photo of woman painting while smiling and standing by the table

How to not be a Starving Artist, and the story of Vincent Van Gogh

The starving artist is a terrible metaphor for the kind of society we want to live in. The problem with the story and the stereotype is that it leads to making the world a painful place. People do not become artists because they are scared of becoming the starving artist. Kids who want to be writers are forced to become engineers. Those who want to be painters are forced to be doctors. Only a few people are able to pursue the professions of their choice. If we want to live in a flourishing creators’ economy, we need to understand how to not be starving artists, and help artists flourish.

The myth and the truth about the starving artist has something to do with that.

In this piece, we would look at how the myth started and here do we stand now. It is also important to understand from an artist’s perspective about how to not be a starving artist. Read on.

What is the origin of the starving artist myth?

Bedroom in Arles- Van Gogh, the starving artist
Bedroom in Arles– Van Gogh (Source: Wikipedia)

As per Wikipedia, ‘The starving artist is a typical late 18th– and early 19th-century Romanticism figure featured in many paintings and works of literature. 

This doesn’t tell us much about what a starving artist is. Let us just get down to basics. A starving artist is one who is willing to starve for his art, and he does starve. For whatever reasons, he cannot figure out a way to flourish using his art, and that leads to extreme poverty.

A starving artist could be a starving writer, a starving performer, a starving singer, a starving actor, or anybody who is trying to become an artist. Who is an artist? For our terms, we would say an artist is someone who expresses the world through their creative expression-whatever form that expression may take. It could be poetry, prose, comedy, poetry, painting, music etc.

Why should the artist starve?

How to survive as an artist?
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Does the artist want to starve? Now, that’s a stupid question. There is no glory in poverty and nobody wants to be poor. However, since it is difficult to become a prosperous artist, the journey to become an artist in the world we live in, is not easy for most artists.

It takes a lot to become a thriving and prosperous artist. You need to work on your art, you need financial resources to keep going, emotional support and a community. These are a few starting points.

In order to understand the theory of the starving artist, let us take an example of one of the world’s best known artists, who actually had to kill himself- Vincent van Gogh.

The story of Vincent Van Gogh

Was Vincent van Gogh a starving artist?
Vincent van Gogh (Source: Google Images)

I recently came across the story of a man who is now considered one of the brilliant artists the world has ever had. The man was virtually unknown and financially dependent throughout his life. He also struggled with mental illness through his life.

Van Gogh worked as a preacher, and wanted to be a minister, before he was fired. He was rejected by women he loved and by the fellow artists he wanted to work with. His younger brother Theo supported him financially, and the two kept a long correspondence by letter

On 27 July 1890, aged 37, Van Gogh is believed to have shot himself in the chest. As per his brother Theo, Vincent’s last words were, “the sadness will last forever.”

The Starry Night

Starry Night by Vincent Van Gogh, as an example of a poor artist
The Starry Night (Source: Google Images)

The Starry night, painted by Vincent van Gogh when he was at the Saint-Paul-de-Mausole asylum is considered one of the most recognised paintings in modern art, and the rest of his works are now priced at millions of dollars.

Was Vincent van Gogh a starving artist?

Yes, he struggled with financial success and poverty all his life. His brother, Theo supported him. Yes, he had problems with his mind too, but had he succeeded in his project to be make an artist’s collective, and became successful as an artist during his lifetime, he wouldn’t have led the life that he lived. Also, his life wouldn’t have ended as painfully as it did.

Now, let us come back to the question, why should an artist starve?

There is no reason why an artist should starve. Artists are an important part of the society and they should be treated accordingly. It would be a good idea to go back and try and understand who is an artist.

Who is an artist?

you don't have a starving artist.
Photo by Dids on

An artist is a person who creates art. That is a fair definition.

What is art? How do we define art?

Art is using creative expression through words, poetry, painting/drawings, or a performance to express the artist’s view of the world. The definition of art does not end here, but this is a good beginning. Wherever there is uncertainty, art is possible. Art fills the uncertain void. Certainty is for mathematics.

I just wrote that definition. I hope this makes sense in helping understand what art is.

Now, why does an artist create art?

An artist creates art because it allows him/her to express themselves in a unique way. If other people find context and relevance in their art, the artist becomes rich, since he can sell his or her to people who appreciate it. However, that’s not what all artists do.

There have been several writers who never published their writings or painters whose works were never displayed. There must be millions of poets around the world who have written poems nobody has ever heard or read.

The artist does not create art to commercialize it, and that is where the problem of the starving artist arises.

Vincent van Gogh could have been a thriving and a successful artist

It is not an easy journey to become a successful artist. A successful artist is one who manages to find an audience who is willing to pay for his art.

If Van Gogh succeeded during his lifetime, he would have been able to create thousands of more works, which he couldn’t because he couldn’t find an audience for his work during his lifetime. He is remembered now as a misunderstood genius. Today, he is counted as one of the most successful artists of all time and his works are among the world’s most expensive paintings.

The society at his time failed Vincent van Gogh

It is important to understand that the artist works within the frame work of a society that he lives in. It is a dynamic that involved the artist and his potential audience.

A man who is now considered one of the geniuses of human history led a sorry, poor and neglected life. He had to find financial solace in his brother Theo, who was a kind brother and helped his brother Vincent as much as he could, as per the history I have read.

If the society and the artist fraternity at the time recognized his genius, he wouldn’t be one of the examples for the stereotype of the starving artist.

The challenge for the artist- the artist paradox

Why do artists create art?
Photo by KoolShooters on

The artist challenge is complex. Since all art is autobiographical and a form of self-expression, the artist wonders whether he creates for himself, or he creates for his audience.

If the artist has to thrive commercially, as we have seen, he needs to find an audience. However, in the process of finding the audience, he can’t quite lose his identity.

Therefore, if one has to survive as an artist, he/she needs to find some sort of a balance between commercial work, and the work they create to satiate their soul.

That’s the artist paradox- if the artist doesn’t want to join in the league of the starving artist.

The audience or the market doesn’t give a damn

The audience for an artist is everything. However, they don’t give a damn about his life or his passion, or whatever. They don’t care if he creates art for himself or for them.

The audience cares if they find it relevant for their life. Does it evoke an emotion in them- that’s what the audience cares for?

Alright, let’s us get look at what we have had so far as context setting. Let’s get to the important point.

How to NOT be a starving artist- here are 5 suggestions

1. Your art is a product

Just like a start-up creates products, you are a start-up and your art is your product. You need to figure out how to sell that product. If the product doesn’t sell, there is high likelihood of you joining the league of the starving artists. You don’t want to be a starving artist- create products that sell.

2. If you don’t make money, you will quit

Michelangelo- the rich artist
Michelangelo. Source: Wikipedia

You need to make money off your art. The money you make off your art is profit and profit is one of the best things in the world. Profit in corporate life allows companies to create jobs, and keep doing what they want to be doing as organizations.

As an artist, you need money to keep doing what you want to do. You will invest some money in your art form. If you are a painter, you would invest some money in boards, colours, and whatever you have. You create a final product. You must be able to sell that final product at a price higher than it cost you to make it in money and in time.

If you are able to do that, you would be able to continue being an artist. Or, you will fail. As simple as that.

3. You can’t change yourself but you can work to find a market for your work

You must wonder that you can’t quite change yourself to appeal to the sensibilities of the audience and that’s fine. However, you must find a market for who you are and the kind of work you can create. It makes sense that you cannot create anything because you just cannot change yourself. However, you can find a market for what you create. Frankly, your existence as an artist depends on it.

4. Once you have become what is called Ramen profitable, you can create work that you really like

Here is the thing. Once the audience accepts you because you have taken care of what they like, they would be willing to know more about what you like.

In the beginning, create work that would find a larger audience within the boundaries of your artistic sensibilities (which means you don’t hate yourself for creating something), and then once you find an audience that is willing to pay something for your work so that you can buy Ramen noodles and eat off your art, you can try more stuff that you really like.

Money is fuel. You can’t do without it. You can’t make art without it.

5. Don’t hate money

I have had a love-hate relationship with money all my life. I quit a decent job to become a writer and a stand-up comedian, and I have had my struggles with money. But, I don’t hate money.

The problem with money is when it is mercenary and leads to what I call the curse of materialism. You are not pursuing art to be materialistic. The right kind of money can buy happiness and also make the world a better place.

So, since you are pursuing money for the right reasons, chase it and use it to make the world a better place.

What role can society play towards the artists?

Most of the artists or people who want to be artists do so through the plain force of passion. They are passionate about something and they just cannot get it out of their mind. So, they pursue they art at any cost- quite often at the cost of a life that would be comfortable and replete with material riches.

It is also important to note that the wannabe artist who is passionate about his art would also succeed financially at his art form if he has the proper guidance and financial support during the process. Yes, it is his responsibility to be financially liquid, but since the artist exists in the society, and his work makes the world a better place, it would help if society, families show support towards his work and his journey-financially or emotionally.

If you know someone who is following their art form, encourage them, and help them to continue getting better at it.

The worst thing you can tell a potential commercial artist is to quit what they love. In fact, that’s the worst thing you can tell anyone- to quit what they love.

In conclusion- DO NOT be a starving artist

Do not be a starving artist- be a thriving one.
Photo by Hamid Tajik on

This is it. Dear fellow artist, do not be a starving artist. If Vincent Van Gogh were alive, I would have hugged him and cried. The man went through so much pain just to be creative, and he did not succeed during his lifetime. I feel pain for everyone who wants to become an artist but the financial constraints do not allow that to happen, while on the other side, people live a mercenary and materialistic life spending money they make by selling their soul.  

Do not pursue the path of a starving artist. The starving artist stereotype must die, so we have a world where artists thrive and flourish. God knows, we need more people to do what they love and express themselves-which is what artists do. You do what you love, figure out a way to make it commercially work, so that you can continue to do it. What greater life there is, than the one where we can make a living doing what we are passionate about?

Thank you for reading.

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