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You want to be a ‘starving artist’? Please Don’t : The Artist and the Bohemian Dream

If you can't live entirely off your art yet, do yourself a favor and conform to society

RENT, the Bohemian Dream

In the musical “RENT”, the popular idea of the romanticized “starving artist” narrative seems to be well, a thing that has resurfaced into the minds of the collective public consciousness fresh off gaining popularity in the early 2000s. Not that the idea is particularly groundbreaking, but this musical inspired by “La Boheme”, insists on a very particular narrative. One is that the artist, should live by any means necessary to achieve the Bohemian dream. Which if you’re unfamiliar with the term, the Bohemian dream refers to a movement of artists and poets in late 19th century France (also incidentally where the musical “La Boheme” got its name from).

RENT, the 2005 movie. A merry band of artists who live from day to day, a seemingly good message

Bohemians believed in living outside of the bourgeois mainstream culture and were against the institutionalization of art – believing that all art should be radical, free from being governed by societal structures and “the man“. Often gathering in cafes and drinking absinthe, these artists could be classified as your modern day starving artists. So if it wasn’t clear by now, this is the driving inspiration behind the plot for RENT.

The general film plot goes as follows. We have a quirky cast of characters, all who live off in one way or the other on their art to pay off their landlord for one year- an erotic dancer with HIV, a drag queen percussionist, an independent filmmaker, and a couple of others fellow practitioners. It’s the romantic Bohemian dream come alive, or so we think. I say so because this musical seems to go to great lengths to portray these artists as “going against the man and the system” but more often than not, show how these characters would do anything to solely survive on their art. Their stubbornness to conform in any way, shape, or form seems to have less weight and value by nature of the framing in this movie – a bunch of suburban middle class 1980’s artists/ kids, who value the “me” aspect of being an artist way too much for my comfort. I am here to take a stand.

Values of the starving artist

No, this article isn’t a review on RENT, but rather I bring this up to highlight the great disservice that the musical’s many messages seem to imply. That working on a solid paying career AND your art is “selling out”, that it’s okay to steal from society that you refuse to conform to and be to an extent, a public nuisance if money is short. That the death of one of their main casts imply that “artists” are just too sad and pure for this cruel cruel world that won’t allow them to live off their art-making. That being an “artist” even in name, garners you a level of sympathy and support that you would feel owed to by the public, and in turn how that excuses many digressions.

Source: Unsplash

The funny thing is, many people whom I’ve met seem to think that this modern day interpretation of the artist is okay and justifiable. Of course, since we’ve been taught from young, haven’t we? That artists hardly make any money, or that they are weirddelusional and their chances of success being low.  It’s a stereotype –  I can guarantee if you ask any artist working out there from their craft, at one point in their lives, this must have been a conscious thought that actively plagues the mind and most times a legitimate fear.

So now the question becomes, what is so wrong with these messages?

What’s the issue?

To get this out of the way, the point of this article is NOT to say that you cannot make it as a starving artist, but rather to help remove the illusion that being a starving artist is the ONLY way to be recognized as one (an artist that is). The general consensus that artists should suffer for their artmaking always felt like false equivalency to me. Let’s put a pin on this first and come back to it. 

The meaning of the Artist back then and present day

Artist is a descriptive term applied to a person who engages in an activity deemed to be high art – like drawing, painting, film, dancing, photography etc. The word is used in a qualitative sense of, a person creative in, innovative in, or adept at, an artistic practice. In the middle ages, the term Artist was used to describe someone of high caliber or skill, which would be equivalent to more of a craftsman than an Artist in a modern sense of the word.

In Living with Art, Mark Getlein, a writer who has helped to create a series of ground-breaking textbooks in art, proposes six activities, services or functions of contemporary artists: 

  1. Create places for some human purpose.
  2. Create extraordinary versions of ordinary objects.
  3. Record and commemorate.
  4. Give tangible form to the unknown.
  5. Give tangible form to feelings.
  6. Refresh our vision and help see the world in new ways.

I guess what I’m trying to highlight is that, nowhere does it say that you have to survive solely on your art, and much less starve for it. His outline is not definitive but puts a lot of thought into context when we reexamine the virtue to being an Artist.

So back to that pin

Right, so if you don’t have to starve and dedicate your soul to it, why has it been romanticized to the degree we see on screen, TV, media representation and our social consciousness? I don’t have a definitive answer for that, but my best guess is this:

If you don’t literally suffer for your art, is me being an artist “legitimate”?

The romanticization stems more from a need for reassurance and legitimacy than anything to do with your actual prowess or worth in the field of arts. With the stereotype that artists should or must go off the beaten path, it’s a thought I’ve had with myself before.

For many who pursue a full-time career in art, the option to have a day time job AND be an artist seems but near difficult to achieve. Minus the obvious reasons like a lack of time, and the inability to juggle too many things, its also because many artists go into this path without a clear plan of action or goal in mind. There is an implication that having a day job or a job outside of your immediate field of arts is a time waster and any suggestion otherwise to keep that day job is met with remarks of being un-supportive.

Young artists of today are more self initiative and autonomous than ever. The reliance and dream of sitting around waiting for that gallery call and representation is shifting further away, but the economic stability and job market would not make quitting your day job be all that advisable either. And to this I say, this is great! For all you young artists out there, go and organize your own shows, have it in odd alternative spaces, in your homes, in an open discourse, in a public setting. At your own paces, create your own definitions and in this way, become your own business.

If anything, earning money and gaining experiences from your day job, and being integrated in society only helps to further inform your understanding of the world around you, and by extension the breadth of your craft. I’ve seen doctors, lawyers, physicists, engineers, cleaning maids and even housewives turn their attention to the arts without giving up their bread and butter. And hey, if you manage to make additional buck from your art, it makes it all the more worth it.

If I still haven’t convinced you to keep your day job, then my advice to you is this, Have a plan of attack, learn from industry professionals, speak to your peers in this field, curators and gallery owners alike and know your market. Above all else, stay headstrong.

As I said earlier on in this article though, this isn’t to say that you cannot make it work as a starving artist, but rather to break that illusion that it is the ONLY way to be recognized as one.

So instead of staying starved, why not be a surviving artist instead?

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Stevie Ku'shon

Stevie grew up in the cusp between the VCR and DVD era and can't afford Netflix either. Reportedly the first ever person to transition from Beta female, to Alpha female, to Beta again successfully without any complications - she also has a degree paper, that paper being white - And 11 out of 10 people agree that she never tells any lies, especially in writing. With a background in fine arts, particularly an affinity for performance/ installation art that touch on breaking boundaries and social norms, she has a lil sum-sumthin to say about it all

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