They say that if you have no money, it’s because you aren’t adding enough value to other people’s lives. That might be true, or it might be that they have no money to give you, or alternatively it might be that people aren’t accustomed to paying for all of the sorts of things we really value as human beings. In any case, it’s a very real problem for the starving artist. Let’s assume, for argument’s sake, that artists need to find a way to add value to other people’s lives, as a working premise. How can they do that?
Art doesn’t do much, in the sense that a car, a household appliance or even a house does. Its ability to cure disease or suffering is not universally recognised or proven beyond doubt. Just what is art good for and what can an artist do to create value for other people?
Art can be decorative. There is some value in making the place look better or sound better. The value isn’t very high, in people’s estimations, because a coat of a brightly coloured paint will suffice, but if you can serve enough people, then you can add value by producing decorative works. Colourists tend to dominate this form of artistic value creation.
Art can touch the emotions. If you can reach enough people emotionally, so that they identify strongly with the feelings conveyed in your art, you can create value. The problem is that lots of free alternative ways of having their emotions reached are available.
Art can be diverting and entertaining, helping people forget about their daily struggles and their woes for a while. It might make them laugh. It might make them escape to an imaginary world for a while. Escapism has value, but there is a lot of competition for escapists. Almost every genre and medium of art has a strong representative subset of works that appeal to escapist sentiments.
Stimulating the imagination might be the way your art creates value. Again, for your art to be absorbing and stimulating enough to make people begin thinking for themselves and designing and creating new ideas and innovations themselves, you art has to be quite clever and quite special. This is a hard thing to do. Surrealism is a good example of this sort of art, but so are the drawings of M.C Escher.
Portrait painters, especially, create value by appealing to the prestige and (dare I say) vanity of their commissioners. They create what many see as a status symbol, which will celebrate the subject of the portrait long after they are dead and gone. Artists can facilitate feelings of self importance and worth in their subjects.
You can produce art as a form of de facto currency or as store of monetary value. This is hard to do, because the value of your art has to be more or less universally acclaimed, at which point the scarcity of your works makes them valuable, but so does the fact that there enough of your works available to create a viable market in them. We all know the names of artists whose work is now a form of money.
You might, through your art, clarify people’s perceptions, helping them to see more clearly or helping them make sense of things. Your art might help people understand who is responsible for their suffering. You might propose the answers to people’s problems in your art. You might highlight an injustice and serve as a rallying point for action.
Your art might be the insignia or the recognisable badge of a cult, or system of belief. You might be the stuff around which people identify or draw their own identities. You might represent a way of a large number of people expressing their essential difference to the status quo. You might be symbolic of an entire lifestyle or philosophy of living.
Maybe your art teaches others how to realise their own creative potential. You might be a source of technical or aesthetic knowledge which others can use to participate in the creative world.
In most of these methods of adding value, you have to reach a lot of people at the same time and be better or more noticeable than all the other people creating too. Painting for one person at a time, or releasing music for your best friends might create some value, but not enough for you to remain economically viable.
It’s getting both easier to reach a lot of people with your art, but also much harder to be noticed. There is a lot of art about. A lot of it is really good and really cheap (or free). To be outstanding, you really have to be superb, original, willing to make sure people can access your art and confident enough to promote your art, in the world.
I’m pretty sure that most artists don’t even consider how their work creates value, when they are creating it, but maybe having a little bit of a think about it and making some choices and decisions regarding what kind of value you are trying to deliver might make it a little easier to survive in the money-obsessed world and enable you to continue to create without starving.
Some of these ideas are hard to face, as an artist, but necessary, given the world we live in. I, too, struggle to find ways to create enough value for enough people through my creative output. In truth, I don’t. The reason the blog is titled “Creative Ideas for Starving Artists” is that this is the story of my own personal survival struggle, as an artist. I don’t yet have all the answers, but at least I am thinking about the problem as imaginatively and with as much creativity as I try to apply to my art. I’m a strong believer in the power of innovation and ideas. I just haven’t seen the ultimate pay off from them yet (but I still maintain my blind faith that one day I will). Sharing my thoughts with you, my readers, helps me to understand my own situation with greater clarity. I hope that in reading these posts (and there are now over two hundred of them in this series) you are encouraged to solve your own survival problems, as an artist and that you get some clues and guidance, or new approaches, from these little capsules of thought.
If you already are a successful artist and not starving, I’d welcome your insights and feedback. If you are one of the many who are still trying to find a route to viability, please also share with me what is working for you.
In the meantime, let’s look for ways to be valuable to people.