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Lies Artists Believe: Starving Artist

Lies Artists Believe: Starving Artist

The starving artist is one of the most resilient lies artists believe. It is as attractive as it is deceptive. It is embedded in plays, movies, books and music – from the famous opera, La Bohème to the life of Van Gogh. But, God never called artists to live lives of obscurity, doomed to poverty for the sake of their art. Scripture shows us that talent opens doors, and artists are important and essential at the heart of God’s design for cultures and people groups.

The Bohemian Starving Artist Ideal

Henri Murger grew up in Paris in the 1800s. He encountered creative geniuses and dreamed of living with them, but he grew frustrated with his inability to become financially secure. Eventually, Murger wrote Scènes de la vie de bohème, a collection of stories that playfully romanticized poverty. This did not make him rich, but the book eventually became romanticized in the opera La Bohème, and later became the foundation for movies like Moulin Rouge. The idea is powerful and seductive. It is also deceptive to your soul.

The bohemian, starving artist myth leads artists to live on the fringes of society, idealizing creative passion over the calling to contribute to society. If you are an atheist this may seem sensible, but as a Christian it is fails the call to love our neighbor. Remember the words of Jeremiah calling us to “work for the good of the city” (Jeremiah 29:7). The idealized bohemian works only for their own enjoyment. It is selfish because it does not care for the culture at large.

Consider the lyrics from Bohemian Rhapsody by Queen, as it echoes sentiments of the artistic and bohemian life:

I’m just a poor boy, I need no sympathy,
Because I’m easy come, easy go,
Little high, little low,
Any way the wind blows doesn’t really matter to me, to me.

The carefree life of the bohemian can be attractive when we feel burdened with our daily obligations, but it does not provide a healthy and satisfying life in the end. We were not designed to find joy in avoiding life with our neighbors or life void of financial challenges.

Artists do not start out with a desire for poverty, yet when they find themselves in poverty, there is a temptation to baptize this new experience as validation of their commitment to art. This is the mantra of Buddhist monks who renounce personal belongings in order to demonstrate their commitment to Buddhism. The poverty validates their sincerity and commitment. But art is not a religion, and there is no art god requiring artists to be poor. If you find such a thing, I have one word for you, “RUN!”

The Biblical Working Artist Ideal

The Bible has radically different perspective on artists. Musicians were not despised, but seen as essential to God’s economy and to the very heart of worship in the Israelite culture. Many of the holy priests were musicians, and some of the greatest poetry was written by kings.

Consider the first man in the Bible who was “filled with the spirit of God.” His name was Bezalel and he was the artist commissioned to create the artwork for the Nation of Israel during the Exodus from Egypt. Consider Exodus 31.

“Then the Lord said to Moses, ‘See, I have chosen Bezalel, son of Uri, the son of Hur, of the tribe of Judah, and I have filled him with the Spirit of God, with wisdom, with understanding, with knowledge and with all kinds of skills.” – Ex 31:1-3

God called him to be an artist, but he didn’t stop there as if art is its own isolated discipline. God gave him the ability to integrate his creativity with wisdom and strategy. Art is not a silo, separate from the rest of life. God also gave him wisdom, understanding and knowledge. In our Arts and Entertainment Institute we unpack the Hebrew words used here, and they are the same words used for managing cities, running a business and making wise decisions like Solomon.

The first artist, called by God in the Bible, was not living apart from the community in his own bohemian artists’ colony. He was not only focused on art. Bezalel did not start some poor artist colony on the outskirts of their community. He was at the heart of the culture, the spiritual life and traditions of his neighbors.

The Biblical Principles of Work and Poverty

The Bible never romanticizes poverty. We are always called to care for the poor, but there is no directive to become poor. There may be seasons where you suffer financially. That is normal, because life is unpredictable, but we dare not glamorize poverty.

There are warnings of allowing property and possessions to become idols. There are warnings of thinking wealth will solve your problems. Wealth is not a panacea. And yet, God also designed us to work hard, and find joy in that hard work. This is a constant refrain in the book of Ecclesiastes (Ecclesiastes 5:18). In other wisdom literature, the book of Proverbs makes the point several times that all hard work brings reward:

“All hard work brings a profit, but mere talk leads only to poverty. The wealth of the wise is their crown, but the folly of fools yields folly.” – Proverbs 14:23-24

“Lazy hands make for poverty, but diligent hands bring wealth. He who gathers crops in summer is a prudent son, but he who sleeps during harvest is a disgraceful son.” – Proverbs 10:4-5

Hard work brings a sense of dignity, and it produces fruit in our lives. Without hard work, our soul withers and we do not find the benefits. Hard work is not enough. We still need talent and skill in our craftsmanship, but it is the foundation of a satisfying life. We were not created for a carefree and unproductive life.

Skilled Artists in God’s Economy

The bible makes room for successful artists, respected artists and artists chosen by God himself. There is no note of despising them, nor pushing them to the outskirts of society. One of my favorite verses that always brings artists to mind is in Proverbs 22:

“Do you see a man skillful in his work? He will stand before kings;
he will not stand before obscure men.” – Proverbs 22:29

Great artists, who are the best because of talent, mentoring and discipline will find doors opening because people with money are blessed and inspired by great artists. This verse clearly validates the value of skill and talent.

Entrepreneurs, Not Starving Artists

All artists are entrepreneurs. Talent is not enough. The sooner you understand it, the sooner you can be on your way to making money from your art. Whether it is a side hustle, or a full-time gig, being faithful to your art and God means you learn how to market, sell and celebrate your art.

What holds you back? The hang-ups that hold artists back are nearly countless. Some artists don’t know how to transition from giving away art for free to charging for their art. Others don’t know how to find their audience and their niche.

If you are frustrated with not getting paid for your art, or not growing your income as an artist, I encourage you to take my wife’s Catalyst Online Course. The success stories are amazing, and the ‘A-ha’ moments these artists and creative professionals experience throughout the course are powerful. If you are even a little interested, sign up for more information and you’ll be the first to get access when she offers it again. (Hint- it is less than a month away)

Why Does This Myth Remain?

Life is hard, and being an artist or professional creative is no different. It is attractive to claim our failures and struggles as validation of our genius. It is attractive to think we are ahead of our time. We can even find artists who validate these ideas. People often look to Van Gogh, or to Michelangelo.

The problem is that even Michelangelo wasn’t a starving artist. Recent studies by Professor Rab Hatfield discovered bank notes that showed Michelangelo was worth over $30 million dollars when he died. We loved the old stories so much, we assumed some artists were poor, when they were rich. What other artist’s stories of poverty have we idolized that simply are not true?

The Real Danger

If we are glamorizing the image of the starving artists, we will never push ourselves the way we need to be pushed. We will be tempted to accept mediocrity, passivity and cultural irrelevance. If we are content to be like the bohemians outside the mainstream culture, we will also fail to speak into that culture. In effect, we abdicate the responsibility to be salt and light.

This leads to a heart problem of arrogance, and it eliminates the opportunity for authentic engagement with people who think differently. It leads you to only love for your neighbor if they think just like you and live in the same bohemian bubble.

We do not become great artists without being mentored, developing our craft and understanding the marketplace. We do not become mature Christians without the same pattern – discipleship, sitting under great teaching and spiritual disciplines. The principles of hard work, wisdom and personal discipline are essential for all of life.

Replacing The Starving Artist Myth with The Truth

God never called artists to live lives of obscurity, doomed to poverty for the sake of their art. God shows us that talent opens doors, and artists are important and essential at the heart of his design for cultures and people groups.

We must abandon the bohemian ideals, and let our mind become transformed by the truth of what God has already told us in scripture.

God wants you to grow as an artist, as an entrepreneur and in your relationship with Christ. If you want to join us on this journey of becoming more serious about your faith, your craft, and your business then sign up to learn more about our Online Catalyst Course.

Check out the Online Catalyst Program HERE

Check out the FREE Calling Masterclass HERE

If you enjoyed this blog on Lies Artists Believe: Starving Artist, this is one in a series of blogs. For more blogs in this series: Lies Artists Believe, click HERE

Copyright © 2020 Joel & Michelle Pelsue. All Rights Reserved. Used with Permission.

6 comments on “Lies Artists Believe: Starving Artist”

  1. LoriAnn Reply

    Such a great reminder at how God celebrated musicians and how artists have always been at the center of activity! As much as I love La Boheme, the romanticism of poverty is even today takes us farther away from God’s truth. Thank you for this series! And as a Catalyst alum, I HIGHLY recommend all artists take this class! It is invaluable and changed my whole perspective on entrepreneurship as a singer, teacher, actor, and filmmaker.

    • Joel Pelsue Reply


      Thank you. We are so glad Catalyst has been transformational for you! It is exciting every time to see people like you make great progress, and get new clarity on how to move forward.

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