14 min read ⌚
Quick Summary: “Real Artists Don’t Starve” by Jeff Goins takes a look back through the history of art to discover, surprisingly, that the story of the starving artist is just that: a story. In reality, guys like Michelangelo and Da Vinci were fabulously rich. Here’s your guide on how you can become a thriving artist as well.
Who Should Read “Real Artists Don’t Starve”? And Why?
Real Artists Don’t Starve is, of course, a book best suited for aspiring artists and other creative minds.
It is especially good for those who want to create but see no dough in the profession and those who do create but think that they shouldn’t earn money from something so noble.
Jeff Goins begs to differ, and he makes a great case.
Real Artists Don’t Starve Summary
Introduction: Myth of the Starving Artist
“The greater danger for most of us lies not in setting our aim too high and falling short, but in setting our aim too low, and achieving our mark.”
These words were said, over half a millennium ago, by Michelangelo Buonarroti, a man called “The Divine One” already in his lifetime, and a man consensually considered one of the greatest artists in the history of humankind – if not the very greatest.
Now, Michelangelo was even more than that which is why, together with his contemporary Leonardo da Vinci, he is considered the archetypal Renaissance Man as well.
For example – although it is not that well known – Michelangelo was also one of the greatest poets of his time, and, to many, his delicate and profound sonnets rank up there with Shakespeare’s as some of the highest poetic achievements in history.
In one of them, Michelangelo says that his art had left him “poor, old and working as a servant of others.”
Nothing surprising, right?
After all, there aren’t many artists who you’ve thought of having achieved something more in material terms, which is why Carl Spitzweg’s painting “The Poor Poet” looks to many as just about the perfect depiction of a writer’s daily struggles.
Shockingly – as Virginia Woolf reminded us in A Room of One’s Own – it is not so: many artists throughout history were actually pretty rich.
And Michelangelo (the guy who described himself as a poor servant) – as Rab Hatfield discovered in 2002 – was one of the richest, boasting a fortune more than $30 million in today’s money.
Jeff Goins’ point?
The story of the starving, struggling artist is a myth – mostly written by rich artists.
The truth is that real artists don’t strive; they thrive.
The Rules of the New Renaissance
Already in the “Introduction” to his book, Jeff Goins makes known that there’s a New Renaissance happening around us and that it has already given birth to the Thriving Artist.
Want to become one?
Just dispel the old myths – and start adhering to the new ones.
Here they are, the principles every Thriving Artist lives by – the Rules of the New Renaissance:
#1. The Starving Artist believes you must be born an artist. The Thriving Artist knows you must become one.
#2. The Starving Artist strives to be original. The Thriving Artist steals from his influences.
#3. The Starving Artist believes he has enough talent. The Thriving Artist apprentices under a master.
#4. The Starving Artist is stubborn about everything. The Thriving Artist is stubborn about the right things.
#5. The Starving Artist waits to be noticed. The Thriving Artist cultivates patrons.
#6. The Starving Artist believes he can be creative anywhere. The Thriving Artist goes where creative work is already happening.
#7. The Starving Artist always works alone. The Thriving Artist collaborates with others.
#8. The Starving Artist does his work in private. The Thriving Artist practices in public.
#9. The Starving Artist works for free. The Thriving Artist always works for something.
#10. The Starving Artist sells out too soon. The Thriving Artist owns his work.
#11. The Starving Artist masters one craft. The Thriving Artist masters many.
#12. The Starving Artist despises the need for money. The Thriving Artist makes money to make art.
Let’s look at them one by one!
Part 1: Mind-Set
“We first approach our art not with our hands but with our minds,” writes Goins in the short introduction to the first part of Real Artists Don’t Starve.
And he goes on to explain some more:
“We all develop thought patterns and limiting beliefs that prohibit us from being where we want to be in life, and creative work is no exception. Here, we attack those obstacles head-on, adopting new ways of thinking, so that we can stop starving and start creating. We must master our mind-set.”
1. You Aren’t Born an Artist
“Artists are born, not made.”
This adage is as old as (at least) the Roman Empire.
The only problem?
It is not true.
In reality, everyone can become an artist: writing, painting, music – they are all skills (like many others) that can be acquired.
Take John Grisham, for example.
As you know full well, he is a lawyer by trade and a writer by choice; interestingly enough, it was the latter that made him a household name and a millionaire.
Grisham started his career by spending just an hour daily to write about one page of his first book. Three years later, that book became his first novel (A Time to Kill), so unattractive that 40 publishers passed on it before it finally reached the shelves in a modest print run of 5,000 copies.
Grisham didn’t give up and wrote another novel.
Perhaps you’ve heard of it: The Firm.
Suddenly, Grisham became the talk of the town and, after The Firm became a successful Hollywood movie starring Tom Cruise soon after, the sky became the limit.
The interesting paradox?
A man who wasn’t a writer by profession invented the most popular genre of the modern age: the legal thriller.
Perhaps it has to do something with Grisham’s ability to combine knowledge from two disparate fields?
That’s your road to greatness.
(And, let’s not forget, wealth.)
2. Stop Trying to Be Original
“Immature poets imitate; mature poets steal” – wrote T. S. Eliot in 1920.
And more than two decades before him, another guy, W. H. Davenport Adams, praised Alfred Tennyson for his “assimilative method, when he adopts an image or a suggestion from a predecessor, and works it up into his own glittering fabric.”
He recapped the technique in “a modest canon:” “great poets imitate and improve, whereas small ones steal and spoil.”
You might have heard this adage in another version (incorrectly attributed to Picasso) – “Good artists copy. Great artists steal” – but what matters most is its essence.
And that is: originality doesn’t exist; the most original artists merely improve upon older visions and designs.
“To be ignorant of what occurred before you were born,” wrote Cicero once, “is to remain always a child.”
So, don’t be one!
Learn everything there is to know and use it.
Postmodernism is nothing more but a critically approved theft.
3. Apprentice Under a Master
Before Michelangelo became Michelangelo, he was nothing more but a humble student of a famous Florentine artist now mainly known as his teacher, a certain Domenico Ghirlandaio.
Interestingly enough, that’s how most great art careers begin: with an apprenticeship.
“Before we become masters,” writes Goins, “we must first become apprentices.”
And even later on, it doesn’t hurt to ask for a piece of advice or two (see advices 6 and 7).
As Atul Gawande says: want to get great at something? Get a coach!
4. Harness Your Stubbornness
However, most artists aren’t humble.
In fact, they are quite the opposite of that: stubborn and resilient in their vision of the world.
That’s the other part of your mind that you need cultivating if you want to become a master: when the time is right, end your apprenticeship and try to sever the links to the old order.
And, more importantly, persist in your vision.
If Grisham’s first novel was rejected by 40 publishers, Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby was by no less than 122! And you already know the story of J. K. Rowling, right?
You know why Grisham, Fitzgerald and Rowling succeeded?
Because they were (as Jeff Bezos) says “stubborn on vision,” and “flexible on details.”
Starving artists are flexible on the details as well.
Thriving ones know better.
Part 2: Market
Once you master your mindset, it’s time to tackle the market, “the place where we become professionals and learn how this works in the real world.”
If we do it well, says Jeff Goins, people will not just pay attention, but they will also pay you.
5. Cultivate Patrons
If you’ve ever read the original Charles Perrault’s version of Cinderella, then you already know that in addition to the shallow Disney message that inner beauty and graciousness beats physical good looks, there’s also another more, interesting one:
“Without doubt, it is a great advantage to have intelligence, courage, good breeding, and common sense. These, and similar talents come only from heaven, and it is good to have them. However, even these may fail to bring you success, without the blessing of a godfather or a godmother.”
Ha? You didn’t expect that, did you?
Like it or not, that’s how the real world works!
We all like and love figures such as, say, Elvis Presley and Johnny Cash but there’s no way we would have known them if it wasn’t for a guy named Sam Phillips, an American record producer.
If it wasn’t for him, quipped once Cash, “I might still be working in a cotton field.”
Elvis Presley, Roy Orbison, Jerry Lee Lewis – they would probably say something similar.
Don’t wait to be noticed. Cultivate patrons who can nurture your noticeability.
6. Go Join a Scene
We’ve already told you more than once that a thorn between roses smells lovely, but a rose between thorns withers away.
Well, that’s the essence of Jeff Goins’ next lesson: you cannot be creative anywhere, but only where creative work is already happening.
The first asks for tremendous amounts of discipline and willpower; the latter turns them into an everyday ritual.
As we have already told you in our summary of The Geography of Genius, genius is not born in isolation and, moreover, genius breeds genius.
Because, wherever there’s a cluster of creative individuals, there’s also an abundance of profound and meaningful discussion.
Whether it’s Ancient Athens we’re talking about or pre-war Vienna, whether it’s between-the-wars Paris or the Silicon Valley in question, what spurs the creative mind on is always the scene.
“The most important factor in the success of your career,” Jeff Goins was told by Richard Florida, a college professor, “is where you decide to live.”
7. Collaborate with Others
Let us guess:
You’re the new Shakespeare, the new Michelangelo, the great, lone genius whose vision can’t be understood by anyone on this planet?
And all those Beyoncés of the world are mere beautiful faces who are considered musical geniuses even though they have more than 15 writers on one song only?
Well, wrong, very wrong.
Most of the great artists in history collaborated with one or two other artists at least once in their lives; and many others have done it much more and with many more people.
Both Shakespeare and Michelangelo are often considered incomparable in their skill and intellectual capacities to their contemporaries, but, for some reason, these two guys didn’t share the opinion.
On the contrary: both collaborated with their friends when their projects demanded that.
“We don’t do our best work alone,” writes Goins. And that is because “creativity is not a solitary invention but a collaborative creation.”
8. Practice in Public
Myth #8: geniuses create in solitude and share their work with the world only after they’re finished.
Fact #8: great creative minds throughout history have practiced in public and perfected their work through sharing and feedbacks.
In fact, not sharing your work is one of the worst things you can do (both for yourself and the ones that come after you), and, according to none other by Edgar Allan Poe himself, we owe the myth of the enlightened artist to a little something called “authorial vanity.”
“I have often thought how interesting a magazine paper might be written by any author who would – that is to say, who could – detail, step by step, the processes by which any one of his compositions attained its ultimate point of completion,” Poe wrote in his “Philosophy of Composition.”
And now we have a way to do that.
It’s called blogging and it’s not just a peek into the creative process.
It is the Creative Process itself.
Part 3: Money
“If we are going to thrive as artists,” writes Jeff Goins, “we cannot merely survive. We have to make a living off our creations, which means at some point we need to talk about the part we’re all uncomfortable discussing: money.”
Of course, the Starving Artist avoids this topic as a Christian avoids the Devil, but the Thriving Artist knows that business is part of art and even money is something an artist must master.
9. Don’t Work for Free
Unfortunately, many artists consider the pleasure they get from creating something enough – it isn’t work if you don’t break at least a drop of sweat, is it?
Or is that so?
“When bankers get together for dinner, they discuss Art,” wrote once Oscar Wilde ironically. “When artists get together for dinner, they discuss Money.”
Only, just like the creative process, this is kept hidden from the public.
It is a fact of life that you need money, because, well, everybody needs money. And it is an even surer fact of life that if you work for free, you won’t get any money.
So, stop doing that.
Start valuing your work the way Michelangelo did.
The money will come itself.
10. Own Your Work
This is very important.
We live in a capitalist world and everyone wants to make the maximum profit possible with minimum effort.
In other words, nobody is really interested in giving you money just like that.
This is why there are such things as an internship (aka free work) and also the reason why there are such things as “lifetime rights” or “ghostwriters.”
Stay away from these.
Own your work – you never know how much money it could bring you in the future.
Just imagine how much money would Jim Hanson had lost if he had agreed to sell the rights to his Rowlf the Dog puppet when he was offered $10,000 for them by the Purina dog company!
Hanson, fortunately, didn’t agree to such a deal and went on to create the Muppets, which, of course, brought him many times that amount.
11. Diversify Your Portfolio
“Jack of all trades, master of none” – an old saying which describes our current attitude towards mastery.
In plain words: if you dabble in more crafts than one, then you’re probably bad at all of them.
After all, how did Michelangelo and Leonardo da Vinci, Galileo Galilei and Benjamin Franklin managed to excel at so many things?
“A man can do all things if he will,” wrote Leon Battista Alberti in the 15th century.
He was right.
It’s a new age, and you need to master more crafts than one if you want to have more chances to succeed.
Also: your mind likes adventures.
So you’ll be happier as well.
12. Make Money to Make Art
We mentioned Marx above – time to quote him now:
“The writer must earn money in order to be able to live and to write, but he must by no means live and write for the purpose of making money.”
What does that mean if slipped out of its wording and syntax?
You must make money to make art; nothing more, and nothing less.
As Steven Pressfield has once said: “Money exists, in my world, to buy me another season.”
“Every season you create instead of scramble to find work is a win,” adds Jeff Goins, “and with time, those seasons add up. The more money you have, the more time you have; and the more time you have, the more art you can make.”
It’s that simple.
Conclusion: Join the New Renaissance
If you were an artist in the Renaissance, concludes Goins, you’d probably laugh away the idea of the starving artist specialized in one genre.
You’d almost certainly believe in the opposite: that you are both capable of and expected to master few crafts, that you have to do that under an old master for the first part of your life, and that there’s nothing wrong in collaborating, practicing in public or earning money for your work.
Well, Goins notes, after the period of wide-eyed Romanticism, there is a new renaissance that is turning starving artists into thriving artists and it is your job to embrace it.
Because now you have a choice:
“You can go the way of the tired, frustrated artist who struggles to keep creating. Or you can embrace an important but challenging truth that just might set you free from such thinking. You don’t have to starve. You can thrive. The world is waiting for you to create your best work. Please don’t let us down.”
Key Lessons from “Real Artists Don’t Starve”
1. Artists Are Not Born – They Are Made
2. If You Are an Artist, Then the Market Is Your Friend
3. Make Money to Make Art – Not the Other Way Around
Artists Are Not Born – They Are Made
Even though many would beg to differ, there are numerous cases of people who became artists the way one becomes pretty much everything else: through years of study.
In fact, the very word “art” means “skill,” and in Ancient Greece, poetry, for example, belonged to the same category of creative endeavors as, say, carpentry.
And if you want to learn to become an artist, learn it the way most artists have: under an old master.
If You Are an Artist, Then the Market Is Your Friend
Even though it is usually believed that only minor and sold-out artists can be successful, historically, it has often been the other way around: Michelangelo, for example, boasted a fortune which equals to at least $30 million in current money (some say even twice that).
And it’s not only that: being out on the market is beneficial to the creative process itself. Cultivating patrons, joining a vibrant, creative scene, collaborating with others and practicing in public – these are all great strategies on how to both become a better artist and start earning money from your art.
Make Money to Make Art – Not the Other Way Around
Now, don’t get Jeff Goins wrong: he doesn’t say that you should start creating the things the public wants and earn some easy money on the side.
No – he still thinks that art is a noble profession. However, he adds that money doesn’t spoil it; in fact, it makes it possible.
It is pointless to make art in order to make money (that is probably not art, anyway); however, it makes a lot of sense to make money so as to make more art.
Otherwise, how would you?
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Real Artists Don’t Starve QuotesWhen the right people advocate for your work, your success becomes more likely. Being good is necessary, but it is not sufficient. Click To Tweet Skill is a prerequisite for creative success, but talent is only part of the equation. The rest is network. Click To Tweet If you don’t want your best work to die with you, you must train yourself to think and live differently than the ways we’ve been told artists behave. Don’t starve for your art. Help it thrive. Click To Tweet We are either becoming more of our true selves or drifting into a false self. Click To Tweet The reason many of us never self-actualize is because it’s easier to play a role in life than it is to become our true selves. Click To Tweet
Real Artists Don’t Starve offers a down-to-earth look at one of the most mystical human endeavors: the creative act.
Brimming with inspiring stories and amusing anecdotes – not to mention enlightening quotes – the book is a great guide for artists who want to earn money, and an even better one for those who erroneously believe in the story of the starving artist.
Spoiler alert: it is a myth.