Labor Day Repost: The "Starving Artist" Trope Should Die in a Fire, ASAP

by Ariela

Two years ago I wrote this post. Sadly it is still relevant and in the intervening two years I have only become angrier and more disillusioned by the evils of the Capitalist machine and all the other -isms that tend to come bundled with it as a package deal. I'm a member of a labor union in my day job and the hard limit on the number of hours I work thanks to that union (and the organized workers' lobby before them) is what allows me to pursue my art; without it, I am certain my job would gobble every hour I could give and demand more.

So drink a toast (doesn't have to be alcoholic) to the workers and activists of yesterday, today, and tomorrow, remember that something you love is still labor, and get over the idea that labor unions are only for blue collar jobs (and for pete's sake, recognize that blue collar jobs are very worthy of respect).


Image reads "I am an artist. This does not mean I will work for free. I have bills just like you. Thank you for understanding. Image found on  thephotographer4you.com

Image reads "I am an artist. This does not mean I will work for free. I have bills just like you. Thank you for understanding.
Image found on thephotographer4you.com

"The Starving Artist trope needs to DIAF."

I have been having the same, or similar conversations, in various forms, a lot of late on social media. So I decided to write about it at more length than I can in 140 characters, even in consecutive tweet. The topic is only somewhat related to Labor Day, not being about an Artists' Guild or other organized labor movement. But it is about recognizing the labor of artists and valuing it properly, so I thought this would be an appropriate time to post about it.

You probably know the trope of the Starving Artist; it's quite common in American culture. It's the one that says that artists almost never make enough money to make ends meet and that aspiring artists have no sense of practicality and make no plans to support themselves while they blithely pursue their art. This trope needs to Get Gone.

The Starving Artist trope was popularized during the Romantic era in Europe and America, which peaked around 1800-1850. In America, it had a large overlap with the Bohemian movement. Both of these groups valorized the idea of devotion to art - be it writing, visual arts, music, etc. - to the exclusion of all else, particularly material concerns. In these environments, the Starving Artist was an aspirational model, not a negative image.

The 1980s and 90s saw a bunch of movies, TV shows, songs, and other artistic projects showing the young artistic hopeful arriving, usually in NYC or LA, with just a suitcase and a few dollars in their pocket, also presenting this image in a positive light. Jonathan Larson's musical Rent, based strongly on Puccini's Romantic-era opera La Bohème, was probably the pinnacle of this trend, though I'm sure some people would put in a word for "Don't Stop Believin'" by Journey.

The evil counterpart of the Starving Artist is the Sellout, the person who has decided to abandon their artistic dream in favor of creating Extruded Art-like Product in exchange for money.

The stereotypes of the Starving Artist and the Sellout combine to create a double-bind of expectations for artists. Artists are starving, so if you want to be an artist, the immediate assumption is that you are an impractical flake with your head in the clouds and no economic sense. If you are already working as an artist and have the audacity to require payment for your work, you must be a greedy Sellout and your art can't possibly be good enough to be worth your quoted rate. Artists are "right-brained" people, so they don't pursue their careers logically and you can't possibly have a realistic plan or expectation of how hard you are going to have to work. And if you have a day job and pursue art on the side, why are you demanding to be paid for your hobby?

This is galling enough on its own, but even moreso when compared with the treatment of another group of creative dreamers in America: "entrepreneurs." Wikipedia defines Starving Artist as "an artist who sacrifices material well-being in order to focus on their artwork. They typically live on minimum expenses, either for a lack of business or because all their disposable income goes toward art projects. " But this description could also be applied to an entrepreneur in the throes of starting up a business. Startups have a high rate of failure, but we don't have a derogatory "Starving Entrepreneur" trope; in fact, people who do that tend to be lauded by the American capitalist machine. And I don't buy that this is due to the newness of entrepreneurship compared to art - the Romantic period that saw the birth of the Bohemian ideal was in large part a response to the Industrial Revolution, so the tension between these two groups goes back plenty long.

Someone who lives on ramen while working on the next big app,  or mortgages their house to finance their restaurant, or works at a day job and then codes all night, etc., is considered "goal oriented," or at least they are if they succeed. We don't tend to hear about failures because they don't match the cultural narrative surrounding entrepreneurs and The American Dream. Artists who live meagerly are derided for "not having a real job," or living in an "unsustainable way;" those of us who work a day job are frequently condescendingly applauded for recognizing that our art will never be a going concern. Our failures are incorporated back into the cultural canon and our successes are forgotten because they don't fit the preconception of the Starving Artist. It's confirmation bias at its most basic.

This boondoggle of unrealistic and conflicting expectations is inextricably tied to and exacerbated by the way that our society values art. Or rather, the way that it doesn't value art. Art is seen as unnecessary, something not worth spending large amounts of money to obtain, or only worth spending top dollar for if one is so rich that one simply has nothing better to do with that money. I'm including more than just graphic arts in that estimation. Music, novels, theater, dance, and other media are similarly denigrated. One might think that wider access to the arts, through recording, scanning, printing, streaming, and other reproduction technology, might give people across class lines a greater appreciation for them and increase the number of people who understand their worth; alas it is not so. If anything, I suspect that it has further devalued them by creating false expectations about the cost. When art could only be afforded by the wealthy, of course it was expensive to produce; but when anyone can buy a poster, it's an huge sticker shock to encounter custom art prices. People who aren't in the habit of commissioning work don't think about the fact that the cost of production, including the artist's time, is amortized over the entire print run/album run/clothing line/etc. Sticker shock is normal, and I don't resent the clients who hear my breakdown of costs and expected labor time and say, "Ok, wow, that's out of our price range, but thanks for your time!" I also don't mind the ones who ask what the options are to cut the costs. It's the ones who get angry when I tell them my prices who are the problem. (Terri deals with most of this as part of general administravia, so I get off easy in this department.)

I am far from the only one who experiences this problem. Plenty of people attempt to get artists to do work on the grounds that it will be a good portfolio piece, or that the project will bring them publicity. The twitter account @ForExposure_txt documents some of the egregious examples of this trend. Another common trend is the non-profit that asks artists to donate their work "because it's for a good cause!" but would never dream of asking their plumber to do likewise. People who accept the quoted prices of consulting firms without a blink try to bargain artists down. The perceived valuelessness of the time and work of artists is, I suspect, one of the factors that causes Patreon to be so much more contentious than other crowdfunding platforms, like Kickstarter and GoFundMe. A society that derides us for not being able to support ourselves through our art and then turns around and demands that we work for free or insultingly low rates is hypocritical and sick. Our lovely capitalist machine demands that far too many people in a variety of jobs work below the poverty line, but what I am addressing here is the particular moral outrage expressed at artists who have the gall to say that they deserve to get paid, not just be snivellingly grateful for whatever pennies get tossed our way by noble and beneficent people with "Real Jobs."

Artists know our vocation takes an enormous amount of hard work, dedication, and perseverance. We're not in denial about this. For some of us this means we work a day job while pursuing art at night and on the weekends, sometimes for a few years, sometimes for all our working lives. For some of us it means paring away our expenses until we can live within our earnings as artists. For many it is a combination of both. We do this so that we can produce the art we love, which we hope you will love, too.

Artists make things that are beautiful, profound, disturbing, thought-provoking, challenging, and sometimes things that exist just to make you happy. We deserve respect for this work. And we deserve to get paid.

And the Starving Artist trope, which tells a story that we deserve none of this, needs to die in a fire.


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Employing A Sensitivity Checker

by Ariela

Old Economy Steve longs for the days when he could avoid people telling him how offensive his views are.

Old Economy Steve longs for the days when he could avoid people telling him how offensive his views are.

Sensitivity readers have been quite the hot topic in some parts of teh interwebs lately.

What is a sensitivity checker? When a creative type, in my case an artist, wants to use cultural elements from a culture not their own, you employ someone from that culture to act as an expert guide, telling you things that are important to know, and giving feedback that should help you to portray the culture in question accurately and in a way that is not offensive. This can cover anything from preventing embarrassing errors like those from our Jewish Stock Photography Fail Blog, to the horribly offensive error of making Nazis the good guys in a Holocaust novel supposedly told from the point of view of a Jewish girl (we won't link to that book, but here is a scathing review by Katherine Locke). 

In some ways, it is no different than consulting any other expert so you don't make ignorant mistakes, but here the stakes aren't just your own embarrassment but the possibility of perpetuating oppression of real people. 

I recently had my first serious sensitivity check. Our product release next week will include a picture of a keris, which is a Malaysian dagger with serious cultural significance. That's the sort of thing you don't want to just assume you can just chuck into a piece of art when you don't know anything about the culture surrounding it. Thanks to the wonders of Twitter, we were connected to Jia-Ling Pan, who was incredibly helpful. We highly recommend her, if you need a sensitivity check for anything from Malaysia. (Let us know if you would like to be put in touch; she said she would prefer a referral than a link.)

Here are a few basic takeaways from the process.

1. Pay them.

This should go without saying, but alas, it needs to be said. Giving someone a crash course in the intricacies of one's culture isn't a privilege, it is work. Listening to and answering questions, many of which may be ignorant and even offensive is hard work. Giving constructive feedback is work.

This is true for art and even more true for reading a manuscript, which takes a heck of a lot longer.

Pay them. If one cannot afford to pay someone from the culture one is writing/singing/art-ing/movie-making about to do a sensitivity check, then one doesn't get to play in that sandbox.

This doesn't mean you don't get to create, just that this particular avenue is not available. Lack of money sucks. It sucks for you as a creator, but it also sucks for people whose culture gets trampled over insensitively and are then asked to help someone else make sure they're doing it right for free. Sensitivity checkers need to be paid.

2. Listen to what they have to say, and give them space to talk.

You employ a sensitivity checker because they know things you don't. Sometimes that means answers to your questions, but other times that means telling you the answers to questions you didn't even know should be asked. Give your sensitivity checker some unstructured space to talk rather than framing everything within a Q&A. Your questions are shaped by your own assumptions after all, and they may not translate into the culture you are trying to learn about. You might even wind up getting more material out of it in ways you didn't anticipate.

3. Accept what they have to say.

Sometimes a sensitivity checker will say things you don't want to hear. You have to be willing to go into the check alert to the possibility that you might have to rework part of your project, a lot of your project, or even scrap your project entirely. The earlier you ask, the less likely this will be, so check early and often! Though even that is not a guarantee.

It's never easy to hear negative feedback, particularly when it means losing a lot of work. If you are only interested in affirmation and will come up with reasons why you don't need to take the negative feedback too, don't bother to have a check done at all. 

Mary Robinette Kowal has an excellent blog post about this. Please check it out.

4. No Group is Homogenous.

As in any group, different people will react to the same thing in different ways. Just because your sensitivity checker reads things one way doesn't mean that other people won't have a different take. Having more than one sensitivity checker is a good idea, particularly if the source material is emotionally significant or you are using a lot of it. And even if all your readers say it's fine, there's no guarantee that someone else will not be offended. Which brings us to:

5. Your creation is your responsibility.

If someone else is offended by the thing you made, even if you had a sensitivity checker, the responsibility is yours. It is not the job of a sensitivity checker to tell you how to do something so that you cannot be criticized for it; they're just there to give your their own read, and possibly make a best guess at how others may feel. The mere fact that you hired a sensitivity checker is not a shield against criticism, and if the work offends someone, then it is not the sensitivity checker's fault. It is on you to own up to any damage caused and decide how to proceed, apologize, make amends, fix it, etc.

Coda: Sensitivity checking is not a substitute for #OwnVoices

#OwnVoices is a campaign to lift up the work of people in various marginalized identities telling their own stories. It is not enough to have white people telling stories centering People of Color, or straight people telling stories about LGB people, or cisgendered people telling stories about trans people. No matter how skilled or well-intentioned the creator, they will not get it all. People have a right to portray themselves. And we should support them when they do by patronizing their work.

That said, I am very much not in the camp that says it is never okay for someone to portray a person outside their own identity. That leads to other kinds of erasure and normalizes the idea of homogenous societies. But when we do paint pictures of other people, with words or brushes or songs or cinema, we need to make sure we do it with care and respect. That's where sensitivity checkers are so important.

Find a Sensitivity Checker for Your Own Work

There are lots of people out there who do this work. Writing in the Margins is a great directory if you are looking for someone to keep you from accidentally putting your foot in it.

A Short Guide to the Artistic Process

by Ariela

It's been a fairly productive year here at Geek Calligraphy. In addition to the launch of our website, we put out 13 new products this year (number 14 to come out in December). We have noticed that our projects all tend to fall into the same pattern. So, we present to you, The Artistic Process of Geek Calligraphy, A Comedy.

Dramatis Personae:
Chibi Ariela - The Artist, identifiable by her black driver's cap with a copper badge.
Chibi Terri - The Manager, identifiable by her purple everything and green eyes.

Stage 1: The Idea

Most of the time, a project starts out like this:

Image shows Ariela and Terri at their respective computers.* Ariela is saying "I have an idea!" and Terri responds "Great, let's put it on the calendar."  *Terri is a Mac user. For her sins, Ariela has a Surface Pro 2 by attrition.

Image shows Ariela and Terri at their respective computers.* Ariela is saying "I have an idea!" and Terri responds "Great, let's put it on the calendar."

*Terri is a Mac user. For her sins, Ariela has a Surface Pro 2 by attrition.

Sometimes, though, Terri is the instigator:

Image shows Terri and Ariela on the phone. Terri says "Have you ever considered doing something with $_idea?" and Ariela responds, "That's really good. I must go do it Right Now!"

Image shows Terri and Ariela on the phone. Terri says "Have you ever considered doing something with $_idea?" and Ariela responds, "That's really good. I must go do it Right Now!"

Stage 2: The Honeymoon Phase

Most projects start out with starry-eyed idealism, as I am convinced that this project where everything will be perfect.

Image shows Ariela sketching at her drafting table saying to herself "This is going to be the best thing ever. Having so much fun!" Appallingly, she is humming to herself.

Image shows Ariela sketching at her drafting table saying to herself "This is going to be the best thing ever. Having so much fun!" Appallingly, she is humming to herself.

Unfortunately, this stage doesn't last.

Stage 3: Reality Intrudes

Image shows Ariela at her drafting table, brow furrowed, saying, "Hmm maybe not quite as easy as I thought."

Image shows Ariela at her drafting table, brow furrowed, saying, "Hmm maybe not quite as easy as I thought."

As with all plans, they don't tend to ever come off exactly as they are on paper. Or, in this case, they don't make it to paper exactly as they were in my mind.

Stage 3 can last a short time or a long time, but it is invariably followed by...

Stage 4: Despair

Image shows Ariela headdesking at the drafting table, eyes squeezed shut, wailing, "I ruined it forever, it sucks, I suck, why did I ever think I could do this, I need to go throw my drafting table out the window..." Terri, in a speech bubble emanating from Ariela's cell phone, says, "Babe, you're done for the night. Have a cup of tea and stay away from the art for a few days." Terri is knitting a rainbow shawl and has her headset in like a sensible person.

Image shows Ariela headdesking at the drafting table, eyes squeezed shut, wailing, "I ruined it forever, it sucks, I suck, why did I ever think I could do this, I need to go throw my drafting table out the window..." Terri, in a speech bubble emanating from Ariela's cell phone, says, "Babe, you're done for the night. Have a cup of tea and stay away from the art for a few days." Terri is knitting a rainbow shawl and has her headset in like a sensible person.

Every project has a stage where you get lost in the weeds for a while. When you hit this point, continuing to work through it is frequently a losing proposition. The best thing to do, if you are not on a looming deadline and have the luxury, is step away and do something completely different until something clears out in your brain and you can resume work without whatever brain lactic acid buildup was putting you in a funk. Many artists have to do this for themselves, but if you are lucky you have supportive colleagues or a Trusty Artist Wrangler (TM) like Terri to take the pen or brush from your clutching fingers, take you gently by the shoulders, and propel you away from the art for a while so you can recharge and return.

Stage 5: Determination

Image shows Ariela, looking unenthused, working at her drafting table saying "I guess I haven't ruined it entirely."

Image shows Ariela, looking unenthused, working at her drafting table saying "I guess I haven't ruined it entirely."

After some time away, it's usually possible to come back and resume work, even if it's not quite so enthusiastic as at first.

Stage 6: Fed Up

Image shows exasperated Ariela working at her drafting table saying, "I just want this to be done. I am sick of it."

Image shows exasperated Ariela working at her drafting table saying, "I just want this to be done. I am sick of it."

By the time I am close to finishing a project, usually I am heartily sick of it. Since most of my art maxes out at 18"x24" and four months' active work, I can't even begin to fathom how writers work on a manuscript for so much longer. Writers, I tip my hat to you.

Stage 7: Finish Up

Image shows a resigned Ariela, holding a paper at arm's length, saying, "*Sigh* I guess this is as good as I can get. Or as good as I can stand to make it. Whatever." She has her headset in. Terri also has her headset in and is saying, "Babe, it's fine. No one will see those nitpicks unless you keep pointing them out. She has made progress on her rainbow shawl.

Image shows a resigned Ariela, holding a paper at arm's length, saying, "*Sigh* I guess this is as good as I can get. Or as good as I can stand to make it. Whatever." She has her headset in. Terri also has her headset in and is saying, "Babe, it's fine. No one will see those nitpicks unless you keep pointing them out. She has made progress on her rainbow shawl.

I had a wonderful mentor in my high school English teacher who told me, "Art isn't finished, it gets abandoned." This was wonderful advice, as it gave me, an obsessive perfectionist, permission to stop. I'm never quite good enough to bring something from my head into the world exactly as I see it. I've gotten much better over the years, but it never happens. At some point I say, "Well, I can't stand to look at this anymore, so it will have to be good enough."

Alternate Creative Process

Sometimes the creative process doesn't follow the above pattern. When it does, it goes like this:

Image shows Ariela and Terri at their computers again, much like in Step 1. Ariela says, "I have a great-" and an exasperated Terri cuts her off saying, "No."

Image shows Ariela and Terri at their computers again, much like in Step 1. Ariela says, "I have a great-" and an exasperated Terri cuts her off saying, "No."

Ariela: I just- Terri: No. Ariela: But- Terri: NO. Terri now has her arms crossed and a vein throbbing in her forehead.

Ariela: I just-
Terri: No.
Ariela: But-
Terri: NO.
Terri now has her arms crossed and a vein throbbing in her forehead.

Image shows very peeved looking Terri saying, "You currently have 3 projects in various stages of production.  And  you had 2 new ideas already this week. Last I checked, you still had a day job, an apprenticeship, a spouse, and a biological need to sleep and go to the bathroom. When were you planning to do this?:"

Image shows very peeved looking Terri saying, "You currently have 3 projects in various stages of production. And you had 2 new ideas already this week. Last I checked, you still had a day job, an apprenticeship, a spouse, and a biological need to sleep and go to the bathroom. When were you planning to do this?:"

Image shows Ariela looking sheepish and somewhat downcast saying "Right." Terri responds "Make a note of it and we'll talk about it when your docket clears a bit."

Image shows Ariela looking sheepish and somewhat downcast saying "Right." Terri responds "Make a note of it and we'll talk about it when your docket clears a bit."

Alas, not every idea can be executed immediately. This would be the reason why Terri sometimes says that her job description is "Artist wrangler and professional killjoy."

Historical note

The above comedy is a dramatization of real persons and events. Liberties have been taken with dialog, order of events, and even the outfits of the people involved (Terri does sometimes wear things that are not purple).

On a more serious note, I am not actually all id when producing art and Terri is not all superego. There's a lot of give and take in the process. Sometimes I take both parts in the process, because, you know, that's what being an adult and a professional artist is about. But I like to outsource as much of the calendaring and reality-checking to Terri whenever possible. It makes it easier for me to maintain a sense of wonder about the art and keeps me from burning out too frequently. It also frees up my time to spend more on the artistic side of the business.

While I could do this without Terri, I am very, very grateful not to have to. For artists who do not have their own Terri, a network of supportive colleagues is crucial, to help you out when you're stuck in the despair of Stage 4 and to remind you that it really is important to say no to some ideas and opportunities.

Finally, while I speak in generalities about The Artistic Process, nothing here will be true for everyone. Your process may be radically different, doesn't make it any less art. I am not Speaker for the Artists.

And if you are an artist who never experiences the despair of Stage 4, please contact me ASAP to tell me what your secret is.

How to Support Artists (Beyond Buying Stuff)

by Ariela

Original art by Allie Brosh - hyperboleandahalf.blogspot.com Meme generated by Imageflip.com

Original art by Allie Brosh - hyperboleandahalf.blogspot.com
Meme generated by Imageflip.com

Welcome back to week three of Artists' Rights Month at Geek Calligraphy. In week one I pointed out a lot of problems created by the Starving Artist trope, and now I want to provide some solutions.

Buy Stuff

This one should come as no surprise, but one of the best ways to support an artist is to buy their work. Helps us keep the lights on, the rent paid, selves (and families/pets) fed, etc. We like all these things.

Buy our stuff and don't attempt to tell us that we should be charging less. We put time and skilled labor into our work, and we set our prices accordingly. Things that go into how we set our prices include, but are not limited to: the difficulty producing the item in question, how many of them we make and whether the process can be made easier if we make more, cost of materials, cost of living while we produce the item in question. We don't set prices arbitrarily high.

For some kinds of artists, commissions are extra super awesome! If you think you won't be able to afford it, contact the artist and ask. Be up front about your budget and say that you know they may not be able to produce something in your price range, but you wanted to check. Make it clear that you like their work and respect their skill and their time. If they say no, accept gracefully.

But we know that you cannot buy everything all the time. So here are some other ways to help.

Take a Moment to Tell Us You Like It

Creating art can be an exhausting process. Knowing that someone likes it, even if they can't buy it at the moment, can be an enormous pick-me-up. It lets us know that someone sees our stuff and likes it enough to take a moment to send us a kind word.

Repost with Attribution

If you see something awesome posted somewhere you should totally re-blog/retweet/Share on Facebook/whatever, but it will help the originator more if you can do it with attribution. This can be hard, because sometimes you see things posted without attribution in the first place. take a moment and hunt the originator down to give them credit. Links back are also helpful, as they boost search rankings.

Don't Use Images (Audio, Text, Etc.) Without Permission

See something awesome and want to use it for your blog/podcast/website? Contact the creator and ask their permission. If they say they want you to pay for it, do so, or don't use it. If they say they don't want you using it even if you offer to pay, respect their wishes. Photographers in particular are frequent victims of this one as Google has made it super easy to search for any image, right click, and stick it somewhere else. I know it's easy, but don't do it. Be a mensch (a good person) and contact the creator before using their work.

Tell Your Friends

Re-posting our stuff is great, but please, by all means, signal boost with a comment about how much you like it. Gush to your friends. Maybe one of them is looking for exactly what we're doing right now. This is particularly helpful if you can reach a different audience than the one that the artist might already have in their personal network.

Change the Narrative

If you hear someone reinforcing the Starving Artist trope, don't let it go unremarked.  Point out that it is both inaccurate and unhelpful. If you hear someone complaining about how much an artist is charging, not in an "I wish I could afford it" way but in a "How dare they!" way, push back; bonus points if you can do this at work. If you are a creator yourself, portray artists in a variety of circumstances.

Honestly, I feel a bit funny about mentioning this one, as it is so much further down on my list of "Problematic Stuff People Say That Should Be Called Out" than say racism, sexism, classism, ableism, xenophobia, etc. But if you have a moment and some spare emotional energy and see the opportunity, go for it.

Mentor Other Creators

If you are a creator yourself, mentor newbies into your field. I am not saying that you should train them for free, but helping them to get a feel for the ropes can help everyone. If they set their prices too low, it can cut the bottom out of the market for everyone. Remind them that their work is worth paying for!

The "Starving Artist" Trope Needs to DIAF: A Labor Day Post

Image reads "I am an artist. This does not mean I will work for free. I have bills just like you. Thank you for understanding. Image found on  thephotographer4you.com

Image reads "I am an artist. This does not mean I will work for free. I have bills just like you. Thank you for understanding.
Image found on thephotographer4you.com

by Ariela

"The Starving Artist trope needs to DIAF."

I have been having the same, or similar conversations, in various forms, a lot of late on social media. So I decided to write about it at more length than I can in 140 characters, even in consecutive tweet. The topic is only somewhat related to Labor Day, not being about an Artists' Guild or other organized labor movement. But it is about recognizing the labor of artists and valuing it properly, so I thought this would be an appropriate time to post about it.

You probably know the trope of the Starving Artist; it's quite common in American culture. It's the one that says that artists almost never make enough money to make ends meet and that aspiring artists have no sense of practicality and make no plans to support themselves while they blithely pursue their art. This trope needs to Get Gone.

The Starving Artist trope was popularized during the Romantic era in Europe and America, which peaked around 1800-1850. In America, it had a large overlap with the Bohemian movement. Both of these groups valorized the idea of devotion to art - be it writing, visual arts, music, etc. - to the exclusion of all else, particularly material concerns. In these environments, the Starving Artist was an aspirational model, not a negative image.

The 1980s and 90s saw a bunch of movies, TV shows, songs, and other artistic projects showing the young artistic hopeful arriving, usually in NYC or LA, with just a suitcase and a few dollars in their pocket, also presenting this image in a positive light. Jonathan Larson's musical Rent, based strongly on Puccini's Romantic-era opera La Bohème, was probably the pinnacle of this trend, though I'm sure some people would put in a word for "Don't Stop Believin'" by Journey.

The evil counterpart of the Starving Artist is the Sellout, the person who has decided to abandon their artistic dream in favor of creating Extruded Art-like Product in exchange for money.

The stereotypes of the Starving Artist and the Sellout combine to create a double-bind of expectations for artists. Artists are starving, so if you want to be an artist, the immediate assumption is that you are an impractical flake with your head in the clouds and no economic sense. If you are already working as an artist and have the audacity to require payment for your work, you must be a greedy Sellout and your art can't possibly be good enough to be worth your quoted rate. Artists are "right-brained" people, so they don't pursue their careers logically and you can't possibly have a realistic plan or expectation of how hard you are going to have to work. And if you have a day job and pursue art on the side, why are you demanding to be paid for your hobby?

This is galling enough on its own, but even moreso when compared with the treatment of another group of creative dreamers in America: "entrepreneurs." Wikipedia defines Starving Artist as "an artist who sacrifices material well-being in order to focus on their artwork. They typically live on minimum expenses, either for a lack of business or because all their disposable income goes toward art projects. " But this description could also be applied to an entrepreneur in the throes of starting up a business. Startups have a high rate of failure, but we don't have a derogatory "Starving Entrepreneur" trope; in fact, people who do that tend to be lauded by the American capitalist machine. And I don't buy that this is due to the newness of entrepreneurship compared to art - the Romantic period that saw the birth of the Bohemian ideal was in large part a response to the Industrial Revolution, so the tension between these two groups goes back plenty long.

Someone who lives on ramen while working on the next big app,  or mortgages their house to finance their restaurant, or works at a day job and then codes all night, etc., is considered "goal oriented," or at least they are if they succeed. We don't tend to hear about failures because they don't match the cultural narrative surrounding entrepreneurs and The American Dream. Artists who live meagerly are derided for "not having a real job," or living in an "unsustainable way;" those of us who work a day job are frequently condescendingly applauded for recognizing that our art will never be a going concern. Our failures are incorporated back into the cultural canon and our successes are forgotten because they don't fit the preconception of the Starving Artist. It's confirmation bias at its most basic.

This boondoggle of unrealistic and conflicting expectations is inextricably tied to and exacerbated by the way that our society values art. Or rather, the way that it doesn't value art. Art is seen as unnecessary, something not worth spending large amounts of money to obtain, or only worth spending top dollar for if one is so rich that one simply has nothing better to do with that money. I'm including more than just graphic arts in that estimation. Music, novels, theater, dance, and other media are similarly denigrated. One might think that wider access to the arts, through recording, scanning, printing, streaming, and other reproduction technology, might give people across class lines a greater appreciation for them and increase the number of people who understand their worth; alas it is not so. If anything, I suspect that it has further devalued them by creating false expectations about the cost. When art could only be afforded by the wealthy, of course it was expensive to produce; but when anyone can buy a poster, it's an huge sticker shock to encounter custom art prices. People who aren't in the habit of commissioning work don't think about the fact that the cost of production, including the artist's time, is amortized over the entire print run/album run/clothing line/etc. Sticker shock is normal, and I don't resent the clients who hear my breakdown of costs and expected labor time and say, "Ok, wow, that's out of our price range, but thanks for your time!" I also don't mind the ones who ask what the options are to cut the costs. It's the ones who get angry when I tell them my prices who are the problem. (Terri deals with most of this as part of general administravia, so I get off easy in this department.)

I am far from the only one who experiences this problem. Plenty of people attempt to get artists to do work on the grounds that it will be a good portfolio piece, or that the project will bring them publicity. The twitter account @ForExposure_txt documents some of the egregious examples of this trend. Another common trend is the non-profit that asks artists to donate their work "because it's for a good cause!" but would never dream of asking their plumber to do likewise. People who accept the quoted prices of consulting firms without a blink try to bargain artists down. The perceived valuelessness of the time and work of artists is, I suspect, one of the factors that causes Patreon to be so much more contentious than other crowdfunding platforms, like Kickstarter and GoFundMe. A society that derides us for not being able to support ourselves through our art and then turns around and demands that we work for free or insultingly low rates is hypocritical and sick. Our lovely capitalist machine demands that far too many people in a variety of jobs work below the poverty line, but what I am addressing here is the particular moral outrage expressed at artists who have the gall to say that they deserve to get paid, not just be snivellingly grateful for whatever pennies get tossed our way by noble and beneficent people with "Real Jobs."

Artists know our vocation takes an enormous amount of hard work, dedication, and perseverance. We're not in denial about this. For some of us this means we work a day job while pursuing art at night and on the weekends, sometimes for a few years, sometimes for all our working lives. For some of us it means paring away our expenses until we can live within our earnings as artists. For many it is a combination of both. We do this so that we can produce the art we love, which we hope you will love, too.

Artists make things that are beautiful, profound, disturbing, thought-provoking, challenging, and sometimes things that exist just to make you happy. We deserve respect for this work. And we deserve to get paid.

And the Starving Artist trope, which tells a story that we deserve none of this, needs to die in a fire.


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Sometimes profanity is required. When someone asks you to work "for exposure," for example. Or for "portfolio development." Or tries to haggle you down from your stated prices by trying to convince you that you're not actually that good.

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