Success in the Creative Arts Doesn’t Come Cheap, and Most of Us Can’t Afford It

The creative industry is built on a mythology that is impossible to measure up to. What hope do the rest of us have if the only people who can afford to dabble in it are real-life royalty?

Image © Lin Yung Cheng
© Lin Yung Cheng

I have spent the majority of my twenties in full-time employment, occasionally working two jobs, often with long hours. But there was one summer that I spent aimlessly in Paris when I was nineteen, after dropping out of art college. I idled my time away primarily rifling through one euro bins of second-hand clothes at flea markets, drinking one euro bottles of wine and living on baguettes, cheese and those enormous frilly lettuces that you only seem to be able to find in French supermarkets. Despite my noble attempts to keep my budget low, I found myself running through the money I’d saved from my shop job back in London like I couldn’t spend it fast enough. 

I read books in public squares and carried a large, expensive notebook with me everywhere, although I never once wrote in it. Aside from the obvious clichés that hung heavily in my mind, I didn’t seem to possess the confidence to put pen to paper. I sat ready and waiting, but nothing came to mind. Perversely, it was as if the freedom to finally pursue my own creative interests had caused my brain to freeze up. When my money ran out, I returned home, my mother’s voice ringing in my ears: “When are you going to get a real job?”

I sometimes wonder if things would have been different if I’d had more time and more space to find my voice at that young age. What if I’d had a room of my own, sequestered away somewhere, for another year, or even indefinitely? I am hardly the first to consider what could have been if the scales were tipped differently, but it is a question that I increasingly return to at the end of another long day at work. I am lucky to be able to write and edit in my job, but my career has taken me in various directions, including copywriting for an advertising agency and even ghost-writing somebody else’s column in a national newspaper. 

Now, I listen closely if others state that they are an artist or a writer when asked what they do for a living. There is an unspoken self-assurance to the assertion, something that I have always lacked. With little to define what really makes an artist, it is all too easy for the job description to stretch to accommodate almost anybody with the confidence to identify as one. In Paris, with my empty notebook and pen, I could have told new acquaintances that I was a writer or novelist, rather than mumbling vaguely about being unemployed.   

“With little to define what really makes an artist, it is all too easy to stretch to almost anybody with the confidence to identify as one”

Unlike other professions, artists and other independent creative practitioners are not defined by the money that they make, but seemingly by the hours that they are able to dedicate to their craft. An article by Lynn Steger Strong, published in The Guardian last week, addressed this misapprehension. Titled “A dirty secret: you can only be a writer if you can afford it”, the piece announced itself with a bang, although its findings may well come as anything but a surprise to many working in the creative industry. 

The author reflects on the often-invisible sources of “extraordinary privilege” that keep the literary world turning, from writers bolstered by a parental down payment on a home, to monthly family stipends or a wealthy partner. “There are ramifications, I think, of no one mentioning the source of this freedom when they have it,” she argues. “There is the perpetuation of an illusion that makes an unsustainable life choice appear sustainable, that makes the specific achievements of particular individuals seem more remunerative than they actually are.” 

It doesn’t take much imagination to extend this to the art world. According to a report published in 2019 by Arts Council England (ACE), just one third of the money earned by visual artists comes from producing art, and almost seven in ten artists have to take on additional jobs to make ends meet. Artists earn an average of £16,150 each year, of which just £6,020 comes from their art practice. The vast majority (two-thirds) earn less than £5k from their art, with seven per cent earning more than £20k.

The creative industry is built on a mythology that is impossible to measure up to. We are told that the ability to spend all of your time in pursuit of one thing equates to success, when in fact both time and space can be easily bought by the privileged and wealthy. It seems that all it takes to be a full-time artist is the means to afford the lifestyle. This fantasy skews all concept of success and sets the rest of us up for a fall. We are living under a delusion. 

“When a career doesn’t come down to the money that you earn, where do we draw the line between a hobby and a job?”

An article published in The Economist this February led with the headline: “Why aristocrats are flocking to the creative arts”. It named everyone from Harry and Meghan, with their recent Disney voiceover deal, to Princess Eugenie’s role as an art dealer. As the piece detailed, “Aristocrats presumably choose the creative arts because they offer pleasanter and more prestigious employment than most fields do, there is no clear definition of success, and the low pay and scant benefits common in the industry’s lower reaches are less troublesome to those whose existences are cushioned by wealth.” 

There has been some discussion online this week over whether millennials have time for hobbies, particularly in the age of the side-hustle. I know that I find myself increasingly consumed by paid work. But it raises the difficult question of what, exactly, we should define as a job and what we ought to call a hobby. If the ACE figures are anything to go by, there are some full-time artists who might be more aptly considered as hobbyists. When a career doesn’t come down to the money that you earn, where do we draw the line between the two? As The Economist snidely puts it, “There are some who think ‘job’ is just a book in the Old Testament.” 

What hope do the rest of us have if the only people who can afford to dabble in the creative arts are real-life royalty? The industry is increasingly squeezed, with the majority of its workforce either on insecure contracts or no contract at all; even those in full-time employment are frequently overworked and underpaid. These days, I pitch and write to deadline, immersing myself in the entangled workings of the art world. But my notebook is still empty.

Are We There Yet is a fortnightly column by Louise Benson. Top image © Lin Yung Cheng