Why the Story of the Starving Artist Needs to Die

In my latest book, Real Artists Don’t Starve, I debunk the myth of the starving artist and lay out a plan for how you can make a living off your creative talents. Here’s an excerpt from the book.

Why the Story of the Starving Artist Needs to Die

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.Michelangelo Buonarotti

In 1995, an American professor made an unusual discovery. At Syracuse University in Florence, Rab Hatfield was trying to match the scenes of the Sistine Chapel to the dates Michelangelo had painted each of them.

Since the artist had received commissions in various installments, the professor thought there might be a paper trail, so he went to the city archives. Surprised at how easy it was to locate five-hundred-year-old bank records, he began reconstructing a more accurate timeline for how the most famous ceiling in the world came to be.

That’s when he saw it.

“I was really looking for something else!” the professor yelled into the phone from his office in Italy, decades later. “Every time I run across something, it’s because I was looking for something else, which I consider real discovery. It’s when you don’t expect it that you really discover something.”

With a PhD from Harvard, Professor Hatfield had begun his career at Yale in 1966 before moving to Syracuse University in 1971, and in all that time of teaching art history, he had never encountered anything like this.

What he found in those records was not what you would expect to find digging around in the bank account of an artist, even one whose fame would grow with each passing century.

“I don’t know how much you know about Michelangelo,” he told me, “but usually they taught us that he kind of struggled like Vincent van Gogh.”

For centuries, this is what historians believed about the great Renaissance master. He was just another Starving Artist, struggling to make ends meet. Michelangelo himself embraced this image, living frugally and often complaining about money. He once wrote in a poem that his art had left him “poor, old and working as a servant of others.”

But it turns out he wasn’t telling the truth.

When Rab Hatfield dug into those old bank records, the truth about the Renaissance’s most famous artist was finally revealed. He was not struggling at all. He was not poor, and he was not starving for his art—a fact we have been getting wrong ever since.

Michelangelo was, in fact, very rich. One record Professor Hatfield found showed a balance of hundreds of thousands of dollars, which was a rare sum of money for an artist at the time. When he saw those figures, the professor forgot all about the Sistine Chapel.

With his curiosity piqued, he went to see if there were more bank records, and there were more—many more. In the end, he uncovered a fortune worth roughly $47 million today, making Michelangelo the richest artist of the Renaissance.

And to this day, this is a story that surprises us.


We are accustomed to a certain narrative about artists, one that indicates they are barely getting by. But Michelangelo did not suffer or starve for his work. He was a multimillionaire and successful entrepreneur, a “pivotal figure in the transition of creative geniuses from people regarded, and paid, as craftsmen to people accorded a different level of treatment and compensation,” in the words of journalist Frank Bruni.

In other words, the master sculptor and painter wasn’t just some art school dropout struggling for his art. He was a rainmaker.

When I asked Professor Hatfield what Michelangelo’s millions mean for us today, he said, “I don’t think it means a whole lot.” But I disagree. I think this changes everything.

Myth of the starving artist

Two hundred years after Michelangelo died, Henri Murger was born the son of a tailor and concierge in France. Living in Paris, he was surrounded by creative geniuses and dreamed of joining them, but he grew frustrated with his failure to find financial security.

In 1847, Murger published Scènes de la vie de bohème, a collection of stories that playfully romanticized poverty. The result was some literary acclaim, persistent struggle, and an untimely end to a penniless life.

The book limped along after the author’s death, being adapted first as the opera La Bohème and later as a film, eventually achieving widespread acclaim with spinoffs including Rent and Moulin Rouge.

Murger’s Scènes launched the concept of the Starving Artist into the public’s understanding as the model for a creative life. To this day, it endures as the model for what we imagine we think of the word artist.

The story of the Starving Artist overshadows the quiet, relatively unknown tale of Michelangelo’s success and has become our most popular understanding of what’s possible for creative people—which is to say, not much.

Today, we find the remnants of this story nearly everywhere we look. It is the advice we give a friend who dreams of painting for a living, what we tell a coworker who wants to write a novel, or even the cautionary tale we tell our children when they head out into the real world. Be careful, we say ominously. Don’t be too creative. You just might starve.

But what we forget is that the story of the Starving Artist is a myth. And like all myths, it may be a powerful story, one we can orient our entire lives around, but in the end, it is still just a story.

Thanks to the power of this myth, many of us take the safe route in life. We become lawyers instead of actresses, bankers instead of poets, and doctors instead of painters. We hedge our bets and hide from our true calling, choosing less risky careers, because it seems easier. Nobody wants to struggle, after all, so we keep our passion a hobby and follow a predictable path toward mediocrity.

But what if you could make a living as an artist, and you didn’t have to starve to do it? What would that change about the way we approach our work and how we consider creativity’s importance in our world today? What would that mean for the careers we choose and the paths we encourage our kids to follow?

In the early Renaissance, artists did not have reputations for being diligent workers. They were considered manual laborers, receiving meager commissions for their work. Michelangelo, however, changed all that.

After him, every artist began to see a “new pattern, a new way of doing things,” in the words of Bill Wallace, professor of art history at Washington University in St. Louis. Michelangelo “established the idea that an artist could become a new figure in society and have a higher social standing, and also that they could become financially successful.”

Michelangelo did not need to starve for his creations, and neither do you. When the painter of the Sistine Chapel amassed an incredible fortune and secured his legacy as one of history’s masters, he broke the glass ceiling for future generations.

Today, however, his contribution has been all but forgotten. We have bought into the Myth of the Starving Artist, thinking of artists as unfortunate Bohemians who struggle at the lowest end of society. This myth is hurting creative work everywhere, and it must be put to rest.

Rarely do we think of creatives as wealthy or successful, even cracking jokes about the wastefulness of art degrees and theater classes. We have heard how pursuing creativity is not a safe career bet, whether that means chasing an interest in literature, music, or some other artistic endeavor. All my life, I heard it from well-meaning teachers, friends, and relatives. The advice was always the same: Get a good degree, have something to fall back on, and don’t quit your day job.

The truth, though, is quite different.

Creativity, though a nice outlet for self-expression, is not something we think a person should go “all in” on for a career. Because, odds are, you’ll starve. Right?

Sometimes, though, an artist does succeed: a singer releases a platinum record, an author hits a bestseller list, a filmmaker launches a blockbuster. We tend to dismiss these moments as rare instances of an artist getting lucky or selling out. But what if that isn’t the whole picture?

When we look at many of history’s most famous artists, we see something curious. It’s the same thing we observe in the lives of countless creatives who are making a living off their art today. When we hear the cautionary tales and warnings about what it means to be an artist, there’s an important truth we must learn to embrace: You don’t have to starve.

A new kind of artist

In this book, I want to offer a very simple but challenging argument: Real artists don’t starve.

Making a living off your creative talent has never been easier, and to show you it’s possible I will share historical examples of well-known artists, creatives, and entrepreneurs who did not have to suffer to create their best work. And I will also introduce you to a contemporary group of professionals who are experiencing surprising amounts of success in their creative work and how you can join them.

Finally, I will try to convince you that the idea of the Starving Artist is a useless myth that holds you back more than it helps you produce your best work.

Today, with more opportunity than ever to share our work with the world, we need a different model for creative work. The Myth of the Starving Artist has long since overstayed its welcome, and what we need now is a New Renaissance, a return to a model for art and business that doesn’t require creative workers to suffer and starve.

We all have creative gifts to share, and in that respect, we are all artists. The world needs your work—whether that’s an idea for a book, a vision for a startup, or a dream for your neighborhood— and you shouldn’t have to struggle to create it.

What does it mean to be a “real artist”? It means you are spending your time doing the things that matter most to you. It means you don’t need someone else’s permission to create. It means you aren’t doing your work in secret, hoping someone may discover it someday. It means the world is taking your work seriously.

Do you have to become a millionaire like Michelangelo? Not at all. This is not a book about how to get rich selling art. It is a description of the path many professional artists, creatives, and entrepreneurs have walked and one you would be wise to follow, if you want to join them.

The goal here is not to get rich, but to build a life that makes creating your best work not only possible but practically inevitable. And so, I think we should exchange this idea of being a Starving Artist with a new term: Thriving Artist. If you don’t want your best work to die with you, you must train yourself to think and live differently than the ways you’ve been told artists behave. You must not starve; you have to thrive.

Inspired by the Michelangelo story, I was curious to see if there were other artists out there who were succeeding. What I discovered was that a New Renaissance was not only possible, it was already happening. In my research I encountered creatives in nearly every field who weren’t starving at all.

The more stories I found, the more common threads began to emerge. These artists may not have known of Michelangelo’s riches, but they embodied his approach to creative work and all followed a similar set of strategies I’ve now captured and distilled in this book.

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 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 on vision but flexible on details.
  5. The Starving Artist waits to be noticed. The Thriving Artist cultivates patrons.
  6. The Starving Artist needs no one. The Thriving Artist finds a scene.
  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 as much of his work as possible.
  11. The Starving Artist does one thing. The Thriving Artist does many things.
  12. The Starving Artist despises the need for money. The Thriving Artist makes money to make more art.

For the rest of this book, we will explore these rules in the context of three major themes: mind-set, market, and money.

In each part, we will be taking a significant step that will us shift from Starving Artists to Thriving Artists.

First, we master our mind-set, tackling the internal challenges and conflicts we will face to break out of the Starving Artist paradigm. We can’t change our lives until we change our minds.

Then, we master the market, exploring the importance of relationships in creative work and how to usher our art into the world.

Finally, we master money, looking at what it means to not only make a living off our work but put money to work for us so that we can use it as a means to do better work.

Each chapter is based on one of the twelve rules mentioned above, along with stories from history and original case studies from the hundreds of interviews I conducted with contemporary creatives, artists, and entrepreneurs. The rules are not hard and fast as much as they are principles, proven strategies to help you succeed. The more of these you follow, the more likely your success will be, and vice versa.

This book is a manual designed to help you create work that matters. As you encounter the stories and lessons it contains, I hope you are challenged to follow in the footsteps of those who have come before you. I hope you realize that being a Starving Artist is a choice, not a necessary condition of doing creative work, and whether or not you starve is up to you.

And I hope you are emboldened to join the ranks of the New Renaissance, embracing Michelangelo’s belief that you can live both a creative life and a prosperous one, declaring to yourself and the world that real artists don’t starve—at least, they don’t have to.

Click here to download your free copy of the Introduction of Real Artists Don't Starve.

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  • Artist edition of the RADS workbook
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How does rejecting the myth of the starving artist impact you? What will change about how you approach your craft? Share in the comments.