Mammon Manifesto

Of Starving Artists

We’ve all heard the story of the starving artist. The die-hard romantic who goes broke, or more than likely remains broke, pursuing their passion.

If you dig into the history of the great artists, writers, composers, and creatives, you’ll discover that many of them had their financial situations sorted out aka a lot of them came from wealthy families.

In fact, there was a recent study conducted on artists from 1850 until today that found out that for every $10,000 in additional income a family made per year, there’s a 2% increase in the chances that a child of that family will go to identify their profession in the census as an artist, actor, musician, author, or similar creative professional. You can read an article about that study here if you want to go down that rabbit hole.

It checks out. I remember skimming through “Daily Rituals: How Artists Work” and being taken aback by how many of the featured creatives came from affluent families. I think I only counted a few that didn’t. Yesterday, I was reading about Cezanne and how he inherited a fortune, which set off this train of thought.

It makes sense that many of the successful creatives had the means to pursue their passion without financial worry. They were able to hone their craft, which without a doubt contributed to their success. But what about the artists who came, and still come, from humble beginnings? Well, I’d argue we have a special place in our hearts for them.

Why do we romanticize starving artists when history remembers and society celebrates the wealthy ones?

I think it has to do with the same reasons why we love the underdogs and infatuate ourselves with those rags to riches stories. We love the idea of someone coming from nothing and making it big. Or as Drake would say, “started from the bottom now we’re here.” It gives us hope.

There is a term in psychology called survivorship bias. It’s this idea that we only see the successes in society, the survivors, but we fail to see all the failures. For every J.K. Rowling, there are tens of thousands, if not hundreds of thousands, of writers who never had their Harry Potter moment.

The general rule of thumb is that the more resources you have, the more likely you are to succeed. Many of the most successful creatives in our society started out with a silver spoon in their mouth. As a result, we see more of their books line our shelves, more of their paintings hang in our galleries, more of their movies play on our screens, and more of their music fills our headphones.

On the other hand, the fewer resources you have, the less chance you have to survive or thrive. From this lens, the starving artist is the epitome of the underdog.

While society is busy commoditizing art and auctioning it off to the highest bidder. The starving artists are busy creating. Instead of seeking material possessions, they are on a quest for aesthetics. Pursuing their passion above their financial success and oftentimes security.

And I think that’s why we romanticize them.

Maybe one day, we’ll see their work hanging in a museum and bask in its beauty long after their gone.

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