The Myth of the Starving Artist

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The Myth of the Starving Artist

“Don’t ask yourself what the world needs. Ask yourself what makes you come alive and then go do that. Because what the world needs is people who have come alive.” – Howard Thurman

A person I know was telling me about his child. He said his son drew well and loved art, but he was concerned about where this might lead as he didn’t want him to become an “artist” and fall down what he perceives as a life long path of poverty and addiction.

My immediate response was to tell him that I personally knew a lot of creative people and the idea of the “starving, tortured artist” was a thing of the past. I explained that artists, real artists, work hard and the artistic community expects them to be competent, educated, and financially successful. The “drunk, drug addled” genius is not considered hip or cool amongst real professionals.

I’m not really sure where this idea that all artists are crazed souls strung out on contraband and living on bread crumbs and second hand smoke comes. I do know I’m tired of it. Yes, we all know Van Gogh cut off his ear. We are aware that Hemingway and Pollock struggled with alcohol, and Poe is rumored to have enjoyed the pleasures of the opium dens. They were all geniuses and their work still touches the very center of our beings. Their life stories were marred by what in hindsight we identify as the tragedy of mental illness, addiction, and poverty.

But, and let me be very, very clear here, they are the EXCEPTIONS. They are not the rule.

For every Van Gogh or Pollock, there are hundreds of painters just like Sargent and Picasso who were more than able to support themselves financially and lived addiction-free, work-focused lives. For every Hemingway or Poe, there are hundreds of writers just like JK Rawlings or Stephen Pressfield, disciplined and successful in their work.

I’m blessed to have crossed paths with many professional artists. There’s Carol Norton, a graphic designer, who is able to earn a full time income working from home. There’s John Medwedeff, a sculptor specializing in large scale commissions. He employees dozens of people supporting their families as well as his own. There’s Michael Kline, a potter, who in addition to making gorgeous pieces that are widely collected, is in demand as an instructor of master level workshops all over the United States. And don’t forget Linda Davick, an illustrator and animator, who in addition to freelance work has illustrated seven children’s books with one more that she authored as well due out soon.

And the writers? Too many to list. I literally know dozens of people who live well (six figures well) on the earnings they make writing. I could go on and on, but I won’t. Please note that amongst this bunch and the many others I know, there’s not one drug addict or alcoholic, not one person on unemployment or welfare, and not one in bankruptcy or foreclosure.

Yes, these artists are talented and by modern standards successful too.

It’s easy for us to look at a Van Gogh (whose work I adore and whose tragic life makes my heart break) and without thinking say, “if you become an artist you will have a tragic life.” Doing that would be like looking at Joan Crawford and saying, “if you become a mother, you will beat your children with wire coat hangers.” Ridiculous. But these negative stereotypes around artists persists and because of them we steer our children into “respectable” professions.

From the clothes on our backs to the books we read to the chair we sit on to the paintings we gaze upon to the music we hear, the bottom line is the things we take the most pleasure in are the things that are created by artists. We have to stop going to the negative stereotypes. We have to start recognizing, honoring, and rewarding the huge contributions that paid, professional artists make in our lives every single day.

I’m glad there are people who fight fires and cancer, who protect and serve our communities and country, who count our money and fight for us in court. But I’m equally glad for the people who created the buildings that make Atlanta’s skyline so gorgeous, who designed the glass I drink from that fits so wonderfully in my hand, and who painted the lovely painting that hangs over my fireplace.

If someone we know has a heart and talent for numbers, we need to encourage them to pursue numbers relentlessly. If the law lights our child up, then by all means we must encourage them to chase it down. If our friend loves medicine or chemistry or crime fighting, we need to do everything we can so they can study it.

And what do we do if someone’s passion is paint, music, fashion, or film? We do the same. We encourage them to pursue it, chase it, and study it. Talents, be they for numbers or paint, are divinely given and we need to honor and value artistic talent the same way we honor the hard sciences and professional tracks.

So, as a mom and a friend, it is my responsibly to allow and encourage my children and friends to find their own paths and do all I can to support them. It’s not about me. It’s not about what I want. It’s about them discovering and bringing their talents, be they artistic or academic, to fruition. Not burying them, not hiding them, and not succumbing to my vision or societies vision of a “respectable,” “acceptable” life.

As a society, we need to drop the judgement. We need to drop the negative stereotypes. We need to recognize and appreciate the beauty and value real, professional, artists bring to every single aspect of our lives. We need to open our wallets and support those whose work moves us.

As artist, we need to take our work seriously. We must respect and value our talents and work hard in developing them. We must find community that supports us. And no matter how scary it is, we have to put our work out there. We have to stand by what we create.

I have to wonder if more people followed their passions instead of being bullied into submission by the status quo, if we’d have a lot more happy people. If we each felt free to express who really are without the fear of being ostracized for it, would we be more contented with our lives and not turn to food and drink and mind-numbing entertainment to dull the pain?

For those who have followed their passions, I salute your bravery. For those who have not, I urge you to look deep in your hearts, find what brings you alive, and then be brave enough to stand up for yourself. The world really does need more people “who have come alive.”

The image is Untitled by Mac Stewart, my son, an artist.


  1. Thank you for a brilliant article Denise! I was one of those talented artistic kids whose parents said “Don’t follow arts, you’ll always have the bum out of your pants – artists don’t make money”. And they promptly enrolled me in business school. Ugh! What followed was years of misery in careers that I hated. And likewise I did not like myself or my life. Now, in my 40’s, I work as a writer and an artist, and I help others find their inner artist and build fabulous businesses using their creative talents! I can’t believe I had to wait so long to live my dream!!! Every child should be encouraged to do what they love, whether that be in a creative industry or working with numbers!

    • So glad you found your way back to the path that makes you happiest and are helping others do the same, Cyndi.

  2. Love this, Denise! That scary stereotype of the starving artist definitely still lingers in my mind. Great article!

  3. As I writer I used to believe in the myth of the starving artist, but I’m so glad I realized it’s just not true. And this one paragraph is so enlightening and oh so true:
    “From the clothes on our backs to the books we read to the chair we sit on to the paintings we gaze upon to the music we hear, the bottom line is the things we take the most pleasure in are the things that are created by artists. We have to stop going to the negative stereotypes. We have to start recognizing, honoring, and rewarding the huge contributions that paid, professional artists make in our lives every single day.”
    Thank you for your insight!

  4. Very refreshing perspective, Denise… especially since I have a daughter whose dream is to have a career as an artist.

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