Wednesday, September 20, 2006

The Myth (?) of the Starving Artist

Neighbor's Art
Originally uploaded by katzeye.
When I was an art student, we often reminded each other not to “prostitute” our art. What we meant by that, was that we would promise each other not to go out into the world to create kitsch or sell out, or work for a corporation while our artistic talents dwindled away until they were only a sad memory.

I was relating, recently, the story about how my dad and his friend, Eric Larson, were approached by Walt Disney, way back when he only had a storefront in Burbank, to be on his first team of animators. Eric accepted the offer and went on to create Bambi, Thumper, Flower, etc. I am sure my dad agonized over the offer, and in the end, he turned it down. He thought it was too risky. My dad was a pretty good artist, and we grew up seeing our likenesses turned into cartoons on many occasions. As a teen, and an artist, myself, I felt angry at my dad for turning down that offer, (especially when I was at Disneyland).

It wasn’t until I was older that I realized that he made the sacrifice for us. I am sure he would have preferred to have an animator for Disney. Instead, he finished grad school to be a psychologist, and worked hard to support his family.

No matter what business Disney was starting back then in Burbank, it would have been a risky endeavor. A business in the arts, even riskier.

I spoke to my next-door neighbor yesterday because I saw him installing a wrought metal gate. I knew that he worked in metals and was trying to make a living at it. Mark has said to me, “He’s an artist. Like you.”

I took a few photos of his gate and he was telling me about how he was probably going to have to close his business; just do it on the side. He was doing well, but the costs of materials was getting to be too much. And when he priced his work to reflect the costs of his better materials, the business went elsewhere.

When it comes to the arts, people tend to want what is cheap and mass produced. There is certainly more of a trend for people to expect free or very low cost digital photos these days because they know they can take a photo and it will only cost them the price of the paper to print it.

Too often it is forgotten that it is much more than the cost of the materials. I’ve often heard the story of the woman in France who asked for a watercolor of a street artist. He whipped up a watercolor for her with a flourish and when she asked how much, he told her his price. She was astounded at the price. She complained that the paper was cheap and that it only took him ten minutes to create the painting. “No, Madame,” he responded, “it took 35 years!”

Recently someone approached me with a similar question. She was admiring my photos and complaining that she wasn’t able to take photos “like that.” She asked what equipment I was using, and if that was what made the difference. I responded that it was probably about 40 years that made the difference

When I was an art student, computers were not even a thought in any of our minds. In commercial art and design classes, we had to learn to hand-letter advertisements, which would then be reduced. We had to work hard to learn the elements of design, and to work with a variety of medium. But even then, the idea of craftsmanship was in peril as the masses were already buying “sofa-sized” mass produced paintings in colors to match their décor.

Throughout history, artists have been under-appreciated, at least while alive, and confined to a loft somewhere, to spend food money on a particular, expensive shade of rare, red pigment.

I told the metal crafter that he should not give up. He agreed that he would continue to produce his art, even if only on the side.

As I walked back to my front door, camera in hand, I thought of how, in college, I had a second major in psychology (just in case?) and I thought of the stack of manuscripts waiting for me to edit and told him that, yes, I have a day job, too. But hey, at least I am not creating kitsch, and I am not doing school portraits for a company that only knows how to line them up and shoot them like pinned down specimens. I have not sold out, and I will not give up.

Support your local starving artist! Crave beauty!


kiera said...

which neighbor is this?

kat said...

The house next door, to our west.

'Tricia said...

You know there is another issue here that i thought of. Many times parents will discourage their kids from going into the arts becuause the are afraid that they won't be able to make a living. They push them into safe jobs instead. Have you ever read that story about the mouse who remembers and stores up all of the beauties to share in the winter time? We need artists. Funny how your site is advertising eating disorders now that your new title is about starving artists!

Janette said...

ugh.... I just wrote a nice comment (rather eloquent for me) and it froze as I was submitting it. Oh bother!!

Basically I was saying that today's society places too much value on what's "now", what's "happening", "pop culture" and forgetting about those things that are truly beautiful. And generally speaking you have to know someone influential in the business or be lucky to be discovered. I guess the thing to remember is to continue do that which you love. My hubby is a great song writter/composer, but will anyone outside of family, friends or church ever hear it? Probably not. But he does it out of his pure love of the talent that God has given him. Let's face it, for every artist that has reached fame and fortune, there are hundreds that are even more talented that will remain unknown. "Starving" in the hopes that one will be discovered isn't something that my hubby or I was willing do. He is truly happy to create his talent after he gets home from work.

6 string said...

Artists never know the value of their work, quite often the personal reward of being able to create art is transitory and internal, the value of great art is eternal and the artist's fame never known in his time.

kat said...


Yes, it's a Leo Lionni children's books! My sister gave that to me once as a gift (during my adult years!) I am glad to hear you say that we need artists. Sometimes I feel too right brained to fit anywhere else, and at the same time, sometimes feel undervalued for what I do (and sometimes undervalue what I do myself!). But when I create something of beauty, I sense that it is somewhat of a miracle, and not entirely my own doing (even with the years of experience!).

kat said...

I feel your pain! I hate when that happens!

I know many people, like your husband, who are very, very talented, and definitely more so than those who receive the accolades of the masses. It's kind of a sad thing that more can't enjoy the art of the lesser known. We are missing out on truly great works of beauty.

On the other hand, there are great costs that go along with fame. Sometimes I wonder if people like your husband might be lucky to be spared of some of that.

I hope that it all evens out some how, some way.

kat said...

6 string,

I think you are right. Related to that, I sometimes have the problem of being almost entirely process-oriented. I enjoy the process of the inspiration that comes to me that drives me to write the poem or to create the photograph, or whatever, and then, having gotten what drove me down and out of me, I often neglect the post-production aspects.

Photos go unprinted, unframed, poems never get off the napkins they were scibbled onto.

Mark will ask me how many of a particular book was sold, and I have NO idea! (And I don't even actually care!)

Anonymous said...

Who is this Mark, anywayz?