A starving artist is an artist who sacrifices material well-being in order to focus on their artwork. They typically live on minimum expenses, either from a lack of business or because all of their disposable income goes toward art projects, (Chohan). Most would prefer mainstream success yet are halted by the high barriers of entry in their respective fields. It is a different brand of poverty that is plagued with an emotional detachment from society’s pressure towards material success, this disconnection deriving from their artistic passion. Passion cannot sustain a lifestyle; however, that does not mean passion should be written off and placed after that which can sustain a lifestyle. When it comes to evaluating what matters to us the most, where do we draw the line? Is it possible that money is more critical than artistic fulfillment?
There are many different versions of what qualifies as a starving artist. When mentioning a starving artist, most will imagine a college student making music in his or her dorm room, regularly attending class yet consistently putting their craft before their school work. It is a counterproductive, yet infectious practice. As a rule, I may only relax with art, never indulge before school work. The best thing about my own school work is that it will contribute to my craft upon graduation since I am majoring in my area of artistic focus, yet I am not a regular student. I am a student double majoring in philosophy and writing, one foot in the art and one foot in the money. I paint pictures, I write songs, novels, poems, and even movies, all while studying philosophy in the hopes of law school acceptance. Out of curiosity, I interviewed Chris Seib, and he explained his major choice to me a bit more in depth: “I chose nursing because I wanted to do something where I can find a medium. I can be successful, have job security, and have a purpose. Nursing is the best way to do that... it’s all about the little things.” Chris, however, is a fellow artist but with a much more scientific major than my own. Due to our somewhat similar circumstances, I wanted to understand his practices and how he navigates school and art. “I think that music is (my art). Playing, recording, listening, all of that. It’s a type of work that makes you feel a certain way. I can’t put it into words...but it’s my art...and I definitely love it.”
There is an economic value, such as monetary terms; then there is cultural value, reflecting cultural, aesthetic, and artistic significance. The economic component surrounding an individual artist (without representation) is not a lucrative one, in most cases. In the broad array of artists and related workers, the mean annual salary for their field is $53,820 (United States Bureau of Labor Statistics), and according to my 9th grade football coach, it’s hard to raise a family on $50,000 a year. Try it. You’ll struggle to budget every day. While I’m not sure if he was just saying that to increase my ambitious drive, I certainly did not forget it. Cultural value is the driving force that mentally and emotionally drives a society, easily making it more imperative than economic value. However, when cultural values are created, economic values are bolstered with the sales of these cultural elements. “Naturally, economists would, at least in part, always emphasize that monetary incentives are in play. High returns to the top-level achievers in certain fields- technology or art- will often stimulate study and attempts to master those areas so that relative returns may be important in explaining some productivity. Acting, music, writing poetry, and art attract many, but the level of high rewards is often reached by only a small percentage of entrants,” (Ekelund et al 57). Once the sales have been produced, the importance of cultural values vs. economic values becomes much more unclear. For example, Mickey Mouse is known as a paradigm in our culture, a comical mouse character, with personality traits that have somewhat resembled the average modern American man in every generation since 1928. This simple cartoon character has created a business worth over 178 billion dollars, employing hundreds of thousands of people across multiple platforms (Macroaxis, Statista). Those dollars feed and support the families of those employed, while the sole idea of Mickey Mouse could never do such a thing. Abstract concepts are just that: abstract. They will not house, support, feed, or love; they may only stimulate. We know that stimulation may only take us so far, but as a society we must value that stimulation with something that is more imperative to civilization than monetary value and economic might.
While Chris seemed sure enough in his decisions to defend it, I had to begin to truly challenge him if I wanted to reach a conclusive position for both of us. While there is no real fault in the ways of an artistic college student, cognitive dissonance still lingers within us and he had involuntarily made his visible to me. “Cognitive dissonance is anxiety that results from simultaneously holding contradictory or otherwise incompatible attitudes, beliefs, or the like, as when one likes a person but disapproves strongly of one of his or her habits,” (Dictionary). The elephant in the room was his own personal disparity; his passion vs. his rationality. Chris knew he loved music more than nursing, but nursing offered him something that music could not— economic security. While he was surely a functional creative, the aforementioned economic responsibility of the general ‘successful’ person seemed to have been the deciding factor in his choice of major. What he was pursuing in college did not reflect what he was pursuing in passion. So I asked him why hasn’t he decided to pursue music full-time, considering it as the muse that he had claimed. Chris responded “Job security, dedication, lots of work.” It seemed as if he was underestimating the difficulty of nursing, so I asked him “Is nursing easier? Does it not require dedication and a lot of work?”
When that question reached him, he seemed to be a bit taken aback. It appeared as something he’s thought about, yet refrained from ever truly confronting himself with the possibility. I’ve asked myself the same. My answer being that it is a different type of “work.” After a moment, Chris answered “I need to have all of my eggs in the same basket. There’s a huge risk-reward dilemma revolved around the music industry and I don’t know if I want to risk it without getting what I’ve worked for. At the end of the day, I just ask myself ‘Am I good enough?”
After that rebuttal, I gave him a moment to evaluate and gather his thoughts. I wrote a bit slower in my notebook, as he looked up to the ceiling and out the window as if the solution to this common and shared predicament would be out there, waiting for him. Maybe he’s not good enough. Maybe I’m not good enough either. We both took a moment to reflect in this intimidating imbroglio that sat in the middle of our paths, splitting the road in two, compelling us to make a decision one way or the other. The work in art requires more than work on the art; it is transcendence beyond your own psyche, a sort of spiritual realization that allows you to become immortal through the things you create. According to Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs, it is the top of the pyramid, known as “self-actualization.” “Self- Actualization is realizing personal potential, self-fulfillment, seeking personal growth and peak experiences. A desire ‘to become everything one is capable of becoming” (Maslow 1987).
Once he returned his eyes to me, I looked up from my notebook and asked him if he could see himself pursuing a career in music. He told me “Yes. Absolutely. I DJ weddings and graduation parties. It’s a side job but I count it as a vital part of my career. I had a choice and it was either I could invest in a degree or I could invest in music. I guess if I try hard enough that I could break through into music, but that’s just not where my eggs are right now.” I had now become the one that was taken aback. Chris had become confident in his decisions and was now ready to defend them to me.
A new burning question had sprung in my head; I asked him if he had ever thought of pursuing a degree in music. He explained “Yes, I thought about it but then I thought about what college is for. Yeah I could pursue the degree, but it wouldn’t be worth it. My sister went to Western (Michigan University) on a full-ride music scholarship. She failed, lost her scholarship, and changed her major. I don’t know if I’m ready to fail.” When he said that, it hit me quite close to home. He exposed the context in which the most foundational decision of his life has been built. He did not find fear himself, his fear was installed in him by his own sister’s failures. There is no pain like failing in what you love, we both knew that. Personally, I don’t think my ego could take such a blow either.
The definition of a starving artist is as vague as the phrase it defines, so next, I asked him what a starving artist is, to which he returned “It is an artist that can’t make money or someone with no ideas in their art. They just can’t create the right stuff. It all comes down to money...and it’s unfortunate.” I asked him if he would consider himself as one and he said “Right now? Yeah, it’s just not where my eggs are. I get gigs every now and then but I could be a lot better. I could do a lot more.” I knew he wasn’t starving artist...at least I knew he wasn’t starving. He simply did not fit the description. He does not live on minimum expenses, sacrifice himself, or even spend the majority of his money on art. He is a college student, intelligent, intellectual, and thoughtful.
Lastly, I asked if he plans on pursuing music after college. He concluded “Yeah, probably after I get my nursing degree. I took out loans so I have to finish what I started now. Hopefully when I become settled in my career, I’ll have more time for music. But that does not mean I’m going to stop or slow down. I want to do it now. I just need to be patient.”
However, according to Maslow, Chris may be past that of self-actualization and may have reached transcendence through his scientific pursuits. “Cognitive needs (are known as) knowledge and understanding, curiosity, exploration, need for meaning and predictability. Aesthetic needs (are known as) appreciation and search for beauty, balance, form, etc. Self- actualization needs (are known as) realizing personal potential, self-fulfillment, seeking personal growth and peak experiences. Transcendence needs (are when) a person is motivated by values which transcend beyond the personal self (e.g., mystical experiences and certain experiences with nature, aesthetic experiences, sexual experiences, service to others, the pursuit of science, religious faith, etc.).” (Maslow 1943). While his aesthetic needs are fulfilled with music, he is potentially seeking transcendence with the science of nursing. Chris is a very talented producer and dedicated student, and coming from another artist that likes to indulge in the same craft, I hope he takes to it more and reaches his desired level of success.
While there are certainly artists that “starve” at a chance of becoming more than a Starbucks barista that can paint, there are also older, more experienced artists that have settled down in a career and built a family on that occupation. I refer to these wise yet somber minds as “settled artists.” Their creative abilities are suppressed and they must live vicariously through their children or through entertainment to satiate their regretful appetite of what could have been. That entertainment that they consume every day is not always the same as art; art is not always entertaining and entertainment is not always artistic. While entertainment's job is to pass away
the hours; art should make profound, eloquent and affecting statements about the human condition. This separation in craft may very well be what creates a starving or settled artist after all. When an artist submits to creating work that is merely entertaining rather than fully passionate and artistic, they run the risk of ‘selling out’ and many settled artists would never do such a thing. A sellout is a person who compromises his or her personal values, integrity, talent, or the like, for money or personal advancement. Sellouts are successful in exploiting their own abilities for money, before an external source may do the same. “Often in the past, unscrupulous dealers have been able to take advantage of artists who were less interested in the business side of selling art than in creating beautiful work. Unfortunately, so many artists will do anything to exhibit that some would- be art dealers can’t ignore the temptation to cheat us.” (Hadden 5-6)
It’s hard for art and money to exist in the same world. There are starving creators, shameless sellouts, and young souls more afraid of failure than living a life surrounded by creative barriers of entry. The importance between our culture and our money is well too jaded for comfort. We are all artists and I wish validation did not come from economic status.
In the weeks following my interview with Chris, I’ve had time to reflect on what I asked, what he said, and what we thought. I ran the comparison of him to the definition of a sellout and attempted to confirm him in the category. What stopped me from securing him in that field is my previous comparison of him to me. I, however, don’t think of myself as such.
I’ve come to notice that while my friend is a nursing major that loves music, I am simply a philosophy and writing major that loves writing. I am a writer that is pursuing law to secure financial stability if I may fail in my art. I would be biased if I did not consider Chris as a musician that pursues medicine for the same reason. The only difference there is between us is that I am a double major, with my art being one of those majors, while Chris’s sister learned a lesson to not pursue a degree in music already. He had a deterrent when deciding on majors, I did not. I could be in the same shoes as his sister previously was; I could be making a mistake.
I then imagined both of us as sellouts, both of us being too afraid to fail that neither of us has dove into our art without fear. In doing so, I found that I needed to review my entire interview with Chris. I needed to reflect on what he said and why. In conclusion, I realized what is stopping us from diving into our art but also from being those aforementioned plastic sellouts. It was simply... intelligence!
Our intelligence is what stopped us from pursuing our art exclusively and from quitting on our art altogether. We knew what we wanted to do when we graduated high school, however, we were presented a choice, and I believe (in our circumstances) that we have both made the best decisions for ourselves.
I did attempt the lifestyle of the professional artist one summer of my junior year in high school. I was not in school, did not have a job, or any true responsibilities. I spent my time painting, writing, making memories, and making music about those memories. I started a business called Panoptic that dealt with all domestic chores that someone may need done around the house. I made friends that I never thought I would like, much less connect with. Granted, that entire summer I made maybe a total of $240. My life was complete. I did everything I felt I needed to, when something called out to me I passionately followed it.
I was virtuous and lived my truest life at the time. I completed hundreds of pages of writing, bountiful paintings, and 3 albums worth of songs that I wrote and produced in detail. I’ve never been as happy as I was in those three months, and when September came, I went right back to school to study 6 subjects that I would never care about. I knew I must not have been the only one, ‘tis the life of every artistic student forced to go to high school and pressured to go to college. While my body is in this dorm room, my mind, opinion, pursuit, and desire will reside in my work as an artist. As one that has something to share with the world and if not the world, myself.
Fortunately, I was intelligent enough to see that was not a viable option to live the rest of my life proudly. It just wasn’t what my father raised me to be: lazy. My eggs were laid on the ground and I was too happy to pick them up and put them somewhere. When school came back around, so did my logical grasp on reality. That period changed me, certainly enhancing my art forever, but it was not at the cost of my intelligence.
By definition, I am not a starving artist and neither is Chris. I believe we are something different. We are the most realistic type of artists that exist in our world, and because of that, we will never sellout. If we make it big and have the opportunity to become professional artists, great! If we live the rest of our lives as an eloquent lawyer or as a rhythmic nurse, then that’s great too! We will always have the chance to make time to do what we love, regardless of where our eggs are. I believe that when the monetary/economic value of the art is obsolete and unnecessary, it makes the love for the art much more intimate.