How the myth of the 'starving artist' is starving us of the art we need

Students protest outside the Art Gallery of NSW during the Archibald Prize opening against the defunding of Sydney ...

Students protest outside the Art Gallery of NSW during the Archibald Prize opening against the defunding of Sydney College of the Arts. Photo: James Brickwood

It's a little absurd to think the idea that becoming an artist should mean foregoing financial security still informs our lives now, when it's 150 years out of date.

In 1851, Henri Murger, a little-known French author, wrote a book called Scènes de la vie de Bohème, based on a group of writers, artists, composers and philosophers he observed during the nights he spent at a cafe in Paris's Latin Quarter. These original 'starving artists' would fight, sleep together and, occasionally, retreat to their garrets to write volumes of poetry. But mostly, they regularly skipped rent payments and lived below the poverty line.

They called themselves the 'Water Drinkers' – a moniker that doesn't refer to their thirst for creativity so much as it describes the fact that they were too broke to order any other kind of beverage.

Vincent van Gogh, Self-portrait, 1889

Vincent van Gogh, Self-portrait, 1889 Photo: The Art of Forgery

Scènes de la vie de Bohème, which was remade into a famous opera by Puccini, was hardly the stuff of aspiration, but it romanticised the myth of the starving artist, one in which the business of making money to put a roof over your head should always come a humdrum second to the lofty process of making art.

Advertisement

From Van Gogh, who subsidised his productivity with a monthly stipend from his generous dealer brother to the 1950s Beat writers, who rejected anything vaguely material to reach a higher consciousness, somewhere along the way the starving artist myth convinced us that money was the enemy of artistic 'purity'. It also made our willingness to subscribe to it proof of our commitment to being artists rather than the product of a broken system that undervalues creative work.

If you can paint, or make music, or write anything that resembles more than a game of Boggle while your bank balance dips into single-digit territory, then I guess you're just more romantic than me. Not only is this bogus relationship between creativity and financial instability monstrously disrespectful to anyone who's ever had to endure the misery of poverty while never dreaming of mustering the gall to call themselves an artist, it ignores the ways that being in a position to pay for basic needs – healthcare, meals, a stable home, let alone time spent with family and friends – fosters a base-level wellbeing that's intrinsic to making art of any kind.

Archibald Prize winner Louise Hearman with her winning portrait of Barry Humphries says artist incomes are down 80 per cent.

Archibald Prize winner Louise Hearman with her winning portrait of Barry Humphries says artist incomes are down 80 per cent. Photo: James Brickwood

There are few writerly cliches I hate more than citing Charles Bukowski but in some cases he has a point. "Starvation, unfortunately, didn't improve art. It only hindered it," he wrote in his 1975 novel Factocum. "A man's soul was rooted in his stomach. A man could write much better after eating a porterhouse steak and drinking a pint of whiskey than he could ever write after eating a nickel candy bar. The myth of the starving artist was a hoax."

But this hoax is corrosive not because artists have internalised it, but because of a culture that uses it to infantilise those who create for a living and neglect the material struggles they face. According to a January 2015 report in The Guardian, an Australian visual artist makes an average of $10,000 a year. Given that March 2016 CoreLogic statistics found that it costs approximately $485 a week to rent in a capital city and that researchers are identifying ongoing links between housing affordability and poor mental health, this should be treated as a crisis, not accepted as the way things have always been.

The notion that financial security isn't high a priority for artists also leads to disastrous decisions that deny them the infrastructure, opportunities and protections extended to other workers, obstructing pathways that could enable them to make a solid living from their work.

In a May 2016 Guardian article, Alison Croggon reported that the Australia Council had cut grants to individual artists by 70 per cent since 2014 and in June 2016, Sydney University announced plans to shutter the Sydney College of the Arts, transferring around 600 students to the University of New South Wales' Paddington campus. The closure of the SCA, which counts painter Ben Quilty and director Jane Campion as alumni, is another symptom of a world that treats artist's creative imperatives as an indulgence and their economic ones as completely nonexistent.

If you've ever read a book or watched a film or witnessed an installation that's shattered your world view so completely that you've emerged a different person, you'll know that art can throw us a lifeline when we feel like we're sinking, strip away the lies we concoct to comfort ourselves and hold the powerful to account.

But by dismissing artists' financial realities, the starving artist myth manifests in ensuring the artists we hear from are in fact those with the resources, contacts and trust funds; often white middle-class kids for whom dressing in rags is a temporary, romantic exercise; with a safety net slung above rock bottom. 

Artists whose backgrounds are working-class, Indigenous or immigrant, those who don't have the privilege or luxury to sustain an art career with pocket money, are left out of the equation in this system despite the fact that it's the alternative perspective they offer that will challenge the status quo and move society forward. It's this talent that really needs to be cultivated and compensated, and these voices that we can't afford to snuff out.

Louise Hearman, the Melbourne artist who, last week, won the $100,00 Archibald Prize for her portrait of Barry Humphries and has been painting since she was a 14-year-old, summed up this crisis best:

"Most Australian artists, their income is down 80 per cent and a lot of people don't earn that much money anyway. That leaves them in a pretty bad position, so prizes like this are fantastic. They keep you going."

Any artist will tell you that on our best days, making art is a labour of love. The starving artist myth tells us many lies, but two stand out: The first is that our labour is worth nothing, and the second is that love conquers all.