For centuries the integrity of artists has been awarded based on our ability to suffer and the moment an artist finds a way to make our work lucrative we are accused of selling out. While publishers, collectors and advertisers are lauded for the financial success they build off our backs, we are happy to keep perpetuating the stereotype of a starving artist. Find out how this harms artists and keeps the capitalist enterprise sated.
Written by Aarushi Ahluwalia
You know when you are growing up and you tell your parents that you want to pursue the arts? You want to sing? Dance? Paint pictures? Take photographs? Sculpt clay? Write sordid tales about sad people? Maybe that last one was just me. Regardless, the response to all of us was the same, wasn’t it?
“You have to get a graduate degree for safety and you can pursue your art as a hobby.”
This isn’t my attempt to crucify the generation that makes up our parents, for what it is worth, their reasoning was sound. You can sing and dance, but darling, show me the money? It does not exist. They didn’t want us to starve, I presume, so they discouraged us from being financially-dependent on a vocation that lauds starvation. That’s the image of art and artists that we continue to project even today. We love to think of artists as free-spirits who don’t care about nice clothes, where they live or how they survive. When doctors are hungry, they eat, but when artists are hungry, we use our pain to create. When farmers are suffering, we see the humanity in ourselves, but when artists are suffering, we see the romanticism in ourselves. Pain is the brand. Whether we are writing poetry or making sculptures, we must draw from the pain.
We must be satisfied to just create, after all, what more could an artist want than to see their book on a shelf, their painting on a wall, their sculpture on a mantle? They tell you that. They sell you your dreams by redefining them as socio-emotional goals. They tell you that you don’t care about selling a million copies of your book, you care about seeing one copy on your own bookshelf. They tell you that you wouldn’t be satisfied by a sold-out gallery exhibition, you’re only satisfied when you’re in your studio. There is some truth to this. I cannot speak for every artist, but for me, it’s true that no joy compares to the joy of creation. There is nothing in the world I love more than writing and at any given time, it is what I would rather be doing. I don’t believe pain is vital to creation but consumption by creation is a prevalent side-effect of the job. You do tend to come to love your process of creation so much that everything in the world pales in comparison, but artists are the only people who are penalised for loving our work.
Because, that is what it is, it’s work and the reluctance to see it that way is lot more insidious than meets the eye. We believe creation is a relaxing, hobbyist pursuit that is only indulged when we are feeling inspired, sitting atop a mountain with a cup of hot tea, scribbling in a notebook, posting some crap on Instagram about how the environment conspired to support our Wordsworthian emotions. It justifiably feels like you shouldn’t have to pay people for experiencing that emotion, but that’s not how artists create at all. That’s how investment bankers convince themselves they are creatives while on vacations most artists could scarcely afford. I cant speak for everyone but I’ll speak for myself, okay? I started writing as a kid but when, at twenty, I realised that I wanted to write for a living, I had to start truly working at it. For the past eleven years I have written at least three-thousand words every single day, come hail or high water, because while the soul of art may be emotion, the creation of it requires a tonne of skill, and practise is the only way to garner skill. Ask any musician, they’ll tell you how much time and effort goes into mastering a craft. It’s not as free-spirited as it seems either. I am the most anal, disciplined person I know, which I shouldn’t say about myself but truth is truth okay, I stick to schedules like I wish the Indian Railways would. I know I am supposed to be walking barefoot in unknown streets, skirts flying in the wind, searching for inspiration, but that’s not how it works, I am mostly seated at my desk surrounded by a dozen notebooks and three devices, chasing deadlines. The work of any artist requires as much time, commitment, skill and dedication as any job. The reason we don’t talk about it like that is because it keeps the world believing in the nobility of artists who don’t “sell out.”
Think about it. It’s perfectly acceptable for everyone to get rich off art but the artist themselves and now more than ever. No one shames art collectors for making millions off paintings made by a person who made practically nothing for creating them. It is acceptable for publishers to be in the business of books, and in this era of self-publishing, it is even acceptable for publishers to make money not just off the sales of books but off writers as well. Most writers lose money on their books because we are taught to chase shelves, not cheques. Back when printing presses were fewer in number, publishers were invested in keeping printing costs low but now that most publishers own or are invested in their own presses, they jack up printing costs and offer you “high royalties” instead. For every Rs. 400 book you buy, the writer makes Rs. 50-60 even when it is “100% royalty” because the system is gamed that way. And when, tired of eating beans for dinner and accepting our financial limitations, we begin to write for advertisers, market ourselves as the brand, create who the audience wants to see/read or create SEO-friendly content, we’re called sell-outs. Even when digital artists or creators team up with “influencers” they are expected to do it for the “recognition” or accused of being untrue to their art.
The integrity of artists is tied to their poverty.
I cannot tell you how many people have told me that Shakespeare wasn’t rich so why should I want to be, which, seriously, can you guys read past headlines please? This habit is killing us. Shakespeare wasn’t rich, yeah, but by modern standards, he was worth millions. He owned two houses and enjoyed patronage from various people throughout his career. He didn’t accumulate a lot of wealth, but he wasn’t a starving artist, my darlings. And even if there were artists who did indeed starve, they shouldn’t have. Ultimately when our parents warned us against investing too heavily in art, most of us listened, we got degrees and jobs that were art-adjacent (journalism, graphics, advertising), because as we got older, we did realise there is little to no money in art and figured we’d fill our coffers a different way and exhibit our truth in our free-time, I did that too. It wasn’t until recently, until I had given a decade of my time to my work, and I was offered Rs. 700 for writing an essay for a magazine that sells to millions of people that I realised I hadn’t been asking the right question. The question was never: What lucrative jobs can you have that allow the space to be creative as well? Nope. The question always was: Why is their no money in art when so much money surrounds it?
And the answer?
You expect us to feed ourselves on our pain and you don’t think you should have to pay for it. You will go to a restaurant and pay a 700% mark-up on bread, but you’ll defend your right to read my essay for free to the death, because I can make money from the advertisements right? I can, not as much money as the advertisers who aren’t expected to starve for their job, but I can, but what do I do when I start to lose readers because I “sold out” for advertisers? What do I do when I am no longer “pure” enough as an artist to warrant the label? What do we do when the choice is purity or lunch?
We starve, right? We should be so lucky to gain that distinction.
So you can point at us when you tell the next generation of artists that their creativity comes from their suffering. Fuck that noise. You know why you don’t want your kid to be an artist? Because you would never pay one for what they created. That’s why.