After reading about a current dustup about a certain clothing design by Old Navy, It got me thinking about the term “starving artist”. It doubtless comes from the same wellspring from whence Old Navy’s shirt design originated.  For those of us who try to make a living in creative fields, the usage of the phrase certainly runs counter to our efforts. I’m proud of those who stood up to Old Navy, but lately I’ve begun to suspect that expressions like these are merely symptoms of, rather than the origin of, this sentiment. Rather than coming from outside of the creative community, it more likely comes from within.

The Appeal of Starvation

First, let’s lump artists, designers, and all creative types under “Artist” for the sake of convenience, for the time being, as there are many fields of creative industry that suffer from this stigma. Now believe it or not, I’ve heard artists in different fields brag about starving. Well, not about starvation per se, but about how they worked 80 hour weeks, living off ramen and sacks of potatoes.  This type of humble-brag may find it’s origin in the mystique of the stalwart avant garde, who must sacrifice life and limb for concepts that are so far ahead of the societal curve that they must wait for public opinion (and funding) to catch up. It may have come from nostalgia for the adventurous gauntlet of paying one’s dues in the difficult but heady days of art school. But these were Artists well out of school, with jobs, taking what would otherwise be seen as poverty and unacceptable labor conditions and making them a badge of honor. Maybe it’s just sour grapes in reverse, or penance for making even a little money doing something you like. If you even like it.

But other than pointless self flagellation for whatever weird psychosis we collectively share, we should all realize that we needn’t starve, for the same reason that those in other professions need not starve. We provide a service, a necessary good to society, which can, and should, be paid for.

Some would begin to argue against this point, but It does not take an artist’s imagination to see how necessary a service we provide, when you take a hard look at what life would be like without what we do. Creative service has been a part of human existence as long as humans have existed. Secondly, I don’t have to tell you that what we do is a difficult thing, requiring great amounts of time, education, skill, and treasure to accomplish. In any other career, difficult + necessary = paying work.

And yet today, there is a prevailing notion that creative service is not essential, and that its practitioners are cute little dreamers trying to get paid for a fun little hobby.  Now, we know that fishing is both a profession and a hobby, and that the distinction is a matter of degree. We know that art can be a hobby, but beyond a certain level of proficiency, It can not be done without the training of a professional. We know this, but the public largely does not. From whence comes the disconnect?

Much blame is cast by those in our community, naturally, to those outside of our community, especially those we would call “difficult clients”.  But a client can only be blamed for so much. After all, they didn’t go to art school. Why should they know what we do? A client comes looking for a service, and like any of us they shop for a good deal. They want the best for the least, no surprise. They might not do any research before they contact you. So when a client doesn’t want to use a contract, doesn’t want to talk about IP rights, or has a misconception about how much a service should cost (give or take a bargaining chip), It is up to us, separately and collectively, to educate one, to educate all. Thus, in the end, what the client does not know is what we do not tell them.

Walk Away

But you may ask, “What if they won’t listen?” This will happen from time to time, as it does in any profession. You must then rely on a very old technique of persuasion: You walk away. Now in many of our minds this is the threshold of bedlam. “Saints preserve us!” “Lose the client?” Yes. Exactly that. But before we address why, lets address that panic you are feeling.

Many creative professionals (myself included) left school with two basic skill sets: how to make stuff, and how to be an employee. In addition, most of our professors took any opportunities to honestly critique our work, thus taking us down a few pegs (rightfully so) In order to cultivate that vaunted “constant improvement” ethic. So far so good, right? But what’s missing?

Many creative services are not typically needed as full-time positions, and necessitate freelancing to a variety of clients. And in a down economy the chances of finding a full-time position in the industries that do support them become thinner still, enlarging the pool of freelancers further. The problem is that a large number of fresh new creative professionals are missing the business acumen to be a freelancer. This is evidenced by the number of questions in pro forums such as “how much should I charge for such and such” and other innocent yet telling betrayals of ignorance. Also, the “constant improvement” ethic drummed into your head as a student can cause serious problems in your price structure if it translates into a lack of confidence in the present value of your work.

Back to walking away from that obstinate client. Part of the reason you were in a panic about this prospect may have been that you were unsure of what should be reasonably expected of you as a professional, both in terms of your needs and conditions under which you will do business. In such a situation you are more likely to acquiesce to conditions that are harmful, and you are unlikely to see the boundary between bargaining and undervaluing your service and products.

Baby Step…

The remedy? Do the research. network, learn the business, learn about contracts and IP rights, learn how to market, and learn how to price your own work according to your budget and the market. The Graphic Arts Guild publishes a yearly guide that can help with many of these tasks, as a start. Also, there are other professional organizations that offer excellent sources of information such as SCBWI, Society of Illustrators, AIGA, the Animation Guild, and the Screen Actors Guild, for example. If you are convinced that you just can’t handle the business side of things you should try to find an agent, lawyer, or salesperson to help you. And for pete’s sake, charge enough that if you had steady work you wouldn’t have to work part time anymore. After all, that is the goal, is it not?

And if you still hear your professor in your head, and you struggle with the idea that your work isn’t “ready for prime time”, consider this: Yes, there will always be room for improvement in your work. But you aren’t in school anymore. Trust your training, and your abilities, and keep in mind that the average joe off the street can’t sing a note, can barely write a decent sentence, can’t act their way out of a wet paper bag, and draws a cylinder like this:


For them, your work is worth paying a good price for, so keep your critiques between yourself and your fellow pros, and out of the board room. If the clients could do it for themselves, why would they talk to you?

… Or Else (eep!).

Now as to WHY you should walk away. I’ve heard it said many times, many ways, “Oh well, some money is better than no money, plus I’ll get some practice and exposure, right?” Not so fast buckaroo. When you succeed, we all succeed. But every time you leave too much money on the table, every time you work a 20 hour shift at some sweatshop, every time you get into a bidding war with a hundred other artists for some paltry sum on a “freelance site”, every time you enter a “design contest”, every time you sign an unbalanced contract, every time you hand over IP without thinking about it (so on, so forth), you add to the public perception that creative content is not worth paying for. Word gets around. And as heavy as it sounds, you contribute to the mythos of the “starving artist” making it that much harder for the rest of us Artists out here to make a living wage. And the sad thing is that in most cases, I think it has less to do with “market forces” than it does with plain old ignorance. Yikes, right?

I want to leave this on a positive note. All this gloom and doom is preventable, and the more you know, the more confident you’ll be. To me, the business side isn’t as enjoyable as making things, but there is a certain fun to it. I’m learning all of this as I go, too. But I believe I will be successful, and that we can all be successful, together, if we link the same determination to learning this business as we did learning all of our creative skills. Because I want more than anything for us all to keep doing this as our way of life, and you know, not starve.

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