The Starving Artist is a Myth: on Survival and What Comes After

The archetype of the 'starving artist' must die. It's a myth; and while myths can be true, their power comes from our belief in them. So, I'm not saying there aren't and won't be plenty of starving artists for a while to come, but the idea that an artist must suffer for their art is complete fallacy and should not be propagated anymore, especially by the artists themselves.

Artists are vessels for the experiences they encounter. They filter these and transmute them into their art. Of course suffering goes into the art. But it need not be created for the sake of it. If anything, it's potentially inauthentic and definitely unnecessary. We all suffer anyway, but art need not be borne out of only suffering for it to be real and true. It just needs to be the artist's honesty, and nothing more.

Many artists I've spoken to have told me that they create best when they are in a stable, comfortable environment with some semblance of a routine. I was relieved when I heard this, because I have this habit of forcing myself to be extremely adaptable to a fault. I put myself in experiences just to see if I can survive it and make it work. But usually what I sacrifice is my productivity.

Right now, I'm seeking a place to live. I'd been homeless since April. For the last 6 months I wasn't on the street by any means. I did sleep in my car a few times. I mainly couch-surfed and house-sat for friends and rented a studio so I'd have a steady place to work, if not a steady place to sleep. I knew my priorities and I knew my limits, even if I was pushing them. Now, when I tell people my budget for a room, they balk and inform me how incredibly low it is. It's not that they're wrong, it's just that I don't need to hear it over and over again. I know how difficult my path is without being reminded and discouraged from it.

So, I'm going to share an extremely personal experience here because it's essential to my story of being a full-time artist and holding on to the belief that I should be able to thrive doing my art full-time without having to sacrifice even half my time to the tedium of a day-job that does not align with my priorities.

Three years ago - almost exactly - I hit bottom. I was working the last full-time day-job I've ever worked. It was an 'artistic' job in that I was doing sign-making, though it had begun to degenerate into being given a lot of work that wasn't artistic at all. Outwardly, it wasn't a desperate situation. But what was going on in my mind was.

Rewind a little bit more.. I didn't talk about it a lot, but I was incredibly unhappy in college with my life's path. I was doing a thing I liked, but I wasn't doing what I loved and I wasn't sure what that would even look like if I were. In 2006, when I stepped off my path and spontaneously moved to the bay area, I opened up my life in a big way. In retrospect, it's inevitable that I pretty quickly slid into creating art. It's what was meant to happen (in the existentialist sense of creating your own meaning). Since then, creating art became like breathing. Not only does it feel good to do, but if I stop doing it, I die. I didn't really know that was true until that time three years ago. My bandwidth for allowing a day-job to suck the life out of me shrank down to zero. I'd been squeezing art into the corners of my life for so long I'd begun to lose the energy for it, and stopped making art of my own almost completely. I started crying spontaneously at work. I cried the moment I got home until I fell asleep, only to drag myself out of bed the next day, numb, and ride my bike to work, praying I'd get hit by a car so I didn't have to make it into work that day. This went on for months, and slowly I formulated in my mind that if art = life and I couldn't do art, then life had no meaning. I felt trapped in my situation, in a society that didn't encourage my requirements for existence. I figured there was no way out, and I couldn't do the thing that gave my life meaning, so perhaps life wasn't worth living.

The moment I considered not existing anymore, something in my brain clicked. Whether it was the survival-focused reptilian brain, or perhaps something older and wiser, it dragged me up out of the house and forced me to go get help. But the thing that really shifted in me was the realization that if I had nothing to lose - if the decision was truly one between life as an artist or death - then there was nothing to fear anymore. I could stop letting the fear of how I would survive as an artist hold me back, because I could make anything work as long as I was still alive. The alternative had much fewer options.

Without fear, without anything to lose, I began my life as a full-time artist. I knew there had to be a way - something that involved talent, a lot of hard work and determination, and a whole lot of networking - and I would find it. Slowly, I am beginning to take a foothold in the life I've been dreaming of this whole time. I still take small day jobs here and there but I'm careful not to give too much of my time to the meaningless loop.

By the meaningless loop, I refer to the loop in which you work a job you don't care about (or even hate) to make money. This money buys you food and shelter which allows you to survive. But that time surviving is mostly spend at the job, creating a life structure that has no outward meaning or connection. Take note: no one's life is meaningless, even if this is the form it takes. The loop itself is meaningless, the life is never meaningless. But the life can be wasted on the loop.

So now, I find myself looking to survive without creating a meaningless loop, and it's difficult. I'm told it's near impossible to find a place that cheap. But I know it is possible, so I go forward anyway, just like I didn't let myself be discouraged by those that told me (usually in indirect ways, though pretty clearly nonetheless) that life as an artist precludes being financially comfortable. As I grow my business, I find I can afford more than I expect. It's still not easy, but I'm doing better now than I dreamed of when I first started, which means in a short while I could be doing better than I can even dream of now.

I create art because I need to, and as long as I can continue to create art, then my picture of success is fulfilled. But this picture can also include abundance and a comfortable place to live. The dream of being an artist with a comfortable income, wonderful opportunities, and not only eking out an existence is not an unrealistic one for those with the dedication and passion to see it through. So let's stop sabotaging it with this unrealistic romanticization that an artist must starve and suffer for their work. And stop telling me I cannot afford this life as a full-time artist; because I can.