Why “starving” isn’t necessary to be an artist

Joseph Epstein, in his book Ambition, which I will review tomorrow, writes:

There is a fantasy commonly held by many who have been given a liberal arts education but who lack either the talent or the opportunity to practice any of these arts. It runs something like this: Very well. I will spend the first fifteen or twenty years of my life striving in the canyons of Wall or La Salle streets, or in the law courts, or in the long halls of corporations, and during this time, through concentrated exertions, I will pile up enough money to free myself forever from such grubby pursuits, and devote the remainder of my days to the Higher Things: literature, philosophy, music, beautiful pictures. Alas, it is a fantasy seldom achieved.

Seldom achieved indeed: it’s hard to ever pile up enough money to free oneself entirely, it’s hard to get off the treadmill of a familiar activity, it’s hard to rekindle the Higher Thing passion that burned within long long ago.

Most people who have artistic interests aren’t talented enough to pursue them professionally full-time. So they do banking, consulting, law, medicine, business, and say to themselves, “Someday, once I’m set for life, I’ll do photography full-time.”

This is usually a wise economic call. I don’t look down on the hard headed photography enthusiast who decides to go into consulting since it’s a surer economic bet. I don’t automatically embrace the wannabe actress who blindly “follows her passion,” moves to Los Angeles, spends 10 years waiting tables, and wakes up at age 30 with zero real prospects.

As my friend Penelope Trunk put it in her post titled How to build a career as an artist, the starving artist routine is bullshit. Her points #4 and 5 are “you do not need to quit your day job” and “you are not a better artist if you can do it full time.”

Instead, you should try to find real jobs that allow you to put your artistic talent to use as much as possible, and also set aside time nights and weekends to paint, or write, or whatever.

What’s neat about the internet and blogging is it’s easier than ever to have an outlet to post your creative output and build a following that someday might even support your work full-time.

Bottom Line: If you have a passion for philosophy, literature, music, or photography, but can’t pursue these activities professionally full-time, find a day job for which you draw upon these passions as much as possible. And set aside Saturday mornings for them, too. That faraway day where you will be freed from money concerns and can sit on mountaintops writing romantic fiction will likely never come. But that doesn’t mean you have to drop it altogether.