A woman lives on the streets with nothing but a tattered jacket, a sketchbook, and some pencils to her name. Surely, she is in the depths of despair, but when spoken to, her eyes twinkle from the fulfillment of filled pages.
A poet strings words together with gold thread and nimble fingers, but being able to pay the next month’s rent looms over her even with her talent.
A screenwriter spends ten years pitching his idea to every company, to every higher-up he can, with little to no return. He becomes so desperate that he sells the laptop he writes on so as to not end up homeless. He lives off of passion alone.
The starving artist is a trope so widely known that just the mention of the name renders nods of comprehension. Nonetheless, it follows the general formula of an extremely talented artist who sacrifices everything in his or her life, from emotional to material needs, to pursue their craft with intense love.
It’s promoted not just through the use of media but real-life examples as well, the most recent instance being the story of the Squid Game creator Hwang Dong-hyuk, who spent ten years being rejected for the new hit Netflix show. To many outsides of industries relating to art, these stories are ones about the importance of hard work, passion, and perseverance. To those in these same industries, these stories warrant nothing but an eye roll for their use of many tired, worn-out, and dangerous tropes.
What the starving artist trope does is trick artists out of their own basic needs. You don’t need monetary compensation, the cliche whispers to them as though they are a left-out child needing a reminder that they are special. You already have your art, and shouldn’t that be enough? You don’t really care. You’re just not passionate enough. Indeed, through this trope, artists are expected to essentially cut their own limbs if needed, working tirelessly and thanklessly on the off chance that maybe, just maybe, they’ll become someone who perpetuates survivorship bias rather than someone who rants about it.
This hollow, manipulative whisper rings throughout all the mediums. No one would suggest that a metalworker, a fashion designer, and a screenwriter have any similarities, and yet, because they all fall under the loose umbrella of “art,” their industries have far too much in common: bottom-heavy hierarchies where the top sit primly and peacefully due to connections and nepotism. Hyper-competition constitutes the status quo for those without said riches and networks.
And even with their comfortable status, many artists who make millions feel the need to talk about “starting from the bottom” as a way of becoming simultaneously more relatable and more aspirational. Indeed, note the number of actors that have talked about “not coming from much” but continuing due to their love of the craft, despite actually coming from a wealthy background.
With these unfair expectations of downright obsession with their career path comes the glorification of poverty. In her article “Stop Romanticizing The ‘Starving Artist,’” artist Jenn Endless talks about her own experiences in art school with her middle and upper-class peers who often acted like being homeless or coming from an impoverished background somehow gave someone a “cool story” and used these dire circumstances for an aesthetic.
“Some kids on the street are queer and decided to leave home when the intolerance became unbearable, or they were kicked out when their parents found the dress in their closet. They had nowhere else to go. Meanwhile, kids who are bored in the suburbs – or fresh in the city – are looking for adventure in poverty.”
She writes, “Some kids on the street are queer and decided to leave home when the intolerance became unbearable, or they were kicked out when their parents found the dress in their closet. They had nowhere else to go. Meanwhile, kids who are bored in the suburbs – or fresh in the city – are looking for adventure in poverty.” Of course, this is the inevitable outcome of such a trope, as the only way to convince weary artists to let go of other opportunities and live a life of destitute asceticism is by romanticizing it.
The impact of this trope is felt even in the casual consumer, although they are often not aware of it. Pirating is incredibly normalized despite the fact that doing so actively takes away from giving artists their due payment. So is Spotify, which can honestly just be considered a version of music pirating that somehow manages to be legal, despite how little it pays its artists.
And this is not to shame people who pirate and people who use Spotify. There are many other factors that come into play, and these examples should not be used to stir up individual action out of a strange sense of guilt because frankly, a couple of people choosing to use Bandcamp over Spotify is not going to fix the way people have been taught to undervalue artists while using their works for entertainment.
What is going to help is rejecting the notion that artists who demand financial compensation and have other priorities in their lives are somehow less artistically inclined because of this and creating an environment that gives every artist a genuine opportunity to succeed, even without an unholy amount of sacrifice.