Why the Starving Artist No Longer Exists


Every artist knows that the path to success is largely rocky and unpaved; filled with obstacles and challenges along the way. If you are a struggling artist, you may have felt abandoned by your family and friends occasionally. You might have been discouraged by others who called you foolish or immature. You might have been told to grow up and get a real job. But your creative soul knows there’s more to just getting a safe job and being just like everybody else.

Let’s admit it. Being an ‘artist’ is not the most practical career choice to make. It’s highly unpredictable, and you need a certain degree of luck to be able to break through. Choosing to be an artist seems like voluntary poverty. And in these hard economic times we are facing today,being an ‘artists’ seems all the more impractical, if not a stupid career path to take.

It is in this world of consumerism where people are taught to go corporate and look down upon artists and creative souls. We are all aware of the ‘starving artist’ archetype. That’s how society sees anyone who is ‘unconventionally creative’. You’re doomed to become starving artists unless you give up your artistic aspirations.

The Poor Poet by Carl Spitzweg (Image by Wiki)

Where did the ‘Starving Artist’ Stereotype come from?

The ‘Starving Artist’ evokes a romantic and mysterious feeling around it. The image evokes stories of the past; of artists, sculptors, musicians and actors who chose to live a life of poverty to pursue their dreams of success. It particularly evokes memories during the 18th Romanticism period. You can imagine young, enthusiastic men from the countryside dreaming to be artists who moved to the city and find themselves living the Bohemian lifestyle.

Even our greatest artists in history did not escape the fate of the Starving Artist. The Bohemian lifestyle—or unconventional living in the company of people with similar interests for artistic pursuits—is a common lifestyle chosen by artists then and today. Most did not see fame and fortune during their lifetime, only to have their works become worth millions of dollars after they passed away. One example is the great Vincent Van Gogh. Now, he is considered to be a true genius in art. Van Gogh’s works are worth a fortune now but during his lifetime, Van Gogh only sold one single painting–to his own brother.

Vincent Van Gogh's 'Starry Starry Night' is estimated to be worth more than US $100 million (although it is not for sale)

These legendary artists must have had found their fate funny when they died–all the sacrifices they made were never reaped and enjoyed. They can only look down from the afterlife and see how they’re valued and revered now. But if you think about it, maybe it wasn’t because the great artists weren’t given the chance to succeed. Or it wasn’t because these geniuses were just jinxed. In fact, most of the great artists of our history have poor financial sense. They prefer to squander their money with booze, drugs and women. Some were even economically foolish people with no plan or direction in life.

The Starving Artist vs. the Sell out

Because of how literature and popular media portrayed artists, the artists themselves were made to believe that they should lead a life of poverty. They hold on to this notion that art made from the impoverished article is superior from that of a well-off artist. But I beg to differ.

Image by Chicagoist

First of all, the ‘Path of the Starving Artist’ leads artists to a path that isn’t helpful, to themselves and to their careers. Poverty doesn’t always equate to better art. Knowing yourself and mastering your technique leads to better art; and poverty is only a distraction. Yes, the Starving Artist is a Myth! There are already plenty of artists that lived comfortably because of their art.  Rembrandt was very successful in his time. So was Charles Dickens and Andy Warhol. Of course it’s more tempting to romanticize stories of failure, like the stories of Van Gogh and Mozart.

But on the other side of the spectrum, one can be in danger of becoming a ‘sellout’. Most artists dread becoming a sellout more than being a starving artist. Being a sell out is a term used within the artist group only; labeling those who are believed to have sold their artistic beliefs and aesthetics to have outward success.

But artists must not feel guilty to make a fortune from their art. You are not selling out because you’re making money–artists still need to eat, after all.

Job and Business Opportunities for Artists

Today, choosing the creative career path doesn’t mean you’re doomed to a life of poverty. Despite the recession, you can still find tons of jobs in the industry. It is time to debunk the ‘starving artist’ myth and believe that you can earn a decent income over a job or business that you will love.

Here are just a few fine arts-related jobs that you might want to consider:

  • Graphic and Web Design – These artists create most of their art in front of the computer, doing layout, color manipulation, post-processing and design to meet the client’s needs. Graphic and web designers will mostly create logos, website layouts, animation, online and magazine ads, etc. You can make a starting income of around US $40,000 a year. While you don’t really need formal education to be a successful web and graphic designer, having a bachelor’s degree in design can be a great advantage.
  • Video Game Design – Video game design is undoubtedly one of the best jobs in the world. Depending on your department, you get to develop the characters, story, gameplay and even music. One can earn as much as US $100,000 by doing something as cool as video game design. Most companies look for applicants with a degree in animation and video game design.

Image by How Stuff Works

  • Copywriting - If you’re good with writing but still haven’t finished your own novel masterpiece, you can get by through copywriting. Creative writing is big, as companies are constantly looking for writers to write content that’s interesting and concise. You can earn around US $60,000 to US $90,000 in copywriting. Having a degree in liberal arts, communications and journalism will greatly help with this endeavor.

These are just a few of the career paths a creative-minded individual can consider. Of course, you can go freelance and not have to be associated with a particular design company. Better yet, you can be your own boss and start your own business. People innately love art; and they are always willing to pay for anything new and beautiful. The belief that art and business don’t mix comes from the same idiot that created the starving artist myth.



  1. andrea

    this is my own “brilliant comment”(like judy davis in the movie ‘my brilliant career’ where she gives up marriage, love and children to be a female writer in the 1800’s in I think australia. ) The problem I find with the above article is the same problem i find with holding down a 9-5 job(regardless of how connected it is to art or creativity). THE NEED AND PLEASURE OF FREEDOM. The myth of the artist is a romantic vision and was created after the renaissance before which artist was what we today call ‘artisan’ or then, blue collar like an offshoot of the construction industry. The romance is that artists say what they think and are original and different and therefore able to comment on their time in history. The price of freedom in one area of your life is sacrifice in another. I think artists are different in terms of how much freedom and control they require. Some are happy to be designers because it is somewhat a compromise and allows them to at least identify as a creative person(but you’re still not going to make as much as a dentist). Personally I have multiple income streams and a lot to balance while persisting in artmaking. When i make art I make it about what moves me and whatever I want. This is because I have sacrificed the mainstream acceptable roles of mother, and materialism in order to create works of my own vision.
    Capitolism has changed the fine art world today. Conceptual art was mainly motivated by revolutionaries in the 60s who wanted to free the art object from being knicknacks of the rich. I think the above article is very much a product of the contemporary art market. The writer believes that the great art of today is closely tied to fashion and trend. For me personally I beg to differ. Art for me is a statement of worldview, inspiration and beauty-which I define in a more classic sense. I have earned the right to make whatever the hell I want because i sacrifice every day for that pleasure. So why in the world would I compromise my freedom? and besides you have to do what you love or you will not make art.

    • again, i didn’t encourage artists to sell out. artists come in all forms and sizes, but as i point out, they don’t need to beg for money or burn their canvases to keep themselves warm.

      plus, this article attacks the idea of the general public seeing artists as ‘poor’ and ‘starving’–that’s why many families discourage their talented sons/daughters/cousins to become artists–it is seen as a poor man’s profession. we are encouraging artists to be what they should be, because there really is both money and satisfaction in art.

  2. Cody

    I am a “starving artist.” I think there are many of us. This article is not very informed. Also, offering a solution for the starving artist type is just a really dumb thing to do. Would you tell Van Gogh to be a game designer instead of paint? You forget that we CHOOSE creative satisfaction over material gain. David Lynch had a newspaper route while he worked on Eraserhead. Do your research please.

    • well you just pointed out what i meant.

      if you have read carefully, i said that the ‘starving artist’ and the ‘sell out’ are two polar opposites. i didn’t say van gogh would sell out his talent and be a game designer instead. i just said that most artists now can support themselves with vast options, they can work part time on something else that generates income and at the same time, work on their art. i only pointed out one thing: the myth of the starving artist is wrong, where artist beg for money and burn their paintings to keep themselves warm.

      Bansky is a celebrated modern artist, but would you expect him to work solely on graffiti art? what makes you think he can live on his graffitis alone? i would assume he sustains himself with another job aside from graffiti.

  3. YK.

    Only the poet knows what his poems will never say.

    Y. Karjokov

    So the artist; which is his language: the unsayable; which is his art.

  4. Marlin

    It’s ‘all’ in the myth, the romance. that’s how we I construct our/this idea of artist (share in having it constructed upon us). Try and debunk that version of the artist myth if you like but you’ll have to do better for me than replace it with a salesman mending his aesthetic to my crocodile-crotch-brain-stomach. hmmm- although many of those abstract expressionist fellows believed paint could impact directly with the soul – crocodile-crotch-brain-stomach?

    we need visions from the wilderness. poverty is pretty wild. Else wise it’s all ‘happy mirror’ and the sublime banal.

    your art. reminds me of discussion threads separating form from content in web page design… like soul from body, living man from dead man… red from blood, green from leaf.

    ps. i don’t believe in art, the soul, or the artist… but I suck on myths.

  5. I’m sorry but I cannot agree with you on hand. I think design is a sub-genre of art, so being a designer is not that different from being an artist. While it is true that design is much more practical than other forms of art, it is just as creative as sculpture, painting, interior design, etc. You can’t be an artist without creativity and imagination, and the same goes to a designer.

    • I think you forget one important difference between art and design: Most design comes from a need, it’s a service sold for a purpose. People commision design to appeal to their customers and to get their goods and services sold. Art on the other hand serves mostly aesthetics, criticism, philosophy – and rarely, from a painters perspective for instance, art is bought because of it’s quality.

      While a design can fulfill a certain purpose, can be priced or valued by it’s quality, fine art is not bound to this. So I’d say you’ll clearly have to separate between design as a service and fine arts. While there is a lot of work nowadays for a designer, it can be as hard to survive as an artist only.

  6. Andrea Spikes

    This just shows how hard it is to become a successful artist in this world