04/03/2009 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Artistically Challenged: How the Economic Crisis Impacts Artists

Everyone has heard the term 'starving artist.' Most painters, designers, actors and musicians were at least somewhat aware that they were following a free-spirited path that wasn't a financial sure thing. Relatives of us 'dreamers' often say, 'Well, you knew what you were getting into.' But, did we?

Many people out in Los Angeles or in New York City were the deemed the 'talented' ones in their hometowns (or at least felt they were inside). Descriptions might have included: the most beautiful cheerleader who dreamed of a scholarship to Julliard; the charismatic Brad Pitt look-a-like who seemed truly gifted in every school play; or the quirky, talkative writer who seemed to stand out every time she spoke. Sure, we weren't in the Mathletes, or in the Science Club, or interested in a clean-cut path to a career in Law. However, creative ability and talent is an undeniable characteristic that flourishes when cultivated. For that very reason people like Carrie Underwood, Annie Liebowitz, Daniel Day Lewis and Julian Schnabel exist. Is it wrong to seek out a career that will manifest those talents? To us 'artists' it doesn't seem irresponsible; it just feels like the right thing to do.


Although she went to college, Carrie Underwood followed her love for singing. She buckled when St. Louis hosted auditions for American Idol. She entered, beating out thousands of contestants and jumpstarting a huge career from her undeniable talent.

An economic crisis starts drawing a more defined line between classes in society: rich or poor. This crisis in particular seems to be parting the social classes wider than the Red Sea. When top professionals in fundamental areas of society are fighting for their jobs -- engineers, lawyers, economists -- it's safe to say that those living off the 'fringe' -- meaning waiters, bartenders, caterers, etc. -- are scraping by to the tenth power. We begin to question how responsible this 'artistic' path was -- and rightly so. It's hard enough just to survive and live, never mind have the career we dreamed of as a kid.

In your twenties, you don't always realize you are sitting on a goldmine. It's the decade in your life where you have the ability to lay a foundation. For many people that includes a paved street with a college degree, followed by years of doing the grunt work in a cubicle, hoping to score the boss' corner office by the time you hit thirty. For others, it's not. It's a natural migration towards a big city, a theatre group, an agent's office followed by a series of auditions. You begin to feel you've found your path. That being said in such a euphoric way, being creative isn't necessarily a blessing. Rock stars with legend songs, rappers who create lyrics that become anthems, actors who embody a character, celebrated writers and quirky sculptors surrounded at an art gallery opening party are showcased as Gods and Goddesses. They epitomize what every artist genuinely wants -- to create something they are good at, be able to practice it on a daily basis, get paid for it, and be recognized for their work. The celebrity culture in the past ten years has given artists a bad rap: 'Oh, you just want to be famous.'

Granted, there are many who do seek stardom. However, some people are just better suited at writing songs or belting one out, creating a character in a movie that can touch peoples' lives or designing jackets that turn into a major fashion craze that generates millions of dollars in capital.

Entertainment can be taken for granted by the masses: a beautiful night at a Springsteen concert outside; watching 30 Rock after a long day at the office; a rainy day full of your favorite movies; your favorite Coldplay CD burning through your speakers after a terrible breakup; a beautiful museum to visit on an otherwise-boring Sunday afternoon. Entertainment has always been there -- and it's because of endless artists diving off the deep-end and plunging into the abyss of, 'Let's see what happens...'

So what happens now? Artists who have not 'yet' made it live on the edge even during a booming economy. Living on the edge includes skimping on health care, skimping on car insurance, going several years without any kind of vacation, and often having a bank account that borders on a zero balance. When you have a singing coach, acting coach, headshots to take, auditions to go to, demo tapes to record, all of your 'extra' money goes directly to those just mentioned. Free clinics become your personal doctor's office. You ignore small illnesses and hope for the best. Friday and Saturday nights aren't 'party nights' -- they're work nights. You juggle three jobs; you forfeit buying new clothes; you make sacrifice after sacrifice: let me tell you, it's the absolute height of responsibility. 2009-03-03-99g5crh9.jpg 2009-03-03-AlPacino_Granitz_14261614.jpg

What job security? Even Al Pacino has talked about the stresses of the acting business, specifically in the mid 80's, when he hadn't worked much since filming Scarface despite his huge successes in movies like The Godfather, Serpico and Dog Day Afternoon.

In the wake of this crisis, it becomes a scary notion to think that you might be falling into the statistics of poverty in the U.S. You were the brightest star in the town, right? How could this happen to you of all people? How could you be so far behind the 8 ball? At the end of the day, it's a cruel joke to those who are creatively inclined. It can borderline on degrading to watch people who take the 'safe' route make more money than you, buy a bigger house than you or take more lavish vacations. It's hard to be graceful in shoes that you've had to wear every day for three years. It's hard to feel like you are in the same class as someone who drives a Mercedes when you have an old Honda. It might be said, however, that those who have condescending views of artists who dedicate entire lives to art are the ones who lack grace and class. It takes real conviction to have even made the choice to follow a dream, and then even more integrity to grin and bear it during these economic times.

It won't be an easy rode ahead for the country as a whole, academics and artists alike, especially in the next five years. Many will quit the creative game simply to survive; others will find careers in their field of craft. For many, however, I predict it will have no effect whatsoever -- after all, we've been living like vagabonds for years and have it down to a science!