Monday, April 15, 2013

Starving Artists

The Poor Poet by Carl Spitzweg
I have a four-year-old grandson who I think is musically talented. In fact, I think he is gifted, although I suppose it is remotely possible that I am a tiny bit prejudiced. But what is my grandson doing in a blog post about writing? 

He’s here because I want my grandson to live a happy and fulfilled life, and I fear that he will begin to hear those voices in his head shooting him the very same line of BS that I got when I first knew I wanted to be a writer. These voices are familiar to all American artists, whatever their art form.

Art is just a hobby, not a profession. You can’t make money at music, writing, acting, painting, etc.  – unless you are really really lucky and become Beyonce or Dan Brown or Judy Chicago – you have about the same chance of becoming rich in the arts as you do of winning the lottery. Make sure you train for something else to fall back on, because you will need it. People who try to become artists are immature Peter Pan types who don’t want to grow up and face the real world. Most artists end up broke or mooching on their relatives. Artists are selfish types who are always looking to others to support them. Arts are an extra.

Do any of these sound familiar to you?

One of the things I find ironic and infuriating is that the same negative messages are true for athletics also, yet sports does not get this treatment nearly as often or as stridently as the arts do. Children are encouraged, even expected, to try their hand – and other body parts – at sports.

What if we encouraged budding artists the same way? Arts are the heart of any society; we need artists. What if we actually compensated artists for their contributions to society – and not just the tiny percentage who manage to rise to the top? What if painters and sculptors and poets and trombone players made as much money as corporate executives and engineers and doctors?

What would have happened if Mozart, Beethoven, Shakespeare, Van Gogh – or to take American examples,  Yo Yo Ma, Ray Charles, Meryl Streep, Ansel Adams, Ernest Hemingway, Toni Morrison – what if they had given in to those negative messages and gave up their dreams? Our society would be unrecognizable if there were no artists. In fact, our society would be dead without them.

What if my grandson were encouraged to become a musician? Would that be so bad? Would he really be condemned to starving in a garret? What if we encouraged children to explore and develop their artistic side? Perhaps we would have a nation of art lovers, instead of money lovers and sports fanatics.

Perhaps that would be just as good, or maybe, just maybe, even better.

Kim Pearson is an author, ghostwriter, and owner of Primary Sources, a writing service that helps others become authors of professional and compelling books and articles. She has authored 6 books of her own, and ghostwritten more than 40 non-fiction books and memoirs. To learn more about her books or services, visit


  1. A concentration on arts instead of money would undoubtedly improve our society in the West and over the whole globe. It is the greed of the money worshippers that has placed us in the current straits we are all (except, of course, the wealthy) suffering. Good luck to your grandson. And make sure you keep feeding his talent, won't you?

  2. For every naysayer about our hopes and dreams is a grandmother feeding those same hopes and dreams. That's our role. We can balance dreams with stories of reality, but to shout down a child's creativity is criminal. Who knows if that love of music will turn into a career in math? Or that love of drawing turns into a love of architecture. I love working with my two-year old grandson. He's such a wonderful blank page on which we write whatever he likes. Keep up the good work.

  3. Very few artists, writers, and performers manage to earn a fortune at what they do. That's what makes artistic endeavors so special. We do it because we love it, not because we expect to be the next J. K. Rowling. Those who do it for riches quit after their first masterpiece languishes in artistic no man's land. For those who persevere, it's still better to keep the day job until they become the next J. K. Rowling. It would be nice to see a cultural shift.

  4. With so much chatter about entitlement and accusations aimed at those charged with sucking the life out of the system, I know for a certainty that recognition of and financial aid for artists/musicians/writers would never make it past the financial powers that be. Alas, the naysayers would have heyday, exclaiming that no culture ever reached the pinnacle of world domination based on the likes of Rembrandt, Bach, Caruso, or Hemingway. Coming from a family rich with writers, artists, and composers, I bemoan such cultural shortsightedness. Still, I encourage those of mine who possess such extraordinary talents; and I love this post, Kim. I can even envision that different world of which you speak — if only catching a tiny glimpse as it races by and disappears into never-never land.

  5. Not only do too many people not encourage artists they don't support the arts. Consider what has happened in schools where art, music, and drama departments have been cut. And when counties and cities have budget constraints, where do they look first for cuts? Libraries. It is sad indeed, because the arts are connected so strongly to our humanity.

  6. I wrote arts advocacy articles for the Lehigh Valley [PA] Arts Council for a decade, Kim, so I'm right there with you and have all the proof I need that what you say is true. The arts shore up our culture, period. Their economic worth is quantifiable, as our local arts council collects data on the impact of the arts.

    Artists know that this is how they create meaning of this crazy thing called life—but it is so elemental, and the artists are the ones who get that, the process will continue whether it makes money or not. If necessary it would go underground; there will never be a world without the arts. But because it is a quality of life issue, it's hard for Americans to see its true value.

  7. My husband and I have figured out how to make a living at the arts, and I'm grateful. It takes a lot of focus and determination, and running your work day as a business, with art being the end product. That concept seems to work. That said, the most difficult thing about it is the size of the customer base. I once calculated that 1/10 of 1% of my city actually bought art - the rest simply supported the arts with their lip service. I still have the plaque that hung at my gallery door: Support the Arts - Buy Some. I'm sure I offended a few lookers with that one.

  8. This post reminds me of the introduction to my RWA chapter meeting yesterday. We've moved our venue to a bookstore/cafe/art gallery, and the owner welcomed us with a joke.
    "What's the difference between an author [insert any field of the arts here] and a park bench?"

    "The park bench can support a family."

    So true, and watching the schools cut budgets for all the arts is so sad. I'm a lousy musician, but at least I was exposed to music in school.

    Terry's Place

  9. I have to say, too, that we never allowed the term "starving artist" to creep into our minds and speech. I think this is pivotal to behaving as though you're a success, with a good job, and a decent income. Once you fall into that mindset, even joking about it, you're one step closer to doomed.

  10. I think you channeled my father with those comments about never making a living off writing. And what choice do we have? It's not like we can stop being an artist. So we find day jobs to support our true passion.

    Great post.

  11. Great post, Kim! We've all felt your frustration. Lord knows, after twenty-five years of fighting this business (altho not all of it's a fight!) I've had my share of gnashing of teeth. I always try and remember how Hemingway said he wrote best when he was hungry :)

  12. Stuart, I do indeed feed my grandson's talent ... in fact, he knows me as the "art gramma" (he has 2 grammas & 1 step-gramma) because whenever we get together we do a project, whether its drawing or music or telling stories. Another wonderful thing about this is that it not only feeds his talent, it lights a fire under me as well. I'm always much more creative after a visit with him.

  13. Good for you, Kim! Keep up the great encouragement.

  14. Good post, Kim. Movies are considered art, yet writers, who are also artists, are not compensated the way actors are. Sometimes even the scriptwriters are not paid on the level of others involved in making the movie. Even so, I would still encourage those who feel they have the "writing" gene to write, be it poetry, fiction, nonfiction, scripts, commercials, whatever.

  15. Thanks for the thoughtful comments. I agree that asking for artists to be self-supporting is very difficult in our social/political climate, but I would be at least partially satisfied if we supported artists the same way we support sports. As one of my friends said, "can you imagine what our world would be like if they handed out art scholarships at the same rate as sports?"

  16. Thank you so much for this post - and the painting, I love it. I have young boys, and I would like to see them pursue their passions no matter how much money they might make. And when I look real close at the Spitzweg painting, I can't help but think the poor man is actually rich beyond measure...

  17. I hate to be a buzz-kill ... and Lord knows I wouldn't be upset if I sold a few more books ... but it is all about supply and demand (ooo ... listen to Chris Big-Brain) ... and have you seen the supply in a book store ... or on Kindle? Sheeessh! But please don't tell my wife I said that ... I'm not ready to be WalMart greeter.
    That said, my daughter, who received a BA in dance from WMU, asked me several times while she was in school if she should abandoned dance and get a degree in accounting. I asked, "Do you love accounting?" She said, "No, I love dance." I said, "Then pursue your dream ... and it will work out for you ... if it doesn't, then I will back you up." Words I lived to regret ... but hey, it did work out for her.

  18. Making it big in any of the arts isn't easy, but once the bug bites, it's almost impossible to ignore it!

    Morgan Mandel


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