Art has Value, Real Artists Don’t Starve, and other Shocking Truths

Art has Value, Real Artists Don’t Starve, and other Shocking Truths

I heard someone say recently, “there are too many marketers and not enough artists.”

As someone deep inside the publishing industry, however, I find the opposite to be true. Recently I went to a writing conference – there were over 500 writers. All of them wanted to be artists: they made the work and now were trying to sell it. Agents and publishers desperately want to discover great material, but in almost all cases, these writers had finished something with no commercial appeal.

Often they’ll turn to an overpriced self-publishing company or vanity press, and pay them to take care of everything because “they’re not marketers” and don’t want to be marketers. The problem is, is you don’t champion your own book, nobody else will; and if your marketing plan is “publish and hope” chances are more than likely you’ll be one of the millions of books that sells less than 100 copies.

After several years of failure, some writers will drag their feet and slowly learn how to build their platform (complaining the whole time that they’d rather be writing). And it would have all been so much easier if they’d started from a position of value. If you can’t hook an agent’s attention in a 2 sentence pitch, and communicate the commercial value of your product (who is going to like it, and why), then you won’t get a deal. And without that crucial piece of vital information, you won’t be able to sell your book to readers directly either.

I’ve been reading a lot about the relationship between art and money recently, and without placing a moral value on either, I can confidently say you’ll need to become comfortable with both. But things really hit home this week when I read Jeff Goin’s Real Artists Don’t Starve. It’s more of a call to action / mindset book, and there are some things I’ve been resisting, but the main premise as I understand it is that “authentic artists add value”. They make art that matters; and, in order to share their gift with the world, the real artists are the ones who figure out the marketing and actually make money with their work, which gives them the time and freedom to do more great work. 

In other words, money is the helium that lifts the balloon. As long as you figure out the science of how much gas you’ll need to keep you airborne, you won’t be able to enjoy the experience and induce that calm aesthetic intuition at the heart of truly great art.


Decide to be an artist. Then do the work.

Jeff urges us to “become who you are.” I used to resist this kind of hopeful thinking: I’d rather start off with providing value FIRST, not deciding what you want to be. However I’ve come around to the idea that you need to ask for what you want and state your intentions into the world.

I don’t think we disagree though: you can choose to be a starving artist, or what Jeff calls a thriving artist. Both may be just as creative and talented, but one allows you to do the great work that matters – because if nobody has ever heard of you, your art can’t impact them; and thriving artists build a larger audience intentionally.

In other words, you can be creative and make money, or be creative and not make money, and there is no moral imperative (earning a living with your art should not question your artistic integrity) – however making money will allow you to keep doing the work, until you reach a point of mastery, while not making money may cause such frustration that you give up too early.

But for me it’s not about the money, it’s about the product: if you decide to provide value to a specific audience, and you package and position your work in a way that resonates with them, and you’re creating inherently shareable work and building relationships with your fans, it will be so much easier to sell.

Most creatives get hung up on the marketing or sales, because it feels uncomfortable; but marketing is just letting people know about something they’re going to love. If they get it and appreciate it immediately, you don’t have to sell the benefits.



Ok, I’ve decided. Now what?

Jeff focuses on a few main “platform-building” techniques he’s used. Some of them are scary to writer’s especially; others are scary for me personally. The first is about overcoming perfectionism.

An artist’s job is not to be perfect, but to be creating.

Those writers I met at the conference had spend years revising their books, then more years trying to figure out how to sell it. They probably wanted it to be “perfect” but the truth is, success is going to depend on whether readers like your content. This isn’t necessarily about creating quickly, it’s about focusing on the value, not the details. 

Dali says, “don’t fear perfection, you’ll never reach it.” But the example I like to use is impressionist painting. For centuries, painting had been about beauty and capturing life realistically. Then the impressionists came along and made messy quick landscapes, and everyone thought they were out of their minds.

If I asked you to think of your favorite paintings, chances are you might choose some of those messy, sloppy canvases, which were finished in an afternoon, and became famous and beloved. Art does not need to be made slowly.

The other reason it’s important not to be perfect, is so that you can share your work early and get critical feedback. Jeff talks about the idea of practicing in public, or showing off your early work. This not only gets your audience involved in your process, but also lets you quickly judge what kind of impact your work has. This allows you to experiment and rapidly discover your unique vision: that thing that only you can make, that the world will need, love and appreciate.

Although applying this practice to writing is more controversial (I’ve published books before they were ready, or shared my rough draft samples online to build an audience), I also know that the path to perfection is creation. Nobody gets it right the first time. We need practice, repetition and feedback loops to get better quickly.

As Jeff says, “skill is necessary, mastery is implied.” A lot of artists are so focused on making one perfect thing, they never develop the skills they need to actually create great work. Also, perfectionism can be an emotional resistance to putting the world out there and getting it seen.

Stephanie Halligan of Art to Self, says “I was nervous about putting my work out in the open. Because as much as I wanted people to know about what I was doing, I was worried about being exposed. There was a risk of letting myself be seen. Like if they looked to closely, they’d discover I was a fraud. If I showed off my work, I’d be vulnerable to criticism, or worse: silence.”

One of the speakers at the writer’s conference talked about confidence. But confidence doesn’t have to mean telling strangers about your book, or steering conversations towards a sale (yuck). It can just mean being willing to share.


Stubborn on vision, flexible on details.

Jeff talks about persistence, and says to be stubborn on vision but flexible on details. Focus on what you want, and listen to advice. A lot of creative entrepreneurs do things exactly the way they want the first time… even if everybody else is telling them it’s a bad idea. On the one hand, you have to try it your way first, but if it doesn’t succeed don’t just quit because your plan didn’t work. It was only your first attempt!

On the other hand, “if people aren’t loving what you’re doing, stop.”

Don’t give up. Don’t quit. But figure out why people aren’t responding to your artistic content.

Art will never just be what YOU think is great. It has to matter to other people as well.


Patrons, advocates, mentorship

“Join a scene, network. Genius happens in groups.”

Even though this passage makes me shudder, as I HATE working on creative projects with other people and making “democratic” art that pleases everyone… I also admit that networks are hugely important for visibility and often my biggest, best, most creative ideas DO come from joking around or bouncing ideas off other creative people and being inspired. Energy is generated in groups.

I’m too independent to go looking for patrons and mentors, I’d rather forge my way forward and lift myself up by my bootstraps. But the truth is, that’s hard work. I’ve probably wasted years building up my own content, and I’m still largely limiting myself because I don’t want to ask for favors and get help.

How do you get such an elusive relationship? You ask. I’ve seen dozens of people do it: they find someone they admire, and they reach out and offer to be an unpaid intern, or to help them fix something. I suppose I have done this a few times actually, and it’s probably 10X more effective than most of the other stuff I do.

Now that I’m finally focused on growing my platform, not my content, I’ll be much more committed to building a community. Another comment: art is isolating. My life has improved so much in the last few years because I’ve joined online communities where I can hang out with other full-time creatives who are also building things that matter; not only do I learn from them and get inspired by their results, and even though they’re not buyers of my product, they add tremendous psychological support.

“Charging brings dignity to our work.”

So let’s get into the money stuff, since this is the real root of a lot of the creative angst artists feel.

Even if we accept art needs an audience, we may resist charging our worth.

“We are attracted to art because it feels pure, so we worry that if we fixate too much on fame or success that such ambition may ruin the purity of our work. We want to believe if we just do our jobs well that our audience will just find us. But that’s not how it works… We all need our work to resonate with someone; our art needs an audience.”

How do you charge your worth?

Here’s a simple trick: don’t think about how much it means to you.

The value of art is what it means to other people. You can increase the price by increasing the emotional relevance, so again, you need to focus deliberately on creating work that matters, and making it relevant by understanding your audience (in other words, marketing IS the art, not something you figure out afterwards.

For me this is the most important piece, though most readers will miss it is, as it’s only mentioned once:

“You don’t have to starve. Today there is a New Rennaissance changing everything we thought we knew about creative work – one that is turning starving artists into thriving artists – and all we have to do is embrace it.”

You can earn a living with your art if your work matters (to other people).

The more it matters x the more people = your income.

This is the part that tripped me up at first: according to the title, the opposite statement should be true.

In other words, if you starve, you’re not a real artist. Both because it isn’t art if it doesn’t matter to lots of people, and also because you won’t be able to become a great artist unless you’re consistently making money (and doing the art full-time, so you can develop mastery, instead of as just a hobby or side thing).

For me, focusing on the money first means focusing on value: with that clear goal, you can not only set targets, but you can hit them and track and improve. If you think everyone should love your work and have no idea why they don’t, just believing your work has value and charging high prices won’t cut it.

Restated, the title becomes a logical tautology: If you’re successful, you’ll be successful.

But it also assumes “real art is commercially successful” – and while I understand the logic, I’m sure many of you will throw out counter examples of starving artists who found fame later (in those cases however, it’s always because someone else found and exploited the commercial value of their work).

It really all comes down to this:

You have a duty to do the work, which means you must do whatever you can to commit your time and life fully, investing in the skill, talent and influence you need to not only do great work, but share your gift with the world.

“The age of the Starving Artist is over. The era of the Thriving Artist is upon us. It’s time to believe creative work is worth its reward. It’s time to thrive. To do this, we have to accept the importance of networks and relationships in creative work. We must seek patrons and join our scenes if we want to thrive. We must not only make art, but also make money. That is the point – to keep making things. The success is the means, and the end is not having to quit. You don’t have to be rich to do that, but you can’t starve. That’s not how your best work is going to be made.”



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