As any creative in the pursuit of an artistic career knows, the scrutiny and criticism from others — parents, grandparents, teachers, friends — is plentiful. They worry about financial stability, mortal inspiration, fame or lack thereof, and creative success — and do not hesitate to share their underdeveloped opinion. Often people believe that artistic endeavors are unproductive or wasteful, and do not understand the true multidimensionality of the artist and the arts. Here's how we should begin to think differently about creativity:
I am – and always have been – a daydreamer.
There is proof of this in my school records, which contain copious notes from teachers, commenting on the disproportionate amount of time I spent looking out the window, compared to the amount of time I spent paying attention to their lectures.
And to this day, I dread anything that gets in the way of my daydreaming.
As such, the work I do outside of my creative endeavors is very distracting to me – because it doesn’t allow me to zone out like I need to in order to reach the level of mental creativity so necessary to my well-being.
Like all creative types, I have my strange habits. For example, when I’m struggling with writer’s block, I have to go stand in the shower for a while. Maybe it’s the sound of running water that thrills my imagination, or maybe I just think better when I’m naked. I don’t know for sure.
What I do know is that my creativity has been criticized because it’s viewed as unnecessary, distracting, disrupting, and a waste of time.
I know this because the guilt I felt for a long time for pursuing a creative field tells me so. Coming from a low-income family, it seemed more beneficial to pursue a career in business – something that would bring more immediate rewards that I could then transfer over to my family.
Growing up, we’re told that numbers and logic will be important no matter what work we do, but we’re rarely told creativity will prove to be just as important.
The work creative people do is often viewed as unnecessary and a waste of time because the rewards aren’t always tangible and because the amount of time it can take to achieve desired results is unknown. The unknown is a scary and risky place to be, and because of that, we’ve created assumptions about what it means to be a person doing creative work.
These assumptions deter us from pursuing creative fields – like fine art, filmmaking, writing, music, and dance. These titles conjure up the image of a starving artist living in a tiny condo in the big city, working side jobs to make ends meet, and mooching off friends who have “real jobs.”
But none of this is true, we believe it because it’s the image society has painted of people who go into creative fields. This image is not only a reflection of the value society places on creative work, but a failure to acknowledge the contributions made by creative people in all sectors of society.
So here are four BS assumptions made about people doing creative work – and how they limit us all.
1. "Doing Creative Work for a Living Means Living in Poverty"
I know too many creative people whose college majors were chosen strictly on financial factors. They were the ones who fell in love with art and literature freshmen and sophomore years, but were convinced it wouldn’t get them anywhere in the long run.
This is because creative work is viewed as something you outgrow when you get serious about life. It’s something that society infantilizes and dismisses as hobbies or something only children do –not as a way to make a living.
When this happens, it causes creative work to be severely undervalued – to the point that we begin to charge less for our work or even work for free! This means we are unconsciously contributing to the harmful assumption of the starving artist (more on that later) and exploiting our own work. It’s what allows others to do the same and keeps this oppressive cycle operating.
And creative work is not only infantilized – it’s also feminized. The feminization of creativity is what leads women’s work in particular to be undervalued. These oppressive and sexist ideas about the value of women’s work and the opportunities they are afforded based on that value is what determines how much creativity is compensated. And the answer is—well—not much.
This is what minimizes the significance of liberal arts at universities and prevents students from pursuing their interests.
Creative types are also deterred by what’s called the “creative apocalypse.”
For years, this argument has implied that creative careers are on the decline due to the digital age, and going into these fields would lead to long term unemployment. However, those who believe this are only including and referencing the few creative jobs that do happen to be struggling (album sales, for example) – but this doesn’t tell the whole story.
If research did include the wide range of jobs that also fall under creative work, it would show that opportunities are actually on the rise and that the creative economy is, indeed, thriving.
The digital age has a lot to do with this rise, considering the Internet allows for alternative distribution methods and wider reaches. Although piracy is a very real threat, the success stories in favor of artists send a message about the importance of copyright laws (see: Metallica and Taylor Swift).
It should be noted that this does depend on multiple factors, such as location and whether you’re freelancing or working for a specific company/business. It’s also important to consider the barriers present for women, people of color, and LGBTQIA+ folks, among others.
However, these struggles are similar to those experienced in any job market and are not exclusive to creative fields.
In reality, the demand for creative work is certainly high – and as creatives we are better off financially than we were a decade ago. And there’s a reason for that.
Creative work gives hope where none exists and inspires strength. And we should never feel guilty for wanting and expecting to make a living off of that.
2. "Poverty Fuels Creative Work, So It’s Better to Be a Starving Artist"
Let me start by saying that poverty and hunger are the worst conditions to be in when doing creative work. I know from experience that it’s damn near impossible to think straight, let alone get anything done, while worrying about how you’re going to pay your bills on an empty stomach.
And yet, people who do creative work often accept and expect to be starving. In fact, it’s viewed as the necessary ingredient for especially brilliant work.
Why is this assumption harmful?
The belief that pain and poverty fuels creativity may prevent us from seeking the help we need because we would rather sacrifice our health and well-being in order to be recognized as great artists. This is especially dangerous for those of us struggling with mental health problems who may not realize we can still create while receiving treatment and support.
The public supports this by romanticizing the image of the deeply troubled, yet brilliant artist, justifying the avoidance of self-care in exchange for genius. What we fail to realize is that, although many creators have been inspired by pain, suffering should not be a prerequisite for self-expression.
The assumption that oppression nurtures art and that struggling leads to more beautiful and raw work is ridiculous. Yet, we continue to applaud and revere creative work done under oppressive circumstances.
The concept of the starving artist was born in the nineteenth century when writer Henry Murger wrote Scenes De La Vie De Boheme. This work focused on the lives of four struggling artists and was later turned into an opera by Giacomo Puccini. The bohemian lifestyle of these starving artists is what made being a poor artist chic – and even preferable. The term now extends to other creative titles, like filmmaker and musician.
But this romanticized image of the starving artist is dangerous and also limiting because it convinces creative workers to settle for less.
It tells us that we’re lucky to be doing something we love and that we must sacrifice financial stability for it. This is especially damaging when people begin to legitimize creative work that’s done by a struggling artist because it implies that in order for our work to be of value, we must continue to suffer.
Rather than suffering for the sake of art, we should be protective of our mind, body, and soul. Pain is not an essential element of intellectually radiant and magical work – but self-care is.
3. "Success Is Dependent On Catching a Big Break, Not Hard Work"
One of the most harmful assumptions about people who do creative work is that it doesn’t matter how hard we work, the “big break” will come when we least expect it. You could have worked for years on numerous projects before creating that one magical piece of work that will catapult you to the top.
This idea is rooted in capitalism and our ideas of what it means to be a productive member of society. While other sectors of society are viewed as necessary, the creative sector is viewed as expendable.
This creates an assumption that those of us in creative fields aren’t utilizing our full productive potential to benefit society, and therefore, luck (and not hard work) is what will bring us success.
What happens when we fall into this trap is that we begin to ignore smaller opportunities while we wait for this supposed “big break.” We fail to continue living life because life doesn’t begin until we’ve achieved success. The problem is that no matter how much success we achieve, it will never seem like enough.
Apart from never feeling satisfied regardless of the number of accomplishments, the notion of the “big break” also implies the focus of creative work is one-dimensional. In other words, in order to get lucky, all efforts must be focused on just the creative aspect, and not the business aspect.
This limits the role of creative work and implies that the business aspect should be left to others who are better equipped to handle the logistics. It implies that marketing isn’t a part of creative work when, in fact, this takes an incredible amount of creativity.
This image of the idealistic and imaginative artist/musician/filmmaker/writer tells us that creative people can’t also be logical or business savvy. In reality, many of us are quite good at this and are able to incorporate creative ideas into our business plans.
Creatives, we are multi-dimensional creatures. Let’s not let our abilities be defined, limited, and constrained. Let them flourish like the enlightening work we do.
4. "Doing Creative Work For Financial Rewards Is Selling Out"
Creative freedom is a struggle many of us face when working for more than just personal pleasure. After all, we still need to make a living – and that means creating for the benefit of someone other than ourselves.
This is a struggle because too often, we are expected to produce quality work for less money, while also sacrificing artistic freedom. We’re expected to be content with this because we’re doing what we love and that should be rewarding enough.
Compromising personal values for monetary reward is known as “selling out” – and it’s a very common criticism used against creative people who are trying to make a living.
What’s not being considered when making this assumption is that much of the work we do needs to be recognized for very important reasons existing outside of our own financial gains.
The work we do is important and it is empowering, particularly when it is bringing awareness to social justice issues. Much of creative work does exactly this while other sectors of society refuse to acknowledge the social ills we endure and even erases them.
This also fails to acknowledge the barriers overcome by marginalized groups who have a difficult time even entering the creative world, let alone being compensated for the work they do once recognized.
Some of the most famous sellouts of all time include The Beatles, Michelangelo, and Francis Ford Coppola – The Beatles for changing their image to attract success; Michelangelo for painting the Sistine Chapel, even though he preferred to create sculptures; and Coppola for directing The Godfather, although he disapproved of its message.
This is limiting to the image of creative people because it aims to keep us down. It’s in the same category as the starving artist myth because it impedes the success of beautiful work for fear of criticism, and it devalues work based on financial factors.
The best quote I’ve come across opposing this myth is this: “A selling artist is not a sellout artist.”
The creative process is exactly that. It goes through stages that may begin with adhering to strong personal values and turn into something that is both pure and lucrative. And that’s okay! In fact, this is great because brilliant, life-changing work needs to be exposed in order to be appreciated.
Creative work brings invisible ills and invisible people to the public eye. There is nothing further from selling-out than that.
Doing creative work can be fun, but it’s also hard.
Achieving success through creative work takes time and effort. And just like any other job, it means a lot of competition, rejection, and frustration.
However, creativity is both a necessary and lucrative skill that has a wide range of applications. And those of us who have this skill play a significant role in society and deserve to be compensated for our work without settling for less or feeling selfish for wanting more.