It’s a fact about all of us on this great big blue marble, we gotta eat. Not only that, we need a roof over our heads and the resources to get through this life in one piece. Like it or not, the only way to provide these things for yourself and the people you love is to earn money. While it is lovely to imagine a utopian society where we work together to ensure that all are provided for, we need only look to the utopian societies described in literature of the early days of the American Experiment to see that this model has a way of slipping sideways fast no matter how well intentioned. For pretty much everybody, earning is linked to career and that is that. There is no stigma attached to receiving a paycheck in pretty much every field. Art though, is a bit different. Not only has the myth of the romance of the starving artist permeated our culture, there is also a strong and entirely understandable aversion to the idea of “selling out.” This fear can be so strong that it actually inhibits an artist’s ability to develop a successful career and begin to thrive financially. It is critical that we examine these myths and fears in order to unpack some of the details and begin to see that money making and art do not need to be mutually exclusive.
As we go about our days, do we ever really question that the people providing goods and services to us are being paid for their work? Ask yourself how many times you’ve quietly admonished a bank teller for collecting a paycheck every couple of weeks, or when you’ve rolled your eyes at the thought of your child’s teacher earning income from his or her important work. It just doesn’t happen. Sure, you may find it hard to understand their particular lines of work, but it’s unlikely that you actually hold the fact that they get paid against them. So why on earth should this be any different for artists? Part of the reason may lie in the myth of the starving artist.
In 19th century Paris, author Henri Murger published a booked called Scenes de la Vie de Boheme depicting the allegedly romantic existence of impoverished artists in the Parisian art scene. This was the beginning of the Boheme trope which glorified the concept that artists should live a meagre existence despite the reality behind the mythology. In fact, many artists succumbed to disease and malnutrition, living out short and desperate lives without achieving any sort of notoriety for their work until after their untimely deaths. These are the unfortunate trappings of poverty, even to this day. Being an artist in no way insulates one from this reality. Perhaps to some there is merit to this sort of short and unpleasant life, but if we remove the myth from the actual reality we can easily see that there isn’t much that’s enviable about the often tragic lives of these artists.
Throughout many courses and blog posts we have offered, and will continue to offer, ways to turn your passion and calling as an artist into a career that can eventually sustain a comfortable existence or supplement your existing income. Of course, throughout we have also made sure to emphasize that your art should come first and business later. To delve a bit deeper into this point, it is critical that you allow your artwork to inform your business model and audience and not the other way around. Producing art intended to reach a market you may deem potentially lucrative or creating something that sits far outside your personal aesthetic or ethos because it fits in with a particular business model is a very real way in which artists can sell out, so to speak. If you are true to who you are and always have been as an artist, if you present your work honestly to the right market, you will find that sales will come.
There is absolutely nothing wrong with expecting to earn a living as an artist. A career in art may take considerable time and patience to build and you may find the need to supplement your income at times with other work, but if you are persistent and savvy and stick to who you are as an artist, allowing that to dictate the shape of your business, you will find a following. Read the case histories of two real life artists who, through honest work and solid dedication, turned their art into thriving business models. Listen to them tell their stories in their own words and hear how they have been able to provide a roof over their heads and put food on the table while still maintaining the integrity of what they do. There is no reason that making money cannot go hand in hand with being an artist. As in any field, it merely takes good business sense and a solid understanding of who you are to build a strong and respectable brand.