The myth of the starving artist–and what it can teach us about job security

"The Light Within Us We Do Not Use," 20 x 30 in drawing, by Jenie Gao

“What do you do?”

This is the number one small talk question we ask people, on par with discussing the weather. It’s a question we either don’t care about at all, because most people hate their jobs, or use to size up other people.

Are we on the same tier? Are you also in a dead end job? Can we commiserate? Are you a baller and crushing your career? Can I puff up my chest and impress you? Can I outweigh you? Can I leverage you? Are we in totally different ponds? All right, have a nice life, then.

“I’m an artist,” I tell people.

This generates a whole range of reactions.

“Oh.” Awkward pause. “Like, for a living?”

“Yep.” Full stop. No explanation. Sometimes, I’ll add, “I’m still figuring it out. I quit my corporate job a year ago.”

“It must be nice, getting to live your dream.” This is a good indication that the conversation won’t continue in a meaningful way.

Things can definitely go better than that, and can even go extraordinarily well.

But (yes, there’s a but) here’s the dish. I almost never leave the conversation without looking like a unicorn.

Amiable conversation, but not terribly productive

Asker: “So, how has that been working out?”

Me: “Well, it’s a work-in-progress. I’m still figuring it out, but it’s really no different than any other business or job.”

Less amiable, worth getting out of as quickly as possible

Asker: “So, is that all you do? Can you really make money?”

Me: “Well, I’m a consultant, too.”

Asker: “Ah, gotcha.” People usually don’t care what kind of consultant. But now I’m not a unicorn and can move on with my life.

Amiable, though misguided, but has potential

Asker: “So what were you doing before?”

Me: “I was working in lean manufacturing. I led projects improving efficiency and reducing waste in business operations.”

Asker: “Wow, that’s really different. It’s pretty rare/weird for someone to be creative and logical, right? To be both left and right brained? I mean, it’s cool if you can be both.”

Me (being cheeky): “Well, not really. I was born with two halves of my brain for a reason. Why would I have both if I were only supposed to use one side?”

Asker: “I guess that’s a good point.” It’s obvious that the person isn’t convinced, and here’s where it’d be really easy to let the idealist in me wither and die.

Luckily, I’m not so easy. ;)

And for every well-meaning person who doesn’t know how to react to an artist, this is the burning question that I have to ask.

How is it more logical for me to tell you…

“I make my living telling other people what to do.”

…than to tell you, “I make stuff. And then I sell it.”

Why is that so weird? How is that illogical?

More importantly, how is that not the most straightforward thing I could say in response to, “What do you do?”

How is it any different than any other job you would choose to do or pursue? Chances are, your job has something to do with making stuff or selling it or both. The only difference is layers.

I make my own stuff. I sell my own stuff.

That’s not to say what I do is easy. It’s not. It’s hard. It’s uncertain, and not even just when I’m busy. When you work for a company, you still make a bi-weekly paycheck on the slow days, whether or not you’re productive. On the days when I don’t make a sale or have a client, I’m worth $0 to society. I haven’t made it yet. I will, but I also have to be willing to show up everyday and work without a guarantee. That’s not any different than working for a company that could lay you off or fire you, but back to the layers. I have none, so reality is right in front of me.

That’s worth saying again. Reality is right in front of me. Mind you, I make up imaginary beings for a living. Even so, reality is right in front of every artist. Every maker.

It takes a lot of responsibility, to own up to and believe in your actions, to the marks you make and will on people.

So what does that tell us about the stigma, that making something with your own hands is unrealistic, irresponsible, or impractical?

What does that tell us about our culture, if we’ve branded art as something not all of us are meant to have or understand?

What does that tell us about the resulting, sick joke our economy and job culture have played on us, about what’s realistic and what’s not?

What does that tell us about how our confidence has been manipulated, to rely on things that can’t be shaped with our own hands? To not recognize these hands in all their capacity and capability, to touch and connect with other people?

What does it say about us, that we expect people who do make things with their own hands to fail and to starve?

mis_manos

A mural I saw in Valparaíso, Chile. It reads, "And my hands are the only thing I have, they are my love and my sustenance."
A mural I saw in Valparaíso, Chile. It reads, “And my hands are the only thing I have, they are my love and my sustenance.”

“But art isn’t necessary for survival!!!” Many will say, and you may say it, too.

Canned food wasn’t necessary until we invented it. Smart phones, credit cards, books, envelopes, cars, jewelry….none of these ever had to do with need. A college education isn’t about need, or even want for many people, as much as it is about obligation. Yet the average American student carries $29,000 in debt for that obligation, and this is what many people have collectively agreed is the responsible way to live. And what we collectively agree to believe in, rational or not, beneficial or not, becomes the truth.

Maybe that’s the part we fear the most, that what we do…nobody needs. As long as we don’t talk about it, maybe we can keep pretending and nobody will get hurt.

Is what I do necessary? Nope. It isn’t a question of need to do or even always want to do, and the work guarantees no rewards.

But that doesn’t stop me from knowing why I do it.

I’m willing to do really great work for no promise of success. Creative work. Beautiful work. Work that can light up people’s hearts as easily as it can make them cry. Work that moves people. Work that both exposes human nature and makes it safe to show our scars. Work that can also be play. Work that reminds us why we’re here, why we bother, and why we fall in love in the wake of heartbreak.

Why? Because this is the “impractical” part. I’m doing it for love, which has no guarantee. Getting paid is just a means to an end, and because I know that what I’ve made is worth something.

There’s something else that’s weird to me, though.

That my way is harder, when the model is so much simpler, so much leaner, than the vast majority of jobs and businesses we’re trying to create and protect. And that many of the people who hate their jobs want my job to be the harder one, to be the impossible, impractical one. That mindset is hurting all of us, in the short and long run.

I make stuff. I sell it.

It doesn’t get more “left-brained” than that.

So here’s the big secret.

I’m not living my “childhood dream.” I’m just doing what I innately understood, as a kid, to be common sense, before others convinced me otherwise. I’m doing something with my hands, with what I have. I’m making something to share what’s inside me with other people, which is as old as human existence and expression.

Here’s something else. I really don’t care if you “get” art or not. I just don’t agree that it’s so damn weird or out of line. And I’m sad about how many things it tells us, that the outliers in our culture are the ones who tap the deepest into their own souls.

To call this the road to starvation doesn’t just hurt and limit artists. It cripples anyone in any job who says, “I’m not an artist.” It cripples culture. It destroys connection. It kills change.

If you believe the myth that artists must starve, then of course you would never want to be an artist. Of course you don’t appreciate or value art, or see the artistry in what you do. And I don’t blame you.

But if you can’t see artistry, then you won’t value creativity. You will fear creators rather than strive to be one. You won’t believe you can add true beauty to this world, through whatever your skillset might be. You won’t see magic in the things that you do, or that other people do. You won’t understand value. You won’t understand your own voice. You’ll get played by other people and other companies and never know how to break the cycle. You might think you want security, when really you want security in your position, more so than security that comes from within yourself. If you have a little more confidence than that, then you might want status. You might want power. But you don’t actually want to make anything better, or if you do, you don’t truly believe that you can. And that sucks.

For that, as unapologetically honest as I can be, I am truly, deeply sorry.

But I only have to be sorry for as long as you, as any of us, continues to agree, that this current way must always be the only way.

I invite you to see the ordinariness in what I do, as a way to see how simple the special things we’re all after could really be.

I challenge you to let go of needing validation from the things that hold you back.

 

"The Light Within Us We Do Not Use," 20 x 30 in drawing, by Jenie Gao
“The Light Within Us We Do Not Use,” 20 x 30 in drawing, by Jenie Gao, from the series, Self Awareness.