I was reading an article about a series of podcasts of interviews of artists and how they make a living. You can read it here It was a practical investigation into how an artist can continue to make money to survive, a problem that we constantly have to reevaluate through the course of our lives. In the thread beneath, an architect wrote that all artists are freeloaders and should ‘f**k off for themselves and get a real job’ and do their art in their spare time. He seemed to take umbrage at people not living exactly the way he felt was forced to live-by his own fear, in my opinion (he drew his pictures in his spare time). Contrary to what these people with ‘real ‘ jobs would have you think, being an artist is not for pussies. I did not comment myself but his articulacy (in subsequent comments at least) were in contrast to the inarticulacy of those who tried to defend the arts and gave me a lot to think about. These are some of the things I thought.

Clarification The definition of art and artist comes into play here. There is emotion around the title artist. For instance if you suggest to someone they aren’t a brain surgeon because they haven’t put in the time they will agree (hopefully) but if you suggest to anyone who wants to adopt the title artist that they may not be, they might get upset. I think it goes back to a fuzziness about definitions of art and creativity. Creativity can be, should be maybe, extant in all professions and actions even. Learning and practising creative skills, like painting or carving or becoming expert at them is not what I am talking about here either or getting a creative career such as animation or illustration (which, by the way, can drain energy from your art faster than another sort of job). I am talking about practising the making of art (which includes audio, visual, sensual art), full time, in the world. I don’t like to claim this title for myself, not all the time anyway, but I do here for sake of expediency.

It’s not easy being an artist There is a lot of emotion around the role of artist from both those for the arts-who think being an artist is ‘cool’ or magical, like unicorns-and those against the arts-who think artists, like unicorns, shouldn’t exist…maybe because they seem cool. It’s not cool. Its a pain in the arse so I don’t understand why so many people want to be identified as artist and get upset if they aren’t. Give me the dosh any day. If only I had been good at sums! You can apply creativity to your life without having to be an artist...

Being a poor artist doesn’t mean you are a freeloader. Many artists I know do their best to be self-supporting while also creating art. Many don’t get grants and the ones that do cannot depend on them to live for the most part. They enhance the work that’s all. When you decide to be an artist it means really that you decide to be poor. You commit to a stressful, precarious life because you can be no other way. Some people stick with it, some people don’t. That’s OK. Strangely those who stick with it don’t become as embittered as our comfortable architect. Maybe we are too busy…

Artists often do have jobs but not everyone with a job can be an artist. A bit generalistic but bear with me. Our architect commenter identified himself as an architect but he wanted to be seen as an artist. His position was that it is possible to be an artist while holding down a full-time job. It may be possible, but in truth I am not sure. Tellingly he identified himself first as an architect. The matter of emphasis is important. If your life is focussed around your job and your art is fitted in around the edges then you haven’t committed and that affects your ‘art’. Art, as I understand it, by its nature can’t be hemmed in. Also the very insecurity of not having ‘a real job’ adds something to the mix. This isn’t definitive. Different people have different skills…some can balance other work with art. Some not. I’ve done it and often my regular job fed my art. But my real ‘work’ was always my art. Maybe it is possible to be an artist and have a full time career but at the end of the day you know where your emphasis is…and some of us looking at your work will know it too..

The standard for artists is far higher than the standard for professionals Artists-the good ones, for as with any profession there are mediocre ones, bad ones, and ones along for the ride-dream a future for everyone. That’s real work not just because we are living precariously but also because of the standard some commentators demand. We are all supposed to be geniuses all the time and for no money at all. If someone spots one bad or fake artist or one piece of work that doesn’t make it, that they don’t like, we are all designated useless and not worthy of existence. Is there one other profession like that?


Artists are poor not because they don’t work but because they have to take crap jobs to survive. This is an interesting point. I’ve done any and every job I could get to stay afloat. I’d love to have a career, to have security, but I get too bored, stifled and ultimately depressed. Which is sad because I do like money. Ironically many artists work, harder, longer hours in more thankless positions at minimum wage to pay rent than our embittered architect commenter does. Again it’s about emphases and what you prioritize. Also ironically, as an artist you learn to become highly skilled in many areas but unless you invest your life in training for a particular, well paid niche in the system, the only jobs available to support your art, will be low paid. It is scary to note that these jobs are the ones that are beginning to disappear, potentially leaving the arts to only those who can afford to do it:the independently wealthy, like our architect and his doodles. And that type of art, created from a place of ‘security’ will likely come from inside the dominant system ie capitalism. We need art, every society needs art that is by its nature outside the system (see Ewing, 2017). And this means it will never be well paid for the majority anyway. Scott Timburgs book Culture Crash is an interesting and sobering read of the disappearance of jobs for the creative class.

Even the artist who earns within the arts sector is expected to earn a lot less than even a minimum wage How many times have I seen ‘competitions’ where artists vie for the opportunity to make work for free?A few weeks ago Norwich Council in the UK offered £500 for a mural or series of murals around the city. Include in that materials, crew, scaffolding and a wage for weeks or months of work…well there will be no wage. But it is expected that the artists would somehow work for free. So on the one hand we are outside the system because we don’t work, on the other hand they will take our work (which we don’t do apparently) and not pay us because we are outside the system. Belfast airport advertised last year for someone to spend weeks to do a mural for free, the only prize being exposure. We will all in the end die of exposure..

Artists sabotage themselves by devaluing art I’ve seen a few charity art shows already this year and I am being forever asked for free paintings. Usually its other artists doing the asking. The arts sector, being the lowest paid is also the sector that jumps at the chance to give work away for free. I’ve nothing against auctions that raise money for artists and their establishments and which ring fence the value of the artwork and/or give a percentage to the artist but even those are endangered by fundraisers for other sectors. We shoot ourselves in the foot by educating people to think that we can give weeks or months worth of work away for nothing. Imagine if lawyers, plumbers, accountants were asked do weeks or months work for free just for the exposure? Yeh. Right. Cloud cuckoos are us.

The world needs people whose sole job is to make art Despite the possibility of working in the system while creating art mentioned above we need to have some people who are solely artists.

We need to encompass in our society the need to do ‘meaningless’ things. I mean meaningless in the sense of being outside the current dominant systems. Individuals might move in and out of this sector but it should be there should be supported by society as a vital part of its future. And all of us need to know it is there. It’s very ‘meaninglessness’ is its raison d’etre. New ideas, new worlds, new solutions to our problems only arise from people playing outside the accepted system.We need people to make odd things that have no market value (see Ewing, 2017). And following from that…

The very nature of art means that is has to be impossible to explain in terms of the dominant system Contemporary art is currently outside the system and continues to annoy and baffle. It is the visible aspect of a long fought battle by the arts against the market. We know it is doing its job by the amount of people in the system calling ‘rubbish’ and demanding, like our commenter, that they fit back into a pre-designed, capitalist box. On that note see Kevin Myers hilarious 2011 article here which  takes the view that contemporary artists are awash with money and insists that the only art that is acceptable and should be funded is that which fits into a regressive form, the one predominant in America between 1930-1950 and which was subsequently easily swallowed by the capitalist system. This pretence at rationalism is charmingly kooky in itself…there are echoes of 30 Rocks Jack Donaghy declaring that art is pictures of ships and horses…as if the idea that coloured rectangles on a wall, either figurative or abstract, makes more sense than anything else but I’ll be addressing that in another post.

Its not just artists who are affected by the drive to quash the art sector. The attitude of our commenter infects the upper level of our society and affects more than artists. The supporters of the dominant system would take away support from anyone who needs it:children, disabled, the elderly, the sick-which we have all been or will be-so the minority can benefit from the majority of the worlds resources, to hoard it, because somehow they feel that by being privileged means they earned it. In reality they are soft compared to those living with their faces pushed up against the window of possibility. Capitalism only serves a certain type of person with a certain set of circumstances often at a certain point in the life span. Our attitudes to how we live, house and feed ourselves, as well as to art, needs massive adjustment and a collective effort at some lateral thinking, something which could be provided by those allowed to play outside. I’m not holding my breath.

Further Reading

Ewing, E. L., (2017), Why Authoritarians Attack the Arts, in The New York Times, [online], April 6th, available at [accessed 16/04/2017].

Gillespie, K, (2017), Starving Artist, A Podcast That Gets Real About Money, Creativity, and Privilege, in Vice [online], April 4th, available at [accessed 16/04/2017]

Myers, K., (2011),’Modern art’ is one of the greatest con-tricks of the 20th century … awash with stupid money, in The Irish Independent ,[online], September 14th, available at,[accessed 16/04/2017].

Timburg, S., (2015), Culture Crash:The Killing of the Creative Class, New York:Yale University Press



  1. It would be lovely if ‘artist’ was a profession that came with a decent salary and pension. 🙂 Every business could have a resident artist who was paid to make art for everyone in the company/place of work and 4 weeks holiday a year to do their own thing 🙂

  2. Oh right…I didn’t get the tone first time around…Ok I mean maybe it sounds like I expect to get paid for nothing and if I want to get paid anything I should be inside the system like everyone else and take my four weeks and shut up…I guess that’s where we’ll differ. My point is if everyones inside that system there is no progress you see?No room for ideas that spark off other ideas that lead to development thatlead to better life for everyone. And you cant make art in four weeks a year…though some can hold down a job and do art daily…but I covered that in the post. Mostly what I am saying is many artists ARE having to work in the system AS WELL as being full time artists. Anyway artists don’t do holidays. Its 24/7. Its a tricky subject. I guess I won’t change anyones mind, words never did but it is hard to work so hard and then get called lazy and then get asked for my work for free…but I do suck it up and keep going though I won’t shut up 🙂 :)…maybe the idea of basic income might be a solution…where everyone gets money and can decide what to do with it….certainly the world seems to shifting towards that idea with so many jobs being automated.

  3. You could almost say the same thing about writers and musicians, all of whom are expected to give their work away for nothing these days.

    Your points are good. Every society needs those people who create.

    Stupidly, I hadn’t thought about the quality of one’s work suffering if one had a full-time job, but I did notice that my writing improved when I retired and I was no longer writing while I was eating my lunch or going up to London on the train.

  4. Yes definitely I’d include all artists, in fact Timburgs book is primarily about writers and one of his points is that the closure of book shops has taken away jobs from the writing class..It s a tricky one and very subjective deciding who is an artist and who is not…I’m not sure I put myself in the category except for expediency when I am writing about it…I do know that jobs I have had , part time ones-have fed into my art and I have needed a balancing structure but full time work drains most people and can also become precarious when there is a conflict of interest between ones art and ones job eg getting time off to prepare a show or a book….and it also takes away that ‘nothing’ time that really good work needs I believe. The more time I have to potter, mentally or physically, the better and faster the work is I find…

  5. It is the pottering time, isn’t it? It’s just at those moments when you’re not really thinking about anything that the ideas come. I’ll be planting out courgettes later this afternoon and I can almost guarantee that something really useful will occur to me when my hands are covered in dirt. That’s when I start muttering to myself.

  6. It did!I had read too fast the first time…its such a tricky thing to talk about….as soon as I read back I start arguing with myself, the definition of an ‘artist’ for instance can change from person to person and circumstance to circumstance…oh thats a whole other set of posts 🙂 🙂 …but yeh basic income would be good…if could shift our ideas away from money…maybe go all ‘star trek’…a lot of economists are saying we’ll have to have basic income soon so people can keep the whole ball rolling with the old spending as the jobs are drying up….because robots..

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