Rethinking the Idea of the ‘Starving Artist’

Ana Brdar explores rethinking the Idea of the ‘Starving Artist’.

The concept of a passionate, yet unrecognized artist, one who rejects material goods and “bourgeois” lifestyle in fear of compromising their artistic integrity, is neither new nor unfamiliar. In fact, the origins of this phrase can be traced back to La Vie de Bohème, a 19th-century novel by the French author Henri Murger, which depicts lives of four struggling artists in the Latin Quarter of Paris. And indeed, with several real-life examples of this image embodied in the artistic giants such as Vincent Van Gogh and William Blake, it is easy to see why the starving artist trope has become so deeply embedded in the way we think about art.

Over the years, this stereotype has been propagated and romanticized through culture and media in such measure that people today have a hard time separating the basic notion of artist from this type of lifestyle and attitude. This, of course, is not to say that creating art does not come with its own set of obstacles and difficulties. It remains true that making art is rarely a lucrative endeavor, much as it was the case in the 19th century. But a lot has changed since the days of dusty ateliers and scruffy painters of the 1800s. Owing to rapid globalization and technological advances, the art world has radically transformed. In this new set-up, the traditional gatekeepers in form of established galleries, wealthy benefactors and renowned art critics no longer stand in the way of up-and-coming artists, since their monetary support or critical approval ceased being a prerequisite for gaining recognition in the art scene. Furthermore, internet has given the artists the sort of far-reaching visibility that was unimaginable in the times when their work was confined to small, physical galleries and other limited artistic spaces. Online communication through social media has facilitated forming networks between artists, but it has also helped them connect to audience and collectors, regardless of geographical location or social status. From a commercial point of view, the abundance of information found on the internet has become an invaluable resource for independent artists who are looking to educate themselves on sales, business ideas and promotion strategy.

All these factors have ultimately played their part in creating an atmosphere where the artists are in much more favorable position to thrive than that has been the case historically. The present era, in which the artists have more agency over their work than ever before, has given everybody an opportunity to achieve success without the dreaded fear of “selling out” or betraying their artistic vision. Depending on the artist in question, this success can be reflected in financial gain, increased exposure or critical recognition. This should not imply that there aren’t any challenges left for those who decide to create art in any professional capacity – they are still out there, albeit in different shape compared to problems that existed in the centuries behind us. However, the modern achievements that helped reshape the art climate have also in great measure shifted the idea of artist, distancing it from the over-simplified, outdated molds of the past.