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Creative business

Why you need to understand the starving artist myth when you’re starting a creative business10 min read

The myth of the starving artist is a stubborn one.

It dates back to the mid-19th century and a writer called Henri Murger.

He was a French novelist and poet, best known for his book Scènes de la vie de bohème (Scenes of Bohemian Life), which was based on his own experiences as a desperately poor writer living in a Parisian garret.

Before elevators, these habitable attics were the least prestigious spaces in a building because they were at the very top of the stairs, had sloped ceilings and were typically tiny, dark, dismal and cramped.

The world garret has its origins in the Old French garir (defend) and English ‘garrison’ and probably inherits its meaning from watchtowers.

Murger was a member of a loose club of bohemian friends who called themselves “the water drinkers” since they were too poor to afford wine.

After a meager and fragmented education, Murger worked menial jobs in his early life.

His first essays were mostly literary and poetic, but the pressure of earning a living quickly had him writing whatever he could find a market for.

He edited newspapers for fashion and the millinery trade. He briefly lived with a French art critic and novelist who encouraged him to devote himself to fiction.

Scènes de la vie de bohème is a collection of loosely related stories set in the Latin Quarter of Paris in the 1840s that romanticises bohemian life.

Bohemianism is the practice of an unconventional lifestyle.

Usually in the company of like-minded people and with few permanent ties.

Bohemians were associated with unusual or anti-establishment political or social viewpoints, which were often expressed through free love, frugality and – in some cases – simple living or voluntary poverty.

A more economically privileged, wealthy or even aristocratic bohemian circle is referred to as haute bohème, “high Bohemia”.

The term ‘bohemianism’ emerged when artists and creators began to concentrate in the lower-rent, lower class, Romani neighbourhoods.

The Romani people of France were commonly called Bohémien as they were mistakenly thought to have reached France in the 15th century via Bohemia (in the modern-day Czech Republic).

The bohemians weren’t the first ones to pursue artistic and literary endeavours while living in financially poor circumstances.

Similar subcultures have been have been recorded as far back as ancient Rome and Alexandria.

The bohemians were typically seen as dirty, second-class citizens and rarely celebrated.

Usually made up of the children of peasants who moved into the cities to obtain work only to be confronted by the fact that there weren’t that many opportunities in the cities after all.

Being starving artists came less from a desire to rebel against mainstream culture and more from the fact that France’s economy had yet to expand enough to provide them with jobs.

From failure to creating the model for creative life.

Living in Paris, Murger was surrounded by artists. He longed to join their ranks but lacked the talent.

Instead, he turned to writing and romanticising the poverty he lived in.

Early in his career, Murger signed his name as “Henry Mürger” in an effort to appear more elegant and noticeable. (Both the English-looking “y” and the German-looking umlaut were exotic in French.)

In his book, Murger managed to tell the stories of the bohemians in a way that made their poor lifestyle seem more admirable than that of the nobles in Paris.

Scènes raised the bohemians from their place of cultural insignificance to an icon of cultural relevance and aspiration.

The Parisians began flocking to the bohemian districts of the city, to see these cultural heroes for themselves.

They wandered the streets gawking like they were at a zoo, took over the local cafes and even created fashions that imitated the Bohemian look – which was born more of necessity than a desire to make a fashion statement.

Scènes de la vie de bohème saw some literary acclaim but though Murger wrote several works after it, he spent his life in persistent struggle and eventually died at the age of 38 completely penniless.

The play that Murger wrote togehter with Theodore Barriere titled La vie de la bohème eventuall inspired Puccini’s opera La bohème, which in turn inspired many other works, including Rent (stage and film adaptations) as well as Moulin Rouge.

Even though Murger had expressed that the bohemian life was a means to an end, a temporary way to live while figuring out how to make a stable income, it was too late.

The myth had already taken root in the public’s imagination.

He became the one who launched the concept of the starving artist into our collective understanding as the model for a creative life.

When a youngster expresses an interest in pursuing a creative career, the typical parental response is advising to choose a more “practical” and “stable” career than fine arts, music or dance.

I’ve been through that ringer thrice myself.

The first time as a child when I was told that “drawing things” doesn’t pay bills.

The second time when I got accepted into my performing arts degree, which didn’t live up to my academic family’s high academic standards of doctorates and professorships.

And the third time – most ironic of them all – the whole time during my performing arts degree when we were repeatedly told “you’ll never make a living doing this”.

I kept thinking that my teachers seemed to be making a living in the industry. So did all the dancers we went to see perform, and all the people involved in the stage production process, such as choreographers and producers. And so did all the dance teachers whose classes I took several times a week.

I’ve talked about inheriting family wealth mottos before. Now I’d like to add to that list that you also inherit professional myths and beliefs that may or may not be true.

Better than mere mortals.

The bohemians were untrained artists who were not compensated for their art.

Not only did Murger transform bohemians from an ethnic group into a class of artists, but he also transfigured that class of artists to include the likes of Molière, Shakespeare, Michaelangelo and Raphael, placing them on an equal footing with the kings of France, saints of Catholicism and ancient Greek gods.

He got the readers to believe that Bohemia, the state of being a young, poor artist, is a desireable and noble state of being and made being poor and struggling for your art normal, even expected.

Today we rely on this quite heavily to explain the artist’s mindset, meaningfully nodding in agreement, that yes, one must struggle for one’s art to be a true artist.

If you seek commercial success with your art, you’re classed as a sell-out.

But this mentality completely ignores the fact that many well-known artists had good, even incredible, financial success.

For centuries, historians believed that Michelangeo was just another starving artist.

Michelangelo was known for his stinginess and frequently complained about his lack of money, such as in one of his poems when he wrote that art had left him “poor, old and working as a servant of others”.

But it turns out, as estimated by Rab Hatfield, professor of art history at the University of Syracuse in Florence and author of The Wealth of Michelangelo (Edizioni di Storia e Letteratura), that the artist accumulated a fortune that could be worth more than $46 million today.

Making Michelangelo the richest artist of the Renaissance.

He didn’t have to starve for his art and neither do you.

Though he broke the glass ceiling for future generations of artists, we’ve readily bought into the myth of the starving artist and see anyone pursuing a creative career as doomed to struggle in the lowest tiers of society.

We don’t think of creatives as wealthy or successful and crack jokes about how it’s a personal indulgence and a waste of time to get an art degree.

All my life, I heard it from well-meaning teachers, friends, and relatives. The advice was always the same: Get a good degree, have something to fall back on, and don’t quit your day job.

– Jeff Goins

Artistic expression has ever been important to us.

We’ve been making art ever since we picked up tools that enabled creative expression:

Just consider your own life, it’s full of art and design!

You listen to music by singers and musicians, read books written by authors, watch movies made by filmmakers.

Sure, not everyone will release a platinum record, get on the bestseller list or make a blockbuster, but if those were the only kind of art we consumed, our artistic landscape would be very bare.

The things you use in everyday life are designed and created by people.

Even digital albums need cover artwork, books need cover design and movies need editing, CGI work and posters.

There are creatives working in all levels of industry and there are small independent artist like me who want to focus on pursuing their creative passion.

Art graduates even have starting salaries that compete with fields like psychology, and they have good job placement post graduation.

But more importantly, arts graduates tend to be happy in their work.

A 2014 SNAAP report found job satisfaction to be very high among both recent (75%) and prior (82%) art graduates.

Compare that to Gallup’s 2013 State of the American Workplace report finding that only 36% of executives, 34% of doctors and 31% of teachers were engaged in their work.

Many art graduates also end up working in other fields but always carry their creativity with them.

And creativity – along with resilience, flexibility and a high tolerance for risk, ambiguity and failure – are the kinds of skills that will do more to maintain your relevance in your chosen field more than any particular expertise.

According to an IBM survey of more than 1,500 CEOs from 60 countries and 33 industries worldwide, found that business leaders believe the most important skill for future success is creativity.

And if you’re a creative, you’ll be pretty much prepared for anything.

No starving artist phase required.

And if you find yourself being held back by your mindset (when is that never not the case?) you can join The Money Mindset Workshop and I’ll help you through reprogramming your brain to a more optimistic way of thinking.

The way to change how creative careers are seen and to lessen the power of the starving artist myth, we need to change how we think and the language we use.

One; we need to stop joking about starving artists. And two; as artists, we need to rework our relationship with how we define the cost and value of work – which are not synonymous with your human worth, though these are often intertwined.

When you want to do the deep inner work to increase your earning potential and break through your income plateau, sign up for The Money Mindset Workshop.

It’s a 25-day program with real talk about money that includes daily exercises and journaling prompts that will help you completely transform how you think and feel, not just about money, but about how you measure your own worth.

I designed this workshop for women who’re ready to do the deep inner work that’s required for you to be able to fully step into your economic power and create a life for yourself that’s in alignment with your personal values and aspirations.

Get access here.

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