The popular image of the artist starving in his or her garret was established in Paris in 1851, with the publication of Henri Murger’s semi-autobiographical novel,Scènes de la Vie de Bohème, which Puccini would later adapt into his 1896 opera La Bohème.
Thanks to the romantic sheen which Murger and Puccini gave to this tale of bohemian life, the notion of starving for your art has become almost idealised, but the realities of such a life in the 19th century were considerably grimmer, as British author Virginia Nicholson notes in her book Among the Bohemians – Experiments in Living 1900 – 1939:
‘The Bohemians of early nineteenth-century Paris, as Murger knew only too well, died younger than any other sector of society at the time, their ranks depleted by insanity, typhoid, tuberculosis and sheer starvation. In his own case, despite his success with Scènes de la Vie de Bohème, the years of poverty undermined his health, and he died at the age of thirty-eight.’
In today’s affluent Western society, artists rarely starve to death any more (though tragically, refugees still do), but they still struggle financially, which has ramifications for both their personal lives and their practices.
The Australia Council artists’ survey, Don’t give up your day job, found that in 2000-01, artists earned an average of just over $24,000 from creative and other arts-related work. The average total income for artists for the same period, including non-arts related work, was about $37,000, or $698.11 per week.
While this is higher than the Australian minimum wage of $606.40 per week (as established by the federal government’s Fair Work Ombudsman) and is certainly above the poverty line, it is well below the median earnings of full time Australian workers, which sits at $54,750 per year.
Musician and comedian Geraldine Quinn is one of the many artists who juggles the need for income with the challenge of maintaining a creative practice. ‘The compromise I have made in my lifestyle is that I’m very itinerant. I’ve really struggled with rent and I’m relatively resigned as well that I’ll never be able to put down a deposit on a house,’ she says.
Quinn is currently employed but that’s a problem too. The realities of the nine-to-five lifestyle are not especially conducive to creativity. ‘I was very grateful to get work … but as a consequence [of working since March] I have barely written a song in 2012. And this is not what I expected. I thought I’d fill my coffers a bit, and then be able to focus, but I haven’t.’
Many artists are familiar with this catch-22 situation. Employment can provide the money required to support one’s practice but eats up the time necessary to actually create art. Conversely, unemployment means that one has all the time in the world to make art, but not the money required to access materials and sources of inspiration. Even the holy grail of arts funding can prove to be a poisoned chalice. Funding can allow you to create and develop a work, but what happens when not all of the necessary funding comes through?
In 2011, dancer and choreographer Jo Lloyd staged her work Future Perfect at Melbourne’s Trades Hall, despite some funding for the project failing to manifest at the last minute.
‘What happened was, towards the end, a couple of presentation grants … didn’t come through, but I thought the piece needed to happen [nonetheless]. It was one of those pieces where I thought ‘It can’t sit around, it’s ready to go’, Lloyd says.
‘Sometimes you feel like you need to put a work out there because it’s been a while and you’re ready, so I just veered towards ‘how can I make this work?’
Staging Future Perfect was a challenge, Lloyd says, but one that she rose to – indeed, one that she enjoyed.
‘I like having to be resourceful, as long as the collaborators are with me on that. I like that kind of challenge, of asking ‘how can we make this work?’ That’s why I still keep doing it,’ she laughs.
It’s common knowledge that poverty and financial stress significantly impact upon an individual’s life, affecting everything from self-esteem and spending ability to one’s ability to socialise with peers. As comedian Toby Halligan puts it, it’s not one’s practise that suffers, ‘it’s the normal stuff’. But losing ‘normal stuff’ can impact on creativity.
‘The stuff you cut out is the stuff you can live without, like socialising. There was a period when I couldn’t really afford to go see films with my friends, so I’d download them instead … I remember having to download The Dark Knight instead of seeing it with friends. And you lose a lot of the experience because of that. You go to the movies with friends and afterwards you chat about it, you joke about it, maybe you find some material from the experience.’
For a comedian, then, the simple act of interacting with friends – from which the seeds of a successful new routine can grow – can be impacted upon by reduced financial circumstances. It can be harder to find inspiration when alone in your garret (or bedsit).
Often joked about as a government arts grant, the dole has long been a refuge for artists whose arts-based income is intermittent; but pursuing a creative practice while surviving on the dole is no longer as easy as it was in the Seventies and Eighties. A recent study by the National Centre for Social and Economic Modelling, released in August, reveals that ‘15 per cent of unemployed households are forced to go without food, and a similar number at times cannot afford to heat their houses’. For artists, who invariably face additional expenses, the challenges can be even greater.
Visual artist Ash Keating has never gone on the dole (‘Apart from it being work anyway, dealing with Centrelink … realistically you’re not looking for work; you’re already working as an artist’) but he has certainly struggled financially.
‘I don’t live well at times,’ Keating tells artsHub. ‘My art always takes precedence. I’ve worked on big scale projects that have had artist’s fees and I’ve been able to live well off them, at times, but I’ve also been unemployed.’
During such periods of unemployment, Keating’s priority has been his art. As a result, while he has not compromised his art, he has certainly compromised the way he lives.
‘I try and eat well, but I don’t necessarily have a lifestyle, especially the bigger things: always choosing the cheapest rent option, never really having a solid address, never having a vehicle or the means to do the things that average people who have sustainable jobs do,’ he explains.
As the old adage says, the show must go on. Thankfully for our broader culture, it’s an adage that all artists seem to have taken to heart. Most of the time, the practice doesn’t suffer but the artists do.
This article was originally published at artsHub