Wednesday, September 20, 2006
The Myth (?) of the Starving Artist
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!