The Starving Artist Chooses Door C
January 9, 2024
Ah, the starving artist, that beautiful, romantic, cultural icon: a person so devoted to their creative vision that they'd sooner go hungry than pursue anything else.
I hate the stupid starving artist.
Instead, let's pick another iconic cultural image: Verbal Kint in The Usual Suspects (not Kevin Spacey, don't mention Kevin Spacey), as he tells Chazz Palminteri that "the greatest trick the devil ever pulled was convincing the world he didn't exist."
Now — if you ever read my blog in the early 2010s this next part won't surprise you — let's all agree that what this quote is really talking about is the iron cage of capitalism. And then, to go back to where we started and fully complete this clumsily mixed metaphor, let's imagine that stupid starving artist sitting inside that cage.
I feel like I may have lost you here. Let me try again.
What annoys me about the starving artist is that it's a classic false dichotomy: it supposes that one must be either an artist, or rich. Sure, sure, there's Jeff Koons or Margaret Atwood or whoever, people who are both artists and rich, but the basic ideology behind the starving artist is that there's good money in art only if you're exceptionally talented. It's classic capitlist meritocratic bullshit: the better you are, the more you get paid.
This is not to impugn the work of Jeff Koons or Margaret Atwood, by the way. I loved The Testaments. And to be clear, I'm not trying to impugn commerical galleries or publishing houses either, or anyone else who turns art into a commodity, even if what I'm about to say might sound that way. Don't hate the player, hate the game, etc.
What I'm trying to impugn, in my own, screaming-into-the-void way, is that false dichotomy: that you can either be a starving artist, or a Margaret Atwood, and there's very little in between. What I'm trying to impugn is the idea that there's no way to be a middle-class writer purely on the merits of your writing.
(I say "purely on the merits of your writing" because obviously there are lots of middle-class writers, myself included — but we're middle class by virtue of another job, or a supportive spouse, or inherited wealth, or some combination of the three. Purely on the merits of my writing, I've paid maybe 6 months' rent my entire life, if that. And my novel won a national award! It sold pretty well for a debut by an unknown author from an independent press!)
Anyway, practically speaking, I know that's just the way things are. You can't be a middle-class writer purely on the merits of your writing. But here's the thing: it doesn't have to be that way. That's the real trick capitalism pulled, making us all believe that this is the natural order of things. It's pretty much textbook Marx. There's surplus value in a novel, plenty of surplus value, but instead of going to the authors — or even the people who work at the publishing houses — it gets siphoned off for the shareholders of multinational conglomerates, who do none of the actual labour. I work a day job and struggle to fit in writing at night, so that some rich dude in Germany can have a collection of rare cars — and meanwhile I've fully internalised the idea that this is a fair and natural reflection of everyone's relative contributions to society. It's almost literally textbook Marx, actually.
Unfortunately, to quote another great movie character (Jim Carrey as Fletcher Reede, in Liar Liar), there's not much I can do about this except piss and moan like an impotent jerk, and then bend over and take it up the tailpipe. But sometimes I feel better if I remember — and if I remind other people — that many struggling novelists are not struggling because they're bad novelists. They're struggling because capitalism.
And if all the struggling novelists in the world, and all the starving artists, would collectively reject the idea that this is okay — if we all walked through door C, the one labelled "artist paid a living wage for our commercially viable work" — then maybe the world would be a better place.