages of a story, and ask them what their life would be like if they could never enjoy those mediums again.
A quote I’ve always loved (and you’ve probably heard it a time or two) was spoken by the late-Robin Williams, in the movie Dead Poets Society: “We read and write poetry because we are members of the human race. And the human race is filled with passion. And medicine, law, business, engineering, these are noble pursuits and necessary to sustain life. But poetry, beauty, romance, love, these are what we stay alive for.” What is life without that which makes it beautiful? I remember the first story I ever wrote. I was five or six at the time, and it was about a group of friends having a slumber party. I illustrated it, too, and you can imagine the God-awful drawings that resulted, but I didn’t care. After I finished, I gave the small book, the pages sloppily stapled together and the cover still wet with the ink from my markers, to my parents to read. They, of course, cooed about how good it was, as parents do, but that feeling of sharing something I’d made never went away.
We are starving artists, yes, to a society that doesn’t know they need us. I wanted to write more about why we shouldn’t romanticize this struggle, because it isn’t healthy or productive, but maybe that will have to be for another day. Instead, I’ll leave with this: We are needed. Our work is valued. Maybe not today, maybe not by everyone we want. But we are creating the things that will matter tomorrow.