I came across The Myth of the Starving Artist a while back and recently re-read it. I was struck by the introduction, and my historian’s brain kicked into gear.
Here’s the quote:
Many artists have bought into a romanticized notion that art is somehow more legitimate if it is created by poor people. This notion was popularized in the mid-19th century by the writer Henri Murger, who wrote Scènes de la vie de bohème, a famous French novel about a group of poor artists living in the Bohemian quarter of Paris. The book was wildly popular and it became trendy to be a poor artist.
What’s the odds that the ‘poor artists’ in the story were ‘poor’ because they actually came from a wealthier background, and their bohemian living conditions seemed like poverty in comparison to swanning around like the Upstairs set of Gosford Park?
If we look at a typical ‘poor artist’ – the painter Vincent van Gogh – his family didn’t depend on him to bring in an income. His brother sent him money to keep him in absinthe and lodgings.
Poor, if you look at his background.
Not poor if you compare it to the people Jack London describes in The People of The Abyss.
In fact, compared to a clerk’s life in Holland, painting in Provence is a dream.
Likewise the ‘poor writer’ of this tradition. Rimbaud was one, Edgar Allan Poe another. Poverty, in some cases, seems like another way of saying “I can’t afford to buy drink and pay the rent so I’ll just buy drink”.
Schubert, the poor musician/composer, “lived on the occasional commissions from his compositions and often on the largesse of wealthier friends” when he wasn’t teaching at his father’s school.
Hardly a Tolpuddle Martyr, then.
Did the original Bohemians ever down tools and ask for more pay? Did the starving artists of the original story live off the generosity of their families and wealthier friends or did they resort to picking oakum (the olden times equivalent of packing airline cutlery sets)?
I think we should be told.
Before we try to imitate them.