Being a Starving Artist Is Highly Overrated


Sometime back, Martha Zlatar, art business consultant and founder of ArtMatch, offered 10 sure-fire tips for those interested in pursuing the romantic lifestyle of the starving artist.

They are:

  1. Don’t set goals.
  2. Never ever think about money.
  3. Keep your artwork to yourself — don’t show it, don’t talk about it.
  4. Don’t tell anybody you’re an artist.
  5. Spend all of your time in your studio. Don’t bother marketing — let your art stack up.
  6. If people are bugging you to buy your artwork say it’s not for sale — it’s not priced — that will deter them.
  7. Go at it alone — don’t get any help.
  8. Stay away from artists earning money.
  9. Expect instant success.
  10. Wait to be discovered.

Not Much of a Goal

It’s not much of a goal to be a starving artist when you think about. Anybody can do it. So if that’s the extent of your ambition, go for it.

As I wrote in my post, “12 Excuses for Shooting Photos for Free — and Why They’re Bogus,” I don’t believe in romanticizing the lifestyle of the starving artist. It may seem nice when you’re sipping a chai tea latte with your beret in the local java house listening to slam poetry, but other than that, it’s mostly a good way to remain starving.

There is no honor in starving yourself, unless you’re Gandhi. There is no other profession where the term “starving” has a pleasant connotation. Try “starving accountant,” “starving mechanic,” or even “starving teacher.”

If you hear a teacher doesn’t have enough to eat, you don’t react with a wry smile; you bemoan a society that doesn’t adequately value those who are educating our children.

Top Ramen Forever?

When I started out, I didn’t have much money. I ate so much Top Ramen, I began figuring out ways to make it taste better — my own recipes. I had cupboards full of it, when I could buy it at 10 for $1.

I didn’t live off ramen noodles because it was whimsical, charming or adventurous; I did it because I had no choice.

I didn’t live off ramen because I had decided to try to live off $50 assignments, either. I knew that to make a decent living, I needed to land assignments for $125 an hour with a four-hour minimum.

At first, I could only find a few clients at these rates — hence the ramen. But at least I was properly valuing my work.

And when I did the math, it made a lot more sense to do three assignments for a total of $1,500 in a given month, rather than three for $150 (or 30 for $1,500) — even if I had to spend more time marketing myself to land the higher paying jobs.

Settling for low-paying and no-paying gigs doesn’t make you more of an artist — it just makes you hungry.

A Life of Self-Expression

There’s a book, The Starving Artist’s Way, that promotes the starving artist lifestyle as something to aspire to. The author is described as “a child of Starving Artists [who] grew up in the SoHo section of Manhattan when it was still an epicenter of bohemian life.”

Today, of course, living in SoHo costs an arm and a leg. There may still be artists there — but they certainly aren’t starving.

As for the “bohemian” lifestyle, I would argue that you don’t have to be starving to live it. Wikipedia defines it as a lifestyle “where self-expression is the highest value [and] art is a serious and main focus of … life. ”

So, here’s my question to you: Would you rather have a career focused on self-expression for a few months or years – or a few decades?

Sustaining Yourself — and Your Art

As a starving artist, you’re always in a precarious position, financially and otherwise. You do yourself (and maybe even the world) a disservice if you end up, say, getting evicted and having to find a job — any job — to get by.

Most people who start out with the “goal” of being a starving artist end up in a cubicle farm somewhere bitching about their fate.

Those who endure know that they must build a career that sustains them physically and financially as well as artistically.

Ansel Adams is a great example of an artist who funded his most famous works by building a strong business — charging as much as the market would bear for his commercial work.

As a result, his career endured, and his art lives on today.

That sounds a lot better than a life of Top Ramen.


4 Responses to “Being a Starving Artist Is Highly Overrated”

  1. Indeed! Starving artist not only doesn't sound very appealing but rings with distaste of the corner velvet paintings, in other words, doing something so uninspiring just to put Ramen noodles on the table. Good thoughts!

  2. Exactly, all about the business - currently starving but focusing strongly on generating solid income and pricing accordingly. Good to know that I am on the right track.

  3. Photography in a sense is serving others before ourselves... Think about it, we make other people profit. It's just not valued anymore!

  4. The starving artist may be the romantic outlook from books and movies, but it would be much more romantic to be able to afford rent and food; and being able to continue creating your art. Keep your artist beret on but also keep your business hat on underneath it.

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