This is part 2 in a three-part series about some of the things that influence how we think about ourselves and what we do in the arts. If you are interested in reading part 1, it can be found on the Ethics tab, titled “The Things that Influence Us: Our Market Society”
Stories are powerful. From an early age, we learn about the world and its morals, how we should behave, and where we belong in society; not only through our experiences, but also through the tales we are told. When we disguise the rough and unsavory parts of ourselves and pretty ourselves up, a handsome prince will fall in love with us (Cinderella)! If we are given a great abundance of privileges, it is better to share them with others than hoard them for ourselves (The Rainbow Fish). All living creatures eventually die, yet we must find a way to keep on living ourselves no matter how much we love them and mourn their loss (The Lion King). As the Scottish philosopher Alisdair MacIntyre says, we are ‘essentially story telling animal(s)’[i] We make sense of our lives, our history, how we are connected to each other, who we are, and who wish to become through narrative. Stories instruct us how to be courageous, and they tell us who gets to be the star and who deserves punishment. Narrative is an important part of our moral education.
If we accept that narrative can have moral impact, then the tales we tell and the myths we perpetuate in the arts are seriously worth examining for what they might say about our shared values. Beyond merely informing us about the lives of specific artists, these stories can instruct us in not only what it means to be an artist, but also what it means to be a good artist, as well as how we should achieve that excellence; in effect, these stories outline our understanding of success.
From stories about larger than life talents to hit musical numbers that changed the theater being composed in 20 minutes and written on a napkin, the arts are imbued with mythos. I explored one of these fictions—that the arts require total dedication— a short while ago in the post about not pursuing the arts if you can do anything else instead. There are many other myths along these lines (the concept of genius, that ‘serious’ art is inherently more valuable than other kinds, etc.) that I will return to in future posts. However, in this essay I am going to discuss the myth that we must suffer to be good artists.
The Suffering Artist
Although the ‘starving artist’, and the genius, creating in solitude and agony and dying lonely or penniless, are concepts well established in the public imagination, they are relatively modern tropes, mostly born out of the 19th century and reinforced by 20th century narratives. Perhaps the best-known theatrical story in this vein is Puccini’s La bohème and Jonathan Larson’s Rent, which tell the tale of passionate artists who live turbulent and impoverished lives enriched by their love for each other and their dedication to their craft. Who needs heat in winter or health care when you can art with your best friends!?[ii]
This romanticized concept that certain struggles—poverty, loneliness, the sacrifice of physical comfort and functional relationships, physical ailments that don’t receive proper care, or untreated mental illness—are an inherent part of our artistic identities is enforced not only by the stories we tell onstage, but also the ones we repeat about actual artists. These tales are often rooted in some kind of truth as many of the best stories tend to be. However, they are also often highly fictive. In some cases, these accounts are purposefully or circumstantially constructed narratives to create a kind of credibility in the field (as happens with some musicians and actors with rich and connected parents who avoid discussing their backgrounds, or who invent a misleading origin story), or they are composed to elevate or promote an artist and the value of their work.[iii]
Two iconic figures who meet this description—Beethoven and Van Gogh—maintain legendary status both for their creative works and their personal suffering to the point where it is difficult to imagine their compositions outside of the context of what we believe to be their personal pain. As a music educator, I frequently hear classical students wax rhapsodic about Beethoven’s genius in connection with his difficult life and how the two collide to imbue his compositions with meaning. Similarly, I encounter young musicians who mention Mozart’s struggles with money and his personal hardships alongside a reverence for his musical brilliance, assuming that the fictional, financially desperate, and privately troubled version of the composer created by Peter Shaffer’s realization in the play (and then Oscar-winning film) Amadeus is a widely accepted fact (it isn't; Shaffer's version is delightful, but fiction not history). These stories have such a provocative mystique that it is easy to understand why we latch on to details about their darker elements. Yet, these fictionalized versions of artists’ lives can lead us to believe fantastical things about what we should expect for ourselves and our lives, and they can also impact how we think about the value of our work.
Our tendency to focus on the suffering artists experience is not relegated to the distant past; we collectively highlight the personal strife artists have endured if they die tragically during our lifetime, as in the cases of Whitney Houston, Kurt Cobain, Heath Ledger, and Phillip Seymour Hoffman. This desire to focus on individual suffering and the meaning of a life in the shock of loss and grief is certainly not something to criticize; our desire to empathize and understand another person’s experience is deeply human. However, when we process tragedies in this way, we also reinforce the idea that suffering and artistic merit are connected.
How we suffer for art
These examples may seem faraway or symbolic, but we don’t have to look far to find ordinary and more palpable instances of how this value for hurting for our art appears in our daily lives. The most obvious example is our attitude toward financial hardship, which many accept as a likelihood in the arts, some even elevating poverty, extreme budgeting, or working multiple jobs as a virtue—a sign of an artist's seriousness and commitment to the craft. Many of us tolerate an arts economy and arts education system that both reinforces this ideology and preys upon it, influencing how business is done, what we are told we deserve, how much we are paid, and the quality of our working conditions.
For example, employers frequently offer shockingly low sums for creative work with an implicit (or sometimes explicit) message of ‘We wish we could afford to pay you more, but we think you will accept this fee because it is a part of the bargain. You love what you do so much that of course you are willing to accept a $500 stipend for three months of work on evenings after your day job and every weekend[iv]. Your pay may be well below minimum wage, you will work long days or late into the night with few breaks in a rehearsal space rife with hazards, but this opportunity is worth the sacrifice. The economic, physical, and psychological stresses you take on may be unpleasant, but you are doing this because you are a good artist. This is a part of what you signed up to do.’ When we agree to this bargain, we may sometimes enjoy the process and reward, but far too often we also find ourselves feeling taken advantage of or otherwise misused.
On the educational end, the myth of the struggling artist can contribute to students’ decisions to sign up for school programs they cannot afford, taking on debt that they will likely not be able to repay and might one day even drive them out of the field altogether.[v] If a hard life is culturally perceived to be a foregone conclusion in the arts, it makes a kind of sense that a young person might conclude ‘Why not take on these loans? I want to be an artist, so I am likely going to be living on the financial edge; what’s a little more in the hole?’ This is no glib, hypothetical quote; I have actually heard students make these kinds of statements over the years, and I think the myth of the suffering artist contributes to the problem.
Now, of course some people freely choose this lifestyle, and it genuinely makes them happy and gives their lives meaning. Working intensely and even obsessively on an artistic project can be wholly exhilarating and beyond fun, and for many it is. I do not claim that consenting to these kinds of creative projects is inherently bad. However, I do think that it is a problem that we in the arts have made enduring crummy and sometimes genuinely unjust situations an ethic that reflects excellence and commitment to our field. When we elevate this kind of sacrifice as normative (i.e. moral) in the arts through how we interact with each other, run auditions and rehearsals, and construct curricula, we establish that a person needs to play by these rules to belong to our moral community of artists. Although it may seem inconsequential, when we talk with our friends and colleagues about how many projects we are working on such that we can’t take a day off, go to a doctor’s appointment, or even have a non-career focused conversation in an audition waiting room or on opening night, we are reinforcing this ethic of personal sacrifice for professional goodness. And when we overschedule our students in the name of artistic disciplinary excellence such that they become totally exhausted and dispirited and then praise the young people who deplete themselves the most, we are instructing this ethic.
To be clear, I am not saying that professional success in the arts does not require a high degree of dedication and discipline, or that we won’t sometimes work late nights, experience financial strife, or have hard times. What I am saying is that working hard toward a goal you care about or even center your life around is very different from sacrificing your wellbeing, financial stability, healthy relationships, and then believing that these sacrifices are connected to your value and success, making you a more important artist or better human being. That is the message of the struggling artist myth, and I think that this myth is bad for us.
I am by no means alone is this sentiment; many across the arts think we should get to be happy people who are paid better. That ethos is a big part of what motivates the arts entrepreneurship field. However, promoting artists to work with business, or to invent new arts-hybrid careers or artistic start-ups in pursuit of financial and personal stability does not address the core issue this myth has created for us, nor does it address how this myth impacts traditional areas of the arts—a way of life many artists very much want to live.
There is no easy way to address this dilemma, especially when we account for how much the arts prize tradition and legacy, and how the particular legacy of sacrificing for holy art is still revered and passed on by a great many artists and teachers, both purposefully and wholly unintentionally. Shifting cultural norms takes a long time, and it took us a while to get where we are. Additionally, the economic issues involved require serious consideration and revision, which is no small task.
However, I think one answer lies in our narrative nature. We should tell different kinds of stories that challenge the suffering myth—we should tell the truth about ourselves. We should discuss how creative work is also a job, and that we should treat the discussion of our business seriously. If we teach, we should discuss the realities of the cost of living in different marketplaces and debt in 21st century terms, and if we don’t understand them, we should direct students to people who do, and then we should all get wise to those realities. We should not romanticize our own pasts with our students (a hard ask, but well worth the effort), and we should be unafraid to discuss the importance of healthy relationships and personal lives and why we have chosen not to sacrifice them for our work (if that is the case). If we are performers, we should normalize stories about artists turning down contracts that they cannot accommodate because of how much they offer or what they ask, even when no other opportunities exist. And, if we are in leadership or administrative positions, we should not tell stories shaming these artists for turning down work or withdrawing from gigs—in person or on social media. Finally, we should all stop telling those stories about Beethoven.
[i] MacIntyre, Alsadair. 1984. "Virtues, Unity of Life and Concept of a Tradition." In After Virtue, by Alasdair MacIntyre, 216. Notre Dame Press.
[ii] These two beloved musical adaptations of Scènes de la vie de bohème, Henri Murger’s 1851 collection of stories which glamorized the lives of Parisian artists, also explore deeper themes than living life on the edge to be artists, but the rustic glory of the arts is the most noticeable motif.
[iii] For more on this topic, I recommend reading Russell Shorto’s essay “The Woman who made Vincent Van Gogh” The New York Times Magazine, April 12, 2021 and Tia DeNora’s book, Beethoven and the Construction of Genius: Musical Politics in Vienna 1792-1803. University of California Press, 1997.
[iv] Artists at the very top of the field can indeed be paid extraordinary sums, and some institutions compensate artists very well or provide a livable wage. However, only a small percentage of the field reaches the top echelon that allows for such pay and benefits. The vast majority of folks, many highly accomplished in respect to talent and training, understand far too well from experience the pains of dismal compensation for artistic work.
[v] Research shows that those who carry $60k or more in college debt are more likely to leave their chosen field for a profession that pays more simply to repay debt. Lindemann, D. et al., 2012. Painting with broader strokes: Reassessing the value of an arts degree--based on the results of the 2010 Strategic National Arts Alumni Project, Bloomington, IN: Indiana University and Vanderbilt University, Strategic National Arts Alumni Project.
I wonder this myth has such strong roots in countries that have well funded government grants for arts? It certainly would make it easier to be paid a living wage if arts got any sort of meaningful government funding. Thank you for this post Rebecca, dismantling toxic systems one reader at a time!
Nathaniel, that is an interesting question. I don’t have enough information to properly answer. No doubt this myth exists and perpetuates elsewhere, but I imagine that it takes on a different character when in areas that pay artists a higher wage and enforce certain work conditions, and have a more developed social safety net than here in the US. The myth of the suffering/starving artist originated at a point in history when few social programs existed. So, perhaps the narrative is at home in a special kind of way in the US, which mirrors some of those 19th century conditions when we consider the relationship between individuals and the state.
It would indeed be interesting to consider how this myth impacts artists in other countries with different social priorities and economic realities.
Thanks for reading and commenting!