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Saturday, December 12, 2015
Decisions of the Starving Artist
I've written before about the illusions people have about starving artists. The fantasies people make in their minds when they hear the term are usually pretty false. They never consider the decisions that have to be made on a daily basis. They consider an artist to have a lifestyle, rather than art being their life. Its something they can drop at any time and go back to a better way of life. And they never ever consider the depression that goes along with struggling each day and fearing that you may lose the one thing in your life that gives it meaning. Your art.
Because an artist is poor, does this mean they are bad artists? Does it mean that any artist who is poor and struggling also creates inferior work?
No, in fact I think the opposite might be true. An artist that must struggle to survive each day hones their skills and has the ability to create a masterpiece that a well sated artist who has all the tools and training lacks. No offense to the well off artists but like all things in life struggle creates strength. Strength creates art.
The daily decisions of life are quite different from someone who is well off. A poor artist may consider whether they should go to work the next day on two hours of sleep because they only time they could create was in the middle of the night. They are faced with putting off finishing a piece of art because they need toilet paper and bus fare. They are forced to scrounge in the neighbors trash because there may be something useful in it that they can turn into art. They are out of necessity required to buy the $1.99 bargain paint at Walmart rather than a finer quality paint at the local art store, that is if they can even afford that $1.99 in the first place.
Every piece they sell (if they sell any) is a major triumph in their lives. Somebody actually likes what they create. Then the depression sets in because they know it may be months before such a miracle occurs again. They look around at the shabby apartment they live in and realize that no one anywhere is going to want to enter such a sad little space to see their work. No dealer or gallery owner will ever take notice of them because they are too inconsequential to ever be seen. Its a mind trip we play on ourselves. We are defeated unless we are in the act of creation. Only then do we feel like our true selves.
Then we move the art aside that has taken over one of our two rooms so we can sleep on the couch and we realize with a gut wrenching feel that one of the pieces has been damaged because we totally lack the ability to store and care for what we do finish.
When we leave for work in the morning, knowing we won't be back until late evening we stare longingly at our paint splattered sad little easel, wishing desperately that we could just stay and paint the day away. No, being an artist doesn't mean lazy. We work our two jobs and stagger back home, hungry and worn, thinking how good sleep might be. But that easel calls us back. By the inadequate light of a bulb too dim to paint by, we take up our brushes once again.
It sounds sad and a little exaggerated, but honestly its not. There are variations of this life everywhere. It is not a "lifestyle". The bohemian in us does not require austerity. I think most of us would be much happier to be comfortable and creating full time. We do what we do because we must.
Our easel represents the cross we bear. My best easel was actually my mothers. It was one of the few pieces of her belongings that I brought with me back to New Orleans from Detroit when she passed away. I cherish it not only because it represents her, but because it represents the struggle.
Every artist has something that represents their own struggle to create. If its not an easel then its a favorite brush that becomes more and more ragged and loses its bristles each time its used. Or it may be a quality canvas that the artist has painted over multiple times because they can't afford another.
These are the things that we face daily. Not occasionally, not once a year. Daily. And its a battle that we gladly face because to not create would shatter us in a totally different way.
Many creatives suffer from depression and worse. Think what it would be like to be faced with always being afraid that the one thing you cherish most might be pulled away from you the next day? That's hard enough to face without battling mental illness on top of it.
Don't get me wrong. I am not writing these things to make you feel sorry for every poor artist you cross paths with. I am writing them to shatter the belief that we are some artistic scum who could have a better life if we just applied ourselves and gave up finger painting.
If you know someone who is an artist, encourage them please. Encouragement is what we lack the most. Its not about selling as much as it is about acknowledgement of our work and that people like what we do. It could mean the difference between life and death of that artist, both in the metaphysical sense and in the physical.