The Starving Artist — A Short History

The stereotype of ‘the starving artist’ has been around for a long time. 

So long, in fact, that it’s reached the level of archetype. ‘The starving artist’ stereotype had its origin in 17th-Century Flanders, when artists literally were starving. It worked its way through the centuries into the Romantic period of the 19th-Century, where it became entrenched as a cultural norm. Finally, the concept migrated to New York City and took up residence within the Abstract Expressionism movement of the 1950’s, where it was celebrated by the Beat poets. Ironically, it has been adopted by many contemporary artists and often goes hand-in-hand with the life of a creative.

Around the same time as the stereotype, European Guilds were established, enabling artists and artisans to band together for financial gain and apprenticeship opportunities, as well as for political power. The guilds established the artistic career as a bona fide profession, with a sought-after product that served the upper classes. Guilds developed markets for the goods produced, as well as providing opportunities for mentoring young artisans. As is true throughout the human story, working together as a group moved them forward as individuals and, as a result, society progressed.

The same is true today. Working within a community of complementary skills and expertise, in support of a shared goal, is the most effective way to move forward — culturally and professionally.

Artists are the foundation and builders of culture. I’m inspired by the power of art to change lives for the better. I believe in its ability to bridge cultures, to help young people find their voices, to support and encourage stressed communities, and to create vibrant living and working environments. Their actions are the foundation of every aspect of society, from designing advertising to creating monumental sculpture installations for civic centers.

Artists, by and large, are generous, compassionate, and accomplished. They tend to be progressive leaders in their communities and on the world stage. The intention of artists around the world to unite and uplift through the arts, to lead in the effort to protect people and the environment, are my inspiration.

The art world is fickle. Art movements come and go with increasing regularity, with an artist or genre being in favor in one decade and out the next. These days the trajectory of a movement or cultural favorite can be even shorter — we’re lucky if it lasts more than the span of few years.

Artists continue to face obstacles to overcoming the stereotype of the Starving Artist. I believe it might fall in the category of ‘last permissible prejudice’. These things tend to die a slow death, but leave us better off for the loss.It’s time for a change. This self-limiting notion that poverty is a given in the creative life, has breathed its last. It’s time for a new model:

‘The Prospering Artist’ has a nice ring to it.

White Dahlia Inner Beauty WM
Inner Beauty

2 Comments

  1. GalriMontaj Contemporary Art

    Thanks so much for your comment and thoughts on the subject, Steve. Artists have been starving — literally and figuratively — for way too long.

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  2. Interesting that romantic notions of poverty are enshrined in ideas of what the artist “should” be. You’re right that ti’s OK for an artist to be financially successful. Unfortunately, many believe it’s necessary to be in financial need in order not to be a “sell-out”.I like the idea of a prosperous artist. Artists make important contributions to the world they live in. The aesthetics that their art provides adds incalculable value to living. Besides that, being in the creative flow, is magnetic which is a major reason people are drawn to artistic communities. Thank you for examining this “myth”. Let’s value the contributions that artists make!

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