Make your art and eat too: a survival guide for the starving artist.
Who here has eaten lentil soup for two weeks straight? Or worn the same pair of jeans day in, day out for two years (and counting), grateful that at least the trend gods have smiled on you because it’s OK these days to have your holes-to-denim ratio encroaching on public nudity? And how about those Costco sample meals tiding you over until payday, eh? We’ve all gone in with the shopping cart, sauntered around “looking for something,” nonchalantly sampled everything, put on sunglasses and a hat and then gone around for the second, third and fourth time — shout out to Craig Jelinek. Pseudo-homeless freegan, starving artist, whatever you wanna call yourself — you know who you are.
The cliché of the starving artist has been around for centuries. From the Romantic poet, strung out on opium in a garret, to the modern-day bohemian-barista Brooklynite. Whether you’re wrestling with the muses to finally write that great modern-day Ulysses or just flaunting the image as social currency to get into Bushwick loft parties, you’re not alone. The rich tradition of emaciated creatives is a colorful one, and of course we know we’re stronger when we share the survival secrets — “I get by with a little help from my friends,” a wise man once said. Perhaps my favorite example of this is the story that Allen Ginsberg, the infamous Beat poet, donated electricity by snaking down an extension cable from his apartment in the Lower East Side to the room of one Arthur Russell, the ’80s avant-garde pop musician and composer. The tricks of the trade are numerous if you’re willing to skimp on outlets.
We haven’t always had extension cables, literally speaking, though. Historically, artists could be funded by patrons — a sort of cash-flow outlet, so to speak — who would fund their practice in exchange for the odd dedication or court performance. Shakespeare had a patron, for example, to whom his two narrative poems, “Venus and Adonis” and “The Rape of Lucrece,” were dedicated. Henry Wriothesley, Third Earl of Southampton, even featured, some say, as the “Fair Youth” of Shakespeare’s Sonnets. For a long time this was how artists often functioned, with their work being accessed only by those fortunate enough to be in the vicinity of its production. Reproducing work wasn’t easy, so more often than not a piece would get commissioned, presented, and then that was it, really. Florence Cathedral would pay for a statue; it would be made, placed, and then if you wanted to see Michelangelo’s David, well, you had to sail ’round the world to Florence.
Things have changed slightly. From the revolution of the printing press (thanks to good ol’ Gutenberg), to the globalization of images and sound through the internet, access to art has been “democratized.” We’ve gone from The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction to the The Work of Art in the Age of Digital Reproduction in less than 100 years, and the effect on how art is produced and received is enormous. Take, for instance, the influence of downloading and streaming on the music industry; some say this has been excellent, with fewer vulture CEOs dictating what’s released and websites like SoundCloud giving anyone the chance to have their voice heard. Others argue it’s dried up funds to move bands around the world and support the best acts.
Whichever side you come down on, this has all contributed to a shift in how we think. Both as a result of the development of communication technologies, meaning information is easily and rapidly shared, and with the ubiquity of advertising, billboards and logos, art has been imbricated into a world of consumer commodities. The line between the commercial and a TV show itself is broken down by product placement, and the ideology of the “Creative Economy” has become commonplace. Since the ’70s, the theories of the famous psychologist Abraham Maslow regarding self-actualization have been used by management theorists to develop rhetoric that encourages us to think of ourselves, in our jobs, as artists. They say we’ve become “entrepreneurs” of our own “cultural capital,” and we work not for the company but for ourselves: the legions of the liberated self-employed, whose contribution to society is channeled through the innovative ways we can sell things.
At least, that’s one way of looking at it. To accompany the increasingly dynamic ways we share knowledge, brand identities, logos and marketing narratives have developed to tell our stories in new and interesting ways. All sorts of important businesses, charities, cinemas, record labels and galleries need creative marketing that captures and communicates what they’re about, so that we can make informed decisions about how to spend our time and energy. The trouble is, in the process, art that happens outside of these structures — that isn’t answerable to profit motives — is squeezed. It’s become difficult to imagine how we can make things that challenge the status quo when the channels for doing so are often geared toward reinforcing it.
Art can’t be imaginative and revolutionary without the freedom to speak its mind. If Adam McKay’s The Big Short had been funded by Lehman Brothers it might have ended up something like this. Art works only when it isn’t strong-armed into telling someone else’s story. If profit is top of the agenda, you end up forever catering to the market and you never get to Rage Against the Machine, brah. Or rebellion itself becomes just another form of marketing.
If history’s written by the victors, it’s up to artworks to give the other side of the story. The literally starving artist out there needs a podium. Therefore, in search of ways out of this conundrum, let’s take the opportunity to remind ourselves that there is an alternative.
1. Scholarships and Grants
Scholarships and grants are a great way to fund your practice without having to compromise your vision. You get paid to say what you think needs to be heard. For example, The National Endowment for the Arts is “the independent federal agency whose funding and support gives Americans the opportunity to participate in the arts, exercise their imaginations, and develop their creative capacities.” You can search for current grants on their website, which is updated with new opportunities throughout the year.
Institutions like galleries and universities often have programs where you can live and work for free as a resident artist in their organization. It’s a great way to meet like-minded people and be challenged by a new environment of thinkers and makers. Res Artis, as one example, is an “association of over 550 centers, organizations, and individuals in over 70 countries,” all of whom are “dedicated to offering artists, curators, and all manner of creative people the essential time and place away from the pressures and habits of everyday life, an experience framed within a unique geographic and cultural context.” Sometimes they’ll even feed you — so no need to be a starving artist. You can find their list of residencies here.
3. Community Resources
Find out what’s available to you in your local area. The South Side Community Art Centre (SSCAC) in South Chicago, for instance, has a mission to remember and develop the “legacy and future of African American Art and Artists while educating the community on the value of art and culture.” It provides members the opportunity to take part in workshops and quarterly exhibitions, and to “indulge your inner creativity through fine arts classes for students of every age and skill level.” It also hosts Artist Talk Events, with professional creators, and gives you the opportunity to “interact with arts enthusiasts, from neighborhood residents and the community-at-large to visitors from around the world.”
4. Online Courses
In our digital age, Google is your friend. Online courses and workshops are often free and they can help you develop your skills and get feedback on your work. The Open University provides a selection of free online courses. Just go to their website and click on “History & The Arts,” and then “Culture,” and filter the results by ticking the box that says “Free Course.”
These are just a few pointers. There are loads more ways of funding your art beyond being a barista. Making art independently has always been a luxury, but don’t give up on it. Starving artist, you can reclaim the time and space to create and remind yourself why you should: there are still unheard stories that need telling, and you can’t let them be rewritten into something they’re not just because your boss says so. Especially when your boss might be you.