The Starving Artist: Harmless Stereotype?

April 26th, 2013 by Thea S. Klapwald

A writer muses on a longstanding assumption about artists.

Brought to you by Liberty Mutual's
The Responsibility Project

I laughed when my son Charles’ godmother Julie gave him the gift of a melamine cup and plate illustrated with a cartoon character artist and the word “starving” above it. I got the joke: the juxtaposition of the word “starving” on a plate and cup meant to be filled with yummy foods for a child, and the cutesy illustration of an artist wearing a traditional smock and holding a palette – the stereotypical image of a “starving artist.”

Julie owns a public relations company for architects and designers and is Charles’ design maven. A former artist herself, she is responsible for all gifts to Charles of good taste and high design, whether Colorforms, AMMO books and puzzles, notNeutral furniture or Alexander Giraud ABC font blocks.

I hugged Julie, and asked, “Where ever did you find it?”

“On the MoMA (Museum of Modern Art’s) website,” she replied.

Charles took the cup and said, “What does it mean?” Before I could say anything, my husband Max whisked it out of his hands and answered, “Nothing. It means nothing!” Charles shrugged and turned his attention elsewhere.

I didn’t realize Max, a fine artist who has made a living selling his art since he was 23, was incensed. After Julie left he said, “We are throwing it out!”

I thought I knew my husband. Yet, I was surprised by his reaction. He didn’t find it humorous. Max spluttered away, his face turned an unflattering shade of brick. Getting a reasonable explanation from him would take time.

What could have made him so angry about the gift and its giver’s intentions? Julie wasn’t being malicious. She thought it was genuinely funny. After all, it was being sold by MoMA – the premiere American institution of contemporary art located in New York City, the city of all cities for modern art. Surely, they couldn’t be wrong?

I called artist Robbie Conal. Conal is known for his hit-and-run style of art: street posters depicting critical images of world leaders and politicians with pithy comments. He took aim at Ronald Reagan and Jesse Helms at a time when artists were mainly apolitical. He is the Dorothy Parker of street art, and he’s been successful in the game long enough to understand and be able to explain my husband’s reaction.

“He is right!” said Conal about Max. Conal pointed out that the image of a starving artist is neither new nor is it merely a myth. It has been true of major artists in the past like Jackson Pollack and Willem DeKooning, who suffered in poverty in Long Island – something difficult to comprehend in light of the record prices that pieces by DeKooning and Pollack currently fetch. A painting of DeKooning’s sold for $134 million, the third most expensive painting in recorded history.

“It’s something of a conundrum for artists,” continued Conal. The common perception of the freezing garret and the need to burn sketches for warmth versus the stratospherically priced art that few can afford is prevalent.

The truth is, most artists’ successes fall somewhere in between the spectrum. My husband doesn’t earn six figures for an individual painting, but he also doesn’t have a “day job” other than making and selling art. My son knows his father is an artist and has even said he wants to be an artist (as well as a doctor, a scientist and a chef).

“My idea is that the starving artist doesn’t come from hunger alone. It has a twin: crazy artist. They go together really beautifully,” said Conal. Conal, of course, was referring to the Van Gogh “syndrome.” An artist must first starve for his art, and then be insane in order to succeed.

“The toxic fallout is that so many people are discouraged,” said Conal. “Parents tell their children, ‘You can’t be an art major because how are you going to make a living?’ It is a self-fulfilling prophecy. When it gets into the culture as a meme, it functions on the level of rumor and gossip. It is not questioned or examined. It is just there.”

“Children are tabula rasa, a blank slate,” my husband later told me. The cup and plate required children to put the word “Starving” and the image of the artist together. Children are given the stereotype before they can even read it or understand it. They absorb the stereotype on a subliminal or cellular level. Before they even have time to judge for themselves they are presented with it.

“If more people saw art as a transformative and an incredibly important part of society with a secure financial upside, more responsible individuals would join the ranks,” Max said. As long as artists are seen as “other,” as outside of our society, it impinges on the ability of society to appreciate artists and the role they serve in society.

How could MoMA get it so wrong? Surely they would be aware of the mocked artists’ reaction to the plate and cup? The next time I checked the website, the product was gone. Had it run its course? Or had enough artists complained? I might never know, but I decided to bin the gift. I didn’t even give it to the thrift shop or a friend. After all, just passing it on to someone else would continue to condone the acceptance of the pair of words “starving” and “artist.” Change is enacted through the removal of stereotypes and bias, so I resolutely put the plate and cup into the recycling bin, and I didn’t look back.

Thea Klapwald is a frequent contributor to The Wall Street Journal and has also written for The Los Angeles Times, The New York Times, The International Herald Tribune and Variety. She blogs regularly at Awkward Travels with Thea.