Why artist AND starving?

The Poor Poet by Carl Spitzweg

The myth of the starving artist is compelling and romantic. In this culture, we seem to reserve the greatest level of admiration for those creative characters who live in a disheveled apartment in NY, typing away on an old type writer, living on coffee and crackers, and the passion for their art. These are the geniuses of the generation who, unfortunately, often only get discovered after they are dying of syphilis, or have already passed. We mourn at their sad state. We wonder, “why did no one help this poor soul while he was alive?”.

But we often don’t help them and this is why. History has taught us to believe that without that suffering, the artists would not have created such profound work. A larger proportion of musicians, artists, writers and dancers historically have had abusive childhoods, chronic physical illness, mental troubles and abject poverty, persuading us to fear that if things were a little easier for them, we might miss out on something like Beethoven’s Helige Dankegesang, Mozart’s Requiem, or Van Gogh’s Starry Night.

Starry Night

To make matters worse, we artists ourselves unwittingly perpetuate our own misery and the “starving artist myth” by measuring our level of devotion in terms of what we sacrifice for our work.

Being raised in a cash strapped family with four siblings, I had the experience of needing to sacrifice the luxuries of life, and I felt the limitations imposed by a lack of money. I watched my friends travel on field trips to Peru, order from the J.Crew catalog, while I wore hand me downs and chipped in with house work and baby-sitting jobs.

I became skilled at making do with less, and in adulthood survived on very little income. The starving artist myth fit me like a glove.

Recently, in a heated debate with some fellow artists about financial needs, I was accused by one of my friends of being selfish and defiling my art by mixing it with financial concerns, that art was bigger than all of this mundane stuff. On some level I certainly agreed with him, and this realization motivated a penetrating self inquiry.

As one living inside of the creative process, and being the one with the gifts, I have always felt that I am, in a sense, an ambassador for the divine. My musical gifts, are just that, a gift, one that I have been given the mandate to share with my fellow humans. My ability to hold my suffering, and therefore the suffering of my companions, in compassion, is a part of that gift. Thus, the calling to make music is one that transcends the ego structures of my personal daily life.

Such a mandate of the soul has no limits. Just as a loving parent will stay up long hours with a sick child, not expecting a reward, so to, an artist will devote a life time of exploring their craft and expression, regardless of financial support. It is a calling and a mission that can bear similarity to a spiritual devotion. And this is the crux of the situation: there is no way to place a financial value on something that we would do no matter what. It is priceless in the sense that it does not operate in the same value system as an exchange of goods and labor does. Because of this, when it comes time to “sell” our work, no price is too high or too low. Because it does not come with a price tag.

Add to this confounding situation the fact that we creative souls are our own worst critics. The natural result of a life long committment to a creative process is a sense that we have never arrived at a finished product. We are also reticent to ask for financial reward for our work, because we feel it could reflect on the value or lack of value of our artistry.

Since artists seem to bear all the trappings of a spiritual disciple, then it is no surprise that we are living out the myth of the martyr, given the predominating religious paradigm in our culture of Christianity.

I reached my crisis point a few years ago, when, after pouring everything that I had, body, soul, money, time, energy, husband, parents, scholarship, loans into cello, I found myself making $8 an hour playing in a symphony and doing the work of a full time professor with a half time adjunct salary of $20,000 per year before taxes. My husband and I were living on the elk meat his father had shot, racking up credit card debt for groceries, and waking up at night to drunken college students fighting in the yard of our small rented apartment.

And I was one of the lucky seven cellists in the entire country who landed an academic teaching job that year.

I barely had time for practicing, and the performing that I was doing was not fulfilling me artistically. I was living the starving artist myth, without the artist part. It became clear that if something didn’t change I would be incapable of giving my music to the world. That, contrary to the myth, “starving” and “artist” are not good companions. And so I had to sacrifice the hardest thing of all, my pride and my beliefs about money and art, and begin fund raising, and asking for appropriate compensation for my work.

With the very survival of my creative life at stake because of finances, I came to the realization that while I could never place a value on my music I could allow the world to support me to survive, to eat, to put a roof over my head, so that I could continue to be a vessel for this beautiful gift of music that moves through me. Breaking all my own rules, and some conventions of society as well, I began to have the courage to ask for the financial compensation and support from the community around me.

Which brings me to another myth in our culture. That of the diva. The radiant and talented artist, embodying the best of humanity, admired, beloved and richly cared for. This image was so beautifully expressed in the sparkling Buddha’s in Thailand, and I know that it was while kneeling in the Temple in Bangkok in May of 2009 that I let go at last of the martyr paradigm, a paradigm that, despite not being a practicing Christian, had a firm hold on my life. I began to see that I could serve my purpose in the world, not through suffering and sacrifice, but through thriving, abundance and joy.

Phra Phuttha Chinnarat

I have a gratitude for my hardships, for the understanding that these experiences have given me. I feel capable of expressing the human emotion that lies beneath the black squiggles on the page. As for financial hardship, by not being raised to expect money easily, I have learned both the value of money, but finally, to not be bound by my financial circumstances. But there are other ways to learn and contribute to the world than through ones suffering, and I while I have no illusions that mt life will ever be a breeze, certainly attachment to suffering as a form of spiritual devotion may help ease the burden some.

At 17 I was one of the chosen few from around the world to attend the Tanglewood Institute for the summer. My father had just lost his job because of the recession, and my family was on the brink of bankruptcy. with my mothers support, I wrote letters to relatives and family friends, played concerts, even put an advertisement in the paper. At the age of 17 I raised $3,000. At Tanglewood I played along side of children of NY Metropolitan Opera players, or wealthy Harvard-bound korean-Americans .I had master classes with Yo Yo Ma, and Neikrug and performed some of the great orchestral repertoire. But the story of how I got to Tanglewood was almost more miraculous than attending the festival.

The same holds true today. To accomplish an endeavor that requires the support of many individuals, I learn that one way that I can show my devotion to music is by accepting that, as a performer, I have only one part to play in the creation of music, even if a crucial one. Art is indeed greater than what I can accomplish alone, and I can serve it best by remembering that, aside from some very meaningful individual creative contributions, I am the vessel, and not the substance in the vessel. To ask for support to build a strong and sturdy vessel for this purpose is neither entitled nor selfish, but rather humbling. Is this not the ultimate and most profound sacrifice, to devote our entire lives to something that we cannot fully possess or own?

In accepting support of a larger community, I am relinquishing the martyred artist myth, as well as releasing my iron grip of possessiveness on music. I am accepting that it takes a community to raise a child, and to bring beautiful music into this world. I am happy with the role that I get to play, though. Being the communicator for something so magnificent and complex requires hours of hard practice. But in the midst of the surrender and passion of performance I get to transcend the narrow confines of my own life, and for a moment, sparkle and shimmer with a certain diva light.

2 thoughts on “Why artist AND starving?

  1. Michelle Tichy

    I enjoy reading your wonderful musings. I feel that through your narrative you bring voice to an epic journey that is your own life. Love Always, Your Friend!

  2. Elana Gartner

    It is always amazing to me that artists are expected to not expect a monetary compensation for the work they do. Why shouldn’t we? It is still work, just as that of a teacher or banker or government official. But is true that within the artists’ communities as well as in the general society, it is still expected that artists should suffer. And, furthermore, artists frequently look down on other artists who demand compensation.

    Last year, I was party to such a debate on a listserv that I am on and was shocked to hear other artists so strongly objecting to those that would ask for monetary compensation. I challenged them: do we only value our work for the integrity of artistic passion? Rebecca is right: that will not feed us, clothe us or put a roof over our heads. And it is not right that artists accept second class citizenship when it comes to economic compensation.


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