‘Curing’ starving artists

Written in response to yet another marketing and business solution to the difficulty artists have in making a living.


When you describe something as needing a cure you have already accepted that there is a problem. I understand the sense in which you are claiming it, that IF a person is attempting to make a living there are things which can obstruct this. The problem, what I am accepting as a problem, is that for many people making a living from art is not a simple issue, and that some aspects of it are fundamentally conflicting.

It is not simply the case that being an artist is like other jobs. For some it obviously is. But for many others we make art specifically to bring certain things forward in the world, and getting paid to do so is not always easily reconciled with fidelity to one’s artistic vision. There is an inherent contradiction between doing what you want to do and doing something that others want from you.

Not that they can’t sometimes align, merely that they are not the same thing necessarily and following one path can lead us farther away from the other. Its the difference between being intrinsically motivated and extrinsically motivated. When we do something because its the right thing to do in itself, as making art is for many of us, then its a different proposition from doing something for the sake of an audience. Expressing one’s self is NOT the same as communicating.

“We who draw do so not only to make something visible to others, but also to accompany something invisible to its incalculable destination.”
-John Berger

If its a problem reconciling these two points of view, then assuming it gets solved through marketing and business sense is both naive and misleading. It assumes, for one, that the problem is solved on the side of the extrinsic connection to the audience. The people for whom the disconnect between making art and selling art is most evident often care much less about the selling part and are more focused on making what they believe to be the intrinsic mission of their creative lives. They may not want to be starving, but they DO want to make the art they make.

A dislike of starving is not even related to an artist’s motivation except circumstantially. They do not even scale together except by coincidence. And so when you say, “success was largely dependent on how successful those (business & marketing) areas were doing and not so much their abilities as an artist” you have spelled out precisely why the extrinsic factors are so repugnant. Some people would rather be the artist they understand themselves to be than ‘successful’.

To the extent that we actually care about being the best we can be as artists, and knowing that ‘success’ may have nothing to do with that, is it any wonder that many artists would prefer to be ‘starving’ than sell themselves out for the occasional crusts of bread? The less time spent perfecting your artistic craft the more you indicate a conflicting priority, and the less entitled you are to even claim your art as a priority. You can’t magically do both well at once. You can’t necessarily have your cake and eat it too.

Extrinsic and intrinsic motivations are fundamentally at odds. And as such, to the extent this conflict is seen as a problem it is a psychological problem. We feel the tension. We are pulled in two opposing ways, a sort of schizophrenia of ideals. And if this is a problem, perhaps we need to understand that the ‘cure’ may just be worse than the disease. Proposing clumsy solutions is not answering the problem. There may be no cure if the two ideals cannot be reconciled without unacceptable damage. Sometimes, even, the proposed ‘cure’ is death. You have to die as an artist to be reborn with a successful career.

Death to the Starving Artist Cover

“marketing expert and author Nikolas Allen aims to kill this outmoded paradigm once and for all. In the book, Allen guides readers through a proprietary model of using the Right Tools to reach the Right Audience with the Right Message in an effort to educate, encourage and inspire ambitious artists with ideas, insights, and resources that will empower them to succeed in their creative field.”

I found this book cover in a search of images for ‘starving artist’. Disgusting and self serving, isn’t it? The title might as well have been “How to prostitute yourself as an artist”. Anyone who says there is something wrong with you for being a ‘starving artist’ understands very well what it means to be ‘successful’ but does not understand what it means to be an artist.

Peace all!

Happy potting!

Make beauty real!


About Carter Gillies

I am an active potter and sometime pottery instructor who is fascinated by the philosophical side of making pots, teaching these skills, and issues of the artistic life in general. I seem to have a lot to say on this blog, but I don't insist that I'm right. I'm always trying to figure stuff out, and part of that involves admitting that I am almost always wrong in important ways. If you are up for it, please help me out by steering my thoughts in new and interesting directions. I always appreciate the challenge of learning what other people think.
This entry was posted in Art, Arts advocacy, Creative industry, Creativity, Imagination, metacognition. Bookmark the permalink.

4 Responses to ‘Curing’ starving artists

  1. Denise says:

    Can’t good marketing help an intrinsically motivitated artist find an audience for their work, no matter how small and obscure that audience may be? It just means the marketing has to be better at finding those people doesn’t it?

    I have a bit of a problem with the term ‘starving artist’, at least in its application in the wealthy western world. Surely they can just get another grant rather than starve. It kinda insults all the people in the world who are actually starving. Sorry. That’s a little bitter sounding isn’t it. I guess you can see I’m one of those people (maybe not an artist at all, I’m not sure) who manages to support myself with my craft (art?) by working my guts out and searching for (and finding) fulfillment in giving my audience pleasure while producing work that gives me pleasure as well.

    • That is exactly what good marketing does. Don’t forget that I said the two things can align. Of course they can! My point is that they are not the same thing and in some cases they can be in actual competition with each other, for time, for energy, for motivation. Doesn’t that seem possible? That if we can’t sell teapots we now have a disincentive to make teapots? Any teapot we make will just sit forlorn on our shelves, passed over every sale by every customer. But we sell mugs very well so we now have added incentive to keep the supply of mugs steady. There is simply a difference between being ruled by our own motivations and ruled by outside demands.

      And what if we wanted to change it up and give the audience something completely new, something untried and untested? Something that might fail. How many eggs do we put in that basket? What is it safe to do? If we wanted to experiment and do nothing like what we’ve been doing all along isn’t that a risk too far? Isn’t that why we are so convinced by the mythology of developing a signature style and having A specific ‘voice’? Isn’t that entirely a marketing necessity and not a creative need?

      In only the happiest scenario the artist and the audience overlap to an extent that the artist can focus on their own work without worrying. In the potter’s Utopia every pot has a home and every pot finds an owner who appreciates it. Too bad we live in the real world 🙂

      If you are one of the lucky people who makes things that that people can understand, and that understanding they like, well then the conflict is minimal. Yay! The most important pressure on you is to keep making what you are interested in. The market loves what you do. And there is nothing wrong with that, as I’ve said countless times before. If, however, you make something that is poorly understood, and without adequate understanding is also poorly liked, well then you face an uphill battle. Then there IS pressure on you different from the internal pressures you are thriving with.

      When you are not understood the world can throw it back in your face. Does that make sense? The pressure to be understood is not the same as the pressure to say what you’ve got to say. You can be good at describing your truths and still nobody understands you. You can be misunderstood. That is the question for every artist struggling to make a living. Sometimes its not enough to speak your truths, you have to speak what they can understand. And at other times its more important to speak the truth despite knowing that no one will understand you. Are your truths challenging? Well, that might be a problem……

      Not sure where your bitterness comes from. Not sure I even know many artists who have received grants. Who I do know are people like you who are hard working and self sufficient. I also know people who can’t make it just on the income from selling their work. Most artists I know have income from a spouse to support them, have outside jobs, or are content to live well below the poverty line. ‘Starving’ may not apply in most cases, but struggling more than fits. Working at a fast food burger joint would be more profitable. Subsisting on ramen noodles, and rice and beans is sometimes the best that they can do.

      And often this is a choice we have to make. Choosing to make our art at whatever cost simply means that sometimes we will struggle. Sometimes we may even go hungry…… No one ever became an artist just to make money. Or if they did, should we respect them for it?

  2. Stephen White says:

    Hi Carter, Not meaning to be negative. I do hear artist talk about how they can be a full time artist because the significant other pays the bills. I am a proud liberal that’s pretty left of the center in even liberal circles but I must say it makes zero sense to me. I have been going broke trying to figure out how to make a living as a full time artist out and I don’t do anything other than fall back and regroup. It seems so basic to the entire idea of being a full time artist and it seems that famous artist from most periods of history had to balance the need to earn a living. It goes with the territory.

    Plenty of folks may be being good sports about it but I bet most, if not almost all non artist partners picking up the slack expect and want the person they are helping to be doing their absolute best to balance both the need to earn a living AND be true to their artistic pursuits. Obviously it’s not always possible but it sure seems like it should be the goal and any artist working as a full time artist IMHO should be trying their hardest to make a living if they are letting someone else pick up the difference whenever they can’t.

    It is just common decency and unless that person is truly wealthy they are being forced to make sacrifices for another persons dream and that’s not right.

    • Absolutely! Absolutely!

      Isn’t it such a demanding and pressure filled situation? Finding that balance simply means that one or more of the things we value get sacrificed. That was the point I was making. There are internal pressures and there are external pressures. Being fair to one’s partner and holding up your own end of the family’s finances is a HUGE pressure. For every decent person it makes absolute sense to choose that rather than one’s own art. In fact, if the finances are in dire enough straits it may make even more sense to quit fiddling around with art and get a real job. Stop fantasizing about making a living as an artist and put some real money on the table.

      Many couples make all sorts of sacrifices because being together matters more than the other things they are doing with their lives. Getting a job you don’t like may just be necessary for paying the bills and raising kids. There are all sorts of external pressures that make it IMPOSSIBLE to do art seriously. Supporting a spouse who goes to school for a few years makes the financial burden unequal, but some couples manage to do that because the other spouse makes enough to cover expenses, at least in the short term. And you can’t often do that with income from making art. But any time finances are tight it puts pressure on what we are able to do and at the same time maintain a style of living. I know some artists who are stay at home parents during the day but do their art in the wee hours at night when everyone else has gone to bed. That seems incredibly difficult, but making their art matters enough to them, and their family supports them enough in this that they can make it ‘work’.

      The point of my essay is simply that for many of us there are irreconcilable differences between those internal and external pressures, and that in many circumstances no easy solution can be found. Sometimes it makes sense to sacrifice art for the sake of one’s partner or finances or any number of concerns. At other times it makes sense to stick to making art and find a way to fit it in around other valuable things. Sometimes the art can survive the way we would like it to be and other times we are still forced into making changes. It is rare that art survives untouched amidst competing pressures. But how many artists fall by the wayside and no longer make any art at all? They had to choose against art because the pressures against it were too much. How many former artists do you know, folks with ‘real’ jobs and ‘normal’ lives?

      The point of my essay was that being an artist often means having a ‘job’ that is unlike most jobs and leading a life that may not be typically normal. We can’t just assume that making art fits in the world the same way that other jobs do and that the same solutions may be applied to its difficulties. For ANY activity that is a calling rather than a job the rules are different, and the challenges faced are not always even of the same kind never mind same magnitude as others face. Untangling art from other ways we make our livings simply means we can’t think the solutions are self evident. Better marketing “solves’ it sometimes at the cost of the art itself. Our lives simply have to navigate those choices, and all I’m suggesting is that it is almost never easy to do. In difficult situations we inevitably sacrifice things we might otherwise value. Our values simply don’t all point in the same direction. And neither can our actions……

      To choose one thing we often have to lay something else aside. Not everything we value fits within our grasp. Be brave and make your choices honestly. There may be no perfect solution. What do we choose when the chips are down? Fold our cards or pay to stay in the game? What you give up to keep playing may not be something you want to sacrifice, but you are either in or you are out. The cost of playing is never what you find easiest to give up…. That is the unfortunate dilemma. To live a human life requires we don’t often get to have our cake and eat it too. We value too many incompatible things to make it all work out. We feel this conflict but we mostly don’t see all the sacrifices that are necessary.

      Thanks for chiming in! Did that make any sense? These are issues we need to think about, and every time I hear the casual call to “better marketing” I just have to point out that this is only one solution and it (possibly at least) comes with a cost. Beware simple answers!

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