Real Artists Don’t Starve, They Thrive — How to Succeed at a Creative Life

“Being a starving artist today is a choice, not a necessary condition of doing creative work.”

READ ON TO DISCOVER:

  • Why the “starving artist” stereotype is often inaccurate
  • How to tap into “creative clusters”
  • How to turn your artistic talents into a 21st-century career

Jeff Goins is a blogger, podcaster, and best-selling author of five books, including The Art of Work and Real Artists Don’t Starve. He recently spoke with Heleo’s Editorial Director, Panio Gianopoulos, about how artists can most effectively cultivate their ideas, promote their work, and bring home a solid paycheck in the New Renaissance of today’s world.

Panio: You say that the stereotype of the starving artist is inaccurate. Are artists actually doing better than people think? What’s going on?

Jeff: I think they are. There’s some interesting research on this. There’s a study called SNAAP (Strategic National Arts Alumni Project), that they’ve been doing for years at the University of Indiana, where they survey graduates from the arts at the graduate and undergrad level. They ask them a series of questions, which include, “How well are you doing compared to your peers?” “How happy are you with your job?” and “How much are you using your degree in your career?” They look at the answers statistically, compared to peers that graduated from the sciences.

First of all, they’re doing just as well across the board as graduates from the sciences, making comparable salaries—so they’re not starving. Second of all, they’re happy. 80-something percent said that they were very satisfied with their jobs that, they said, had a lot to do with their creativity and artistic bent.

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Of course, graduates from arts programs may or may not be professional artists, but they’re using their creativity vocationally. And their job satisfaction is interesting when you contrast it to that study done a number of years ago by the Gallup Organization, which said that 87 percent of the world’s workers—almost nine out of 10 people—were disengaged or actively disengaged with the work that they were doing.

Panio: It’s a staggering number.

Jeff: So are artists actually starving? Well, sure, some of them are. My argument is that you don’t have to starve, that now is actually the best time to do creative work. Being a starving artist today is a choice, not a necessary condition of doing creative work.

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Panio: What separates a starving artist from—I think your term is “thriving artist?”

Jeff: Right. The obverse of starving artist is not rich artist, it’s thriving artist.

Take Michelangelo, he’s the archetype of the thriving artist. Before him, what we thought of when we thought “artist” was a kind of a manual laborer. Art was a blue collar job. I talked to an art historian named Bill Wallace, one of the leading experts on the life of Michelangelo, and he said that before Michelangelo, artists were like carpenters. Yes, they built things for the marketplace, but they were not aristocratic people.

After Michelangelo, that changes. There are many, many wealthy artists who follow him; he sets a precedent in the Renaissance and for centuries afterwards. Then we have this whole idea of the starving artist, which is the story that artists tell themselves—and because they tell themselves this story, it ends up becoming true.

Now we get to our era that I call the New Renaissance, where creative workers in cultures all over the world are thriving. I keep running into people who are not mega famous but they’re making a living off of their creative work. It’s not a side gig, it’s not a hobby, it’s a job, and they’re happy with it. They’re painters and cartoonists and musicians and writers. They’ve harnessed the opportunity that we all have today to build an audience and share our creative work with the world in a way where we get paid what it’s worth. The first step to all that is you actually have to believe it’s possible.

Panio: You talk about changing your concept of an artist. It’s almost like moving from a fixed mindset to the growth mindset, the Carol Dweck idea.

Jeff: Absolutely. I don’t think we fake it until we make it. I think that’s how you get in trouble, but you do have to believe it until you become it. The first step is an act of faith. You’re not born an artist or writer or entrepreneur, you have to become this thing, and that requires you to make a choice. First I’m going to own it, then I’m going to do it, and then finally, maybe I’ll actually be this thing that I want to be.

“Being a starving artist today is a choice, not a necessary condition of doing creative work.”

Panio: A lot of writers and artists I know hate the idea of self-promotion. They feel like they shouldn’t have to do it. It’s selling out, it’s gross, it’s marketing. Your only responsibility as an artist is to create this beautiful thing, and it’s up to the world to discover it.

Jeff: I think you have to change the way you think about it. Austin Kleon calls this, “showing your work.” I really like that. When I wrote Real Artists Don’t Starve, I interviewed hundreds of working creatives, people who are making a living off of their creative work: visual artists, musicians, even people in corporate jobs.

One of the things that, almost without fail, these people had in common with each other—they also had this in common with the masters like Picasso and Twyla Tharp —was that they were practicing almost every day, and they were finding some way to share their work with an audience.

I think the best way to do this is the way Picasso did it, where he moves to Paris because that’s where the art scene is. And he hears about this woman named Gertrude Stein, who’s basically a patron to a lot of other artists. She’s not super wealthy but she buys a lot of art and she helps fund a lot of up-and-coming artists because she wants to discover new talent. What Picasso does is he volunteers to paint Gertrude Stein. The sittings go on for hours and hours. He lives on one side of the city, she lives on the other side, and they’re meeting all the time… they do this for months.

After he paints her, he gives her the painting. What does she do? She puts the painting up in her apartment, and every week she would host a salon, where she would have all of Paris’s top intellectual minds and artists and influencers come together. This is where people like Picasso got discovered—as did Henri Matisse. James Joyce frequented these salons. So did Ernest Hemingway and F. Scott Fitzgerald. So much came out of this scene, and Picasso sees this and goes, “Okay, well I don’t want to go plaster advertisements all around town and say, ‘Hey, artist for sale.’ What I want to do is practice in public. I want to do my work and then share it with an audience someplace where people are going to see it.” One of Picasso’s first commissions, one of the first things he did, was he designed a menu for a restaurant in Barcelona. Smart.

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Panio: It’s wild to think of Picasso doing that. Just doodling a Denny’s menu for people.

Jeff: That’s what it was. It was Denny’s. So the starving artist hates self-promotion, the thriving artist practices in public. You don’t have to promote yourself but you do have to promote the work.

The best, easiest way to do that is to share part of your work somewhere in a public setting. You’re not working for free but you’re putting your work out in places where people are likely to discover it and therefore discover you. I would argue that if somebody’s going, “Me, me, me. Look what I did,” for most people, that’s not very savory. That’s not what an audience wants.

I spoke to this fine artist who will put pictures on Instagram of paintings that he’s working on. He said, “I can’t tell you how many people every week message me on Instagram and say, ‘Hey, that thing that you posted, I want to buy it.'”

He’s not shouting, “Piece for sale!” He’s going, “Here’s something that I’m working on or that I just finished.” The really cool thing about practicing in public is you will get better faster, so it’s good for the artist, and you’ll build an audience that will want your work eventually.

Panio: With technology these days, it’s so easy, right? You can share work on Twitter, Facebook, Instagram, Medium, on your own blog… everywhere. But there can also be this feeling that there are a billion things out there. Even if you start showing your stuff, who’s going to see it?

Jeff: That’s right. Picasso doesn’t paint a painting and stick it outside of his hovel of an apartment and hope—that’s what a lot of artists do, right? They know a bunch of other struggling creatives and they all share their work with each other, which is valuable but that’s not enough. A thriving artist understands that not all places are created equal, and that if I want my work to spread, I’ve got to intentionally place my work in front of people and channels where people that I’m not reaching are going to show up. One of the entry points to those channels is somebody like a Gertrude Stein, a patron.

“First I’m going to own it, then I’m going to do it, and then finally, maybe I’ll actually be this thing that I want to be.”

In the renaissance, patrons were primarily funding you with money. I would argue that today the currency is influence.

So yes, it’s a noisy place, but I would say access to influencers, gatekeepers, in many ways is easier than it’s ever been. It was hard for Michelangelo to get in front of Lorenzo de Medici, but today, if I want to get in front of my favorite podcaster or blogger or entrepreneur, I can just tweet at them. There’s certain things that I have to do to get them to respond, and I don’t think that’s the end-all-be-all, but you actually have access to people that we’ve never had access to before.

Panio: Would you recommend to someone starting out that they relocate to an artistic hub like New York? Or do you think that because of technology being the way it is, you can do all this digitally and just stay where you are?

Jeff: Yes to both of those questions. I call it the “rule of the scene” — the more academic term for this is “creative clusters.” It’s this idea that there are certain geographical locations and moments in time where a lot of innovation happens. Like in America in the late 1800s, an incredible amount of wealth was created by the so-called robber barons and all these industrialists. Same thing happens with this 1920s art and literature scene.

And I do think that if you want to be more creative, one of the best things that you can do for your creativity is move. Now, when people hear that, they say, “But I’m in Nebraska, that’s easy for you to say,” or whatever. There’s two things I want to say to that. One, you may not move to the places that you think you need to move to. Patti Smith in Just Kids talks about how New York was a great place to move to in the ’70s because it was cheap, right?

Panio: Not anymore.

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Jeff: The same thing was true with Paris in the 1920s. The artists were moving there because it was a cheap place to live, so it became this place where all these Bohemians came together, and they were sharing their art, and it exploded from there. The places where there’s all this creativity coming out of often are unlikely places. Like Silicon Valley. That wasn’t anything before the information age revolution happened there. We’re really bad at predicting where these things happen.

Second, sometimes you don’t have to move any more than across the room. I was living in Nashville, and I started to notice people in this community doing things that I wanted to do. Publishing books, starting businesses. I just decided to become a part of the scene that was already in front of me.

So first step, find a local scene. Something is happening right where you are. Even if it’s some dingy town in the middle of nowhere, there’s somebody in your little sphere of influence right now who’s doing work similar to what you’re doing. They could give you feedback and resonate with you. And use technology to your advantage, tools like Skype and social media. But don’t stop there, because the best way to build a relationship with somebody is still getting some face time with them.

This might mean going to a conference. It might mean hanging out at the local coffee shop where all the other people in your industry hang out. The argument that I want to make is that starving artists tend to go, “Well, I just need to create in solitude.” The truth is that creativity is a very social job.

You need the influence of other people to make your work better, and you also need their help in getting it to spread. When Ernest Hemingway comes onto the scene in Paris in the 1920s, he creates this network by hanging out with all these other people in that scene, and these are the very people who vouch for him and essentially help him market his work.

It’s been said that creativity is a team sport. Genius is a team sport. Keith Sawyer calls it “group genius.” Whether you’re talking about Thomas Edison, or Sigmund Freud and the psychotherapy movement, or modern day artists and creatives, we need communities to help our work spread.