Stories from the Poverty (economics) of Passion for the Arts.

I was at this dinner party several weeks ago when this lady told me that she was once a dancer. Her life was filled with a passion for dancing, it was all she wanted to do.

“What happened?” I asked. I knew some of her history, and that she had retired from years in a high level marketing position.

“My mother wouldn’t allow it.” She said. And then with a wistful look, she told me how many of her friends went to Las Vegas and Radio City Music Hall in New York to become dancers. What I didn’t mention, and wanted to say, was that her friends, the ones who made it to the chorus lines and the bright lights wouldn’t have made the money she did.

The real truth is that the arts do not pay much. As in very little. The surest road to poverty is through the passion for the arts.

Every truthful writer, musician, artist, and sculptor will tell you that the passion for the arts, although it has it’s own true rewards, pays “squat,” as in very little.

Yes, there are stories of the artists who do well, but for every one of them, there are hundreds, perhaps thousands, whose paintings adorn the walls of relatives, whose sculptures sit in rock gardens, and whose prose line the bottom of desk drawers.

Ernest Hemingway was rumored to have captured pigeons in a park in Paris for his lunch and dinner. He used his morning baguette as bait. I’d sat in that very park in Paris, and wondered if the Pigeons were the true inspiration for his book, “the moveable feast.”

Long before Stephen King became the celebrity of the ghoulish and macabre, he was a very broke school teacher. His mother had implored him to become a teacher, as she knew most writers made little money.

Stephen wrote sci-fi articles for men’s magazines, and worked as a janitor in the summer to make ends meet. His first book Carrie, came about while he was mopping floors in the women’s washroom. His vision for the book propelled him out of his poverty into stardom. But if it hadn’t? I think Stephen King would have been happy to have kept teaching English, and writing. Such is his passion.

I have high school friends, so passionate for their love of the arts, that they never took jobs more demanding than parking attendants or truck drivers. Their off hours were painting or playing music.

Years ago, on a flight to my home town on a business trip, I met one of my old high school friends. He was checking in cars at Hertz. He was still painting, playing a guitar and living his life like he’d always had. His own pace, his own rhythm. And my god, he looked so less stressed than I was.

There is this saying I’ve heard, that when someone enters the world of the arts, in either college or university, that program should have a course in being a “Barista,” as they will probably end up working for Starbucks or some other coffee house upon graduation to make ends meet.

There is a story from Steven Pressfield, in his book The War of Art, how he lived in a trailer, and pounded on an old typewriter for years before he had any kind of a breakthrough in his writing. He followed harvests and picked fruit to survive, while he wrote another novel that didn’t sell.

Yes, he made it though his poverty. But how many are really willing to do so? It seems that I’m not one of them.

My own story, is that I began writing over 30 years ago. I was accepted into journalism school, but balked when I found how little money I’d make. Yes, money over passion for writing. How many other’s have gone down that road? I would only take up writing on retirement, when book sales didn’t mean livelihood. That was the safe route for me.

I met a young man at a writer’s seminar. He was a journalist. He’d graduated from the same school I’d contemplated studying at many years ago. Yes, he admitted he made almost next to nothing working for a small town newspaper, but at that seminar his children’s book was nominated for a prestigious award. I don’t know if he won that evening. But, my goodness, I’ve never had one of my books nominated for anything. My kudos to that brave young man.

At the end of this, yes, there is little money in the passion for the arts, but what of it? If not for those who make little return but the satisfaction of what they create, where would this civilization be?

If you wander into a museum in Amsterdam, Paris or London, you’ll view the paintings of El Greco, Rembrandt, Vermeer and Vincent Van Gough. What do they have in common? Most of them died impoverished. Their work was never appreciated in their lifetime.

To those, musicians, painters and writers out there, just keep at it. The desire you have, for the gift of passion for the arts you have…no one can take that away.

As for the lady at the party who said to me, “I could have been a dancer. I could have been in Las Vegas.” That said it all to me. The look in her eyes, as to what she missed.

I hope all of you who have a passion for the arts, that you won’t let the lack of financial renumeration get in the way. To create something in art is wonderful. Whether it be a chord of music, a brush stroke or a line of poetry, or some dialogue that stands out and rings out to the world, who knows, Shakespeare made very little from his works in his lifetime. But he left the world a legacy.

Maybe you will do the same, or maybe you’ll just enjoy the things that money just can’t buy. The passion of creation. Enjoy!