They say that there’s no money in art. They say that writing, painting and composing are nice and all, but only as hobbies. They say that only a few people earn money from doing such things. Well, they are wrong. As Jeff Goins explores in “Real Artists Don’t Starve,” many of history’s most creative minds – from Michelangelo to Mozart to Monet – succeeded “not because they succumbed to the myth of the starving artist but precisely because they didn’t.” Moreover, he points out, today we live in a New Renaissance, “an era of unprecedented opportunity in which you can share your creative work without fear of suffering or starving.” Get ready to learn what that means and prepare to take notes, because Goins also has 12 tips on how to become a thriving, well-to-do artist!
The Starving Artist
“The greater danger for most of us lies not in setting our aim too high and falling short, but in setting our aim too low, and achieving our mark.” Thus spoke, over half a millennium ago, Michelangelo Buonarroti, a man dubbed “The Divine One” by his peers, already in his lifetime, a man considered by most historians one of the greatest artists in the history of humankind – if not the very greatest. But Michelangelo was actually much more than a painter and a sculptor – he was also a brilliant architect, a highly esteemed engineer, and a pioneering anatomist. Last but not least, he was one of the greatest poets of his time as well. It’s because of his poetry that we mention him here.
You see, for many, Michelangelo’s delicately subtle and intensely emotional sonnets rank up there with Shakespeare’s as some of the finest poetic achievements in history. Deeply autobiographical, they deal with love, death, creativity and a few more issues that occupied Michelangelo throughout his long life. One of these issues was poverty. It appears quite a lot in Michelangelo’s poetry. In one sonnet, for example, the great artist curses his professional choices, claiming that his art had left him “poor, old and working as a servant of others.” Surprising? Of course not. Most artists earn very little. So little, in fact, that economist Hans Abbing even published a book in 2002 titled “Why are artists poor?”
Also, you’ve probably watched either “Rent” or “Moulin Rouge” and you know full well by now that there’s virtually no money in art. What if we told you that both musicals were based on a 19-th century opera called “La Bohéme.” So, there never was. “Be careful,” say parents everywhere to their children. “Don’t be too creative. You just might starve.” But the truth is, as much as they say the opposite, most artists don’t starve. Michelangelo, one of the archetypes of the starving artist, was actually a successful entrepreneur and a multimillionaire, He was also, in the words of one journalist, a “pivotal figure in the transition of creative geniuses from people regarded, and paid, as craftsmen to people accorded a different level of treatment and compensation.”
The Thriving Artist
As Harvard professor Rab Hatfield discovered in 1995, not only was Michelangelo not poor, but he was also one of the wealthiest people of his time, possessing – near the end of his life – an immense fortune which, adjusted for inflation, would be worth $30 million in today’s money. Contrary to popular knowledge, both Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart and Ludwig van Beethoven were quite rich as well, as they received a fixed yearly income of about $150,000 for most of their lives. To turn to writers, Shakespeare was wealthy enough to buy the second largest house in Stratford-upon-Avon – and that’s before he wrote his most successful plays. The point? The story of the starving, struggling artist is actually a myth – and one written by wealthy artists too! The truth is that real artists don’t strive; rather, they thrive.
Inspired by stories such as these, writer Jeff Goins set out to see if it was possible for artists to thrive in today’s landscape. After several months and thousands of meetings with many different types of artists, Goins concluded that not only was this possible, but that it was actually the norm. “Real artists don’t starve,” he explains. “Making a living off your creative talent has never been easier than today. The Myth of the Starving Artist has long overstayed its welcome. There’s a New Renaissance happening around us and it has already given birth to a new type of artist: the Thriving Artist.” And here are the 12 principles every Thriving Artist lives by – the Rules of the New Renaissance:
- The Starving Artist believes you must be born an artist. The Thriving Artist knows you must become one.
- The Starving Artist strives to be original. The Thriving Artist steals from his influences.
- The Starving Artist believes he has enough talent. The Thriving Artist apprentices under a master.
- The Starving Artist is stubborn about everything. The Thriving Artist is stubborn about the right things.
- The Starving Artist waits to be noticed. The Thriving Artist cultivates patrons.
- The Starving Artist believes he can be creative anywhere. The Thriving Artist goes where creative work is already happening.
- The Starving Artist always works alone. The Thriving Artist collaborates with others.
- The Starving Artist does his work in private. The Thriving Artist practices in public.
- The Starving Artist works for free. The Thriving Artist always works for something.
- The Starving Artist sells out too soon. The Thriving Artist owns his work.
- The Starving Artist masters one craft. The Thriving Artist masters many.
- The Starving Artist despises the need for money. The Thriving Artist makes money to make art.
Now, let’s explore each of these rules in groups of four and in the context of three major themes: mindset, market, and money.
In addition to being a lie, the myth of the starving artist is also a self-fulfilling prophecy. Meaning, individuals who struggle despite their obvious talent, struggle because they secretly believe in the idea that suffering triggers inspiration, and comfort kills it. But that’s just a common thought pattern, a limiting belief which prohibits talented artists from reaching the place they deserve to be in life. To thrive, they must adopt new ways of thinking and master their mindset. Here are four mantras to help them with this:
- You aren’t born an artist. Artists are born, not made. The adage is as old as the Roman Empire at least. The only problem? It’s not true. In reality, everyone can become an artist. Writing, painting, sculpting – they are all just skills which, like most other skills, can be obtained through hard work and training. Take John Grisham, for example. He’s a lawyer by trade and a writer by choice. Even though the manuscript for his first book was rejected by no less than 40 different publishers, his second book, “The Firm,” was adapted into a 1993 movie by none other than Sydney Pollack. Today, Grisham is considered “America's favorite storyteller,” and one of the richest authors in the world. Most importantly, he’s considered the originator of the legal thriller. Ironically, he was able to invent this new genre precisely because he was self-taught.
- Stop trying to be original. “Immature poets imitate, mature poets steal,” famously wrote Nobelist T. S. Eliot in 1920. More than two decades before him, a now-obscure author by the name of W. H. Davenport Adams said something quite similar: “Great poets imitate and improve, whereas small ones merely steal and spoil.” The point of both quotes is one and the same: just like the starving artist, originality too is a myth. The most original artists are merely the ones most skilled at improving upon older visions and designs. In the words of one modern creative director, “Originality is nothing more but combining familiar concepts that are usually not associated with one another. That’s precisely the reason why John Grisham was so successful with his creation – the legal thriller!
- Apprentice under a master. Before Michelangelo became Michelangelo, he was just a humble student of a famous Florentine artist named Domenico Ghirlandaio, today almost exclusively known as his teacher. But that’s how most great art careers have begun: with an apprenticeship. “Before we become masters,” writes Goins, “we must first become apprentices.” And even later on, it doesn’t hurt to ask for a piece of advice or two. As American surgeon Atul Gawande pronounced in the title of his famous TED Talk delivered a few years ago: “If you want to get great at something – get a coach!”
- Harness your stubbornness. Rather than self-effacing and struggling, most great artists are actually proud, stubborn and quite resilient in their vision of the world. True, they may start as apprentices, idolizing their teachers, but their objective is always to one day surpass them. Also, even though willing to explore and acquire the old ways, they always have in mind a new one – their very own. And they are determined to prove the world it’s the right one. Grisham was rejected by 40 publishers for his first novel, J. K. Rowling was rejected by 12 for “Harry Potter.” Even more fascinatingly, F. S. Fitzgerald was turned down by 122 publishing houses for “The Great Gatsby,” now considered “the Great American Novel”! But you know why Grisham, Fitzgerald and Rowling eventually succeeded? Because they were “stubborn on vision” and “flexible on details,” as Jeff Bezos once said. You need a motto. There’s a good one!
Once you master the mindset of the thriving artist, you must learn how to tackle the market, because that’s the place where one becomes professional and discovers how art works in the real world. Tackling the market is a two-step process – first you must get people to pay attention to your work, and then you must find a way to tell them why they should pay for it as well. Stick to the following four pieces of advice, and you should do just fine:
- Cultivate patrons. If you’ve ever read the original version of Cinderella by Charles Perrault, then you already know that its moral isn’t that inner beauty beats physical good looks, but something far more interesting. Here it is, in the words of Perrault himself: “Without doubt, it is a great advantage to have intelligence, courage, good breeding, and common sense. These, and similar talents come only from heaven, and it is good to have them. However, even these may fail to bring you success, without the blessing of a godfather or a godmother.” Too “unfairylike”? Like it or not, that’s how the real world works. As much as we love great musicians such as Elvis Presley, Roy Orbison and Johnny Cash, they probably wouldn’t have recorded more than a few songs in their lives if it wasn’t for a “godfather” named Sam Phillips, an American record producer. “If it wasn’t for him,” quipped once Cash, “I might still be working in a cotton field.” The lesson? Don’t wait to be noticed. Cultivate patrons who can nurture your noticeability.
- Go join a scene. Whereas a thorn between roses smells lovely, a rose between thorns withers away. In translation, unless you spend most of your time around creatives, don’t expect to become one in the end. Rather than in isolation, genius is most commonly bred in a community of geniuses. Quite expectedly, since wherever there’s a cluster of creative individuals, there’s also a fertile ground for numerous profound and meaningful discussions. Whether it’s Ancient Athens or prewar Vienna, whether it’s between-the-wars Paris or the Silicon Valley today, what has spurred the imaginative mind into innovation and creativity has always been the scene. “The most important factor in the success of your career is where you decide to live,” Jeff Goins was told once by a professor. Want to be the next big thing in the world of art? Care for a trip to Berlin?
- Collaborate with others. Almost every young artist begins his or her career on a wrong footing, thinking they are the next Vincent Van Gogh, a great, lone genius whose vision can’t be understood by anyone on this planet. In reality, however, most great artists were great collaborators as well. Take, for example, Shakespeare. As talented as he was, he agreed to cowrite a few historical plays with some of his contemporaries, and there are a few scenes in his most famous tragedies that were almost certainly written by other playwrights. Shakespeare new something young artists don’t: seen from afar, originality is actually teamwork. “We don’t do our best work alone,” comments Goins. And that is because “creativity is not a solitary invention but a collaborative creation.”
- Practice in public. It’s a myth that geniuses fashion their works only in the privacy of their imagination and share it with the world only after they’re sure they’re finished. In reality, great creative minds have always practiced publicly and perfected their work by way of instant sharing and perpetual feedback. Hence, not sharing your works in progress with the world could be one of the worst things you’ll ever do if your goal is to grow and mature as an artist. Fortunately, thanks to all the advancements in technology, it has never been easier and cheaper to practice in public. Just set up a website and start sharing your work with the world. Rather than just a peek into the creative process, blogging offers a deep look into the secrets of creativity itself.
“If we are going to thrive as artists,” writes Jeff Goins, “we cannot merely survive. We have to make a living off our creations, which means at some point we need to talk about the part we’re all uncomfortable discussing: money.” Of course, the Starving Artist avoids the topic as much as possible, but that’s actually one of the reasons he’s starving. The Thriving Artist knows much better – namely, he knows full well that food and clothes cost money and that, in the absence of financial comfort, creativity transforms from being a pleasure into being a burden. If you want to earn money doing what you want, start doing the following:
- Don’t work for free. Unfortunately, many artists consider the pleasure they get from the act of creation itself enough reward for their effort. It isn’t work if you don’t break at least a drop of sweat, is it? But how would you ever do what you love if you think that way? “When bankers get together for dinner, they discuss Art,” wrote once Oscar Wilde ironically. “When artists get together for dinner, they discuss Money.” Only, just like the creative process itself, these discussions are kept hidden from the public. It is a fact of life that you need money, because, well, everybody needs money. And it is an even surer fact of life that if you work for free, you won’t get any money. So, stop doing that. Start valuing your work the way Michelangelo did. After all, the fact that it was commissioned doesn’t make the Sistine Chapel less of a masterpiece.
- Own your work. Like it or hate it, it’s how capitalism works – everyone wants to make maximum profit with minimum effort. In other words, nobody will ever be really interested in giving you money for nothing. Yet, there are many people who do many things in return for nothing. Artists especially. Don’t fall for it. If you want to get serious about earning money as an artist, stay away from ghostwriting gigs and sign no document that asks you to give up lifetime rights to your work. Own your work instead – you never know how much money it may bring you in the future! Just imagine how much money Jim Hanson would have lost had he agreed to sell the rights to his puppet, Rowlf the Dog, when he was offered $10,000 for it by the Purina dog company. Hanson, fortunately, didn’t agree to such a deal and went on to create an entire show based around similar characters, the Muppets.
- Diversify your portfolio. They say Jack of all trades is a master of none. In other words, dabble in more crafts than one, and you’ll probably end up being bad at all. However, as Karl Marx noted two centuries ago, nothing could be further from the truth. The idea that one needs to specialize in something to excel at it is a product of the system we live in, and is not compatible with human nature. Michelangelo, Leonardo, Galileo and Benjamin Franklin weren’t just Jacks of many trades – they were also masters of all. How did they do it? By being curious and working hard. “A man can do all things if he will,” wrote polymath Leon Battista Alberti in the middle of the 15th century. That was the age of the Old Renaissance. His words still hold true, today, in the age of the New Renaissance. As we already said, originality is the result of combining different spheres of interests. To succeed, contrary to common wisdom, be prepared to master more crafts and disciplines than one. Also, your mind likes adventures. So, you’ll be happier as well.
- Make money to make art. We mentioned Marx a few sentences ago; let us now quote him: “The writer must earn money in order to be able to live and to write, but he must by no means live and write for the purpose of making money.” Put otherwise, nobody asks you to produce work after work in return for paychecks; however, you must make money to continue making art; nothing more, and nothing less. “Money exists, in my world, to buy me another season” wrote Steven Pressfield once, “Every season you create instead of scramble to find work is a win,” comments Jeff Goins. “With time, those seasons add up. The more money you have, the more time you have; and the more time you have, the more art you can make.” It’s really that simple.
“Real Artists Don’t Starve” by Jeff Goins offers a refreshing, down-to-earth look at one of the most mystical of all human endeavors: the creative act. Brimming with inspiring stories and amusing anecdotes – not to mention enlightening quotes – the book can be a great guide for all those artists out there who struggle with money and finances. More importantly, it can also serve as a wake-up call for the ones who still think that great art can only come from great suffering.
Allow us to quote Jeff Goins here: “You can go the way of the tired, frustrated artist who struggles to keep creating. Or you can embrace an important but challenging truth that just might set you free from such thinking: You don’t have to starve. You can thrive. The world is waiting for you to create your best work. Please don’t let us down.”