The Starving Artist

Zackary Rodrigues

2 December 2014

There is no quicker path to wealth and fulfillment than becoming an artist, right? Unfortunately, for most, pursuing art as a career can put someone in a pretty rough situation. Most professional creatives types find themselves in one of three different positions: They make very little off their work, they have a partner that rakes in most of the income, or they make a decent living from teaching their artform, which severely impedes the time they have to actually function as an artist outside of their job. People who find themselves in these positions are not necessarily dissatisfied with their lives, considering that money does not mean everything, and teaching the arts can be rewarding. However, the masses tend to discourage this career path for financials reasons, as well as the notion that it simply is not practical to be a skilled artist in today’s world. It is important to also note that even when one becomes successful and well-known as an artist, a whole new set of difficulties becomes reality. I will reflect on both the portrayal of the struggling artist and the successful artist, as well as how the importance of artists is viewed in society. Since I favor music as an artform, musicians and musical roles will be used more frequently as subjects, and films will be a large portion of the media artifacts used.

Movies and television, while being the most prevalent and popular forms of media of today, exaggerate to the furthest reaches for the sake of entertainment. This can lead to a lot of falsehood and misunderstanding of identities, among other aspects, that are represented. Types or groups of people tend to be oversimplified or taken to some kind of extreme. In the case of the artist, the common tropes and tendencies continue to appear; there’s the general laziness, less than comfortable living situation, dependency on others for financial support, and perhaps most commonly, the disappointment and judgement from family and friends (more specifically, the famed “grow up and get a life” narrative). A near perfect example of this occurs in the infamous movie School of Rock, in which Dewey Finn, played by Jack Black, is a slob who is down on his luck and living with his old bandmate Ned. Dewey traps himself in the glory days of his rock n’ roll prowess, while his old bandmate has left that past behind to become a school teacher. Despite the best intentions of Ned and his blunt, aggressive girlfriend, they cannot get him to move out and get a real job to support himself. Other tropes are represented in Dewey’s character, such as laziness, but also an air of stupidity. In comedic representations of an artist, mainly musicians, there tends to be an emphasis on stupidity in their character. Walk Hard  is another great example of this trend. Though based loosely on the life story of Johnny Cash, it is very tongue-in-cheek and over the top as far as the main character’s stupidity and the life decisions he makes because of it.

Considering that much comedy generally relies on the stupidity of others, this is not truly out of the ordinary. However, it is interesting how often the idea of being a musician coincides with lack of intelligence in this genre of film. Outside of comedies, there is not much of a representation of this trope, but there is often a sort of antithesis to it. Whether based on a real artist or not, films often depict artists who struggle with something mentally that acts as a veil for their hidden genius. A good example of this is The Soloist, in which Jamie Foxx plays a Juilliard-trained classical cellist, who has severe schizophrenia and is living on the streets because of it. He tries his best to battle his disorder as he gets help from the journalist who wants to write a story about him, though it proves to be a struggle for both of them.

Both comedic and dramatic portrayals have their merits. In films like School of Rock and Walk Hard, the audience gets a more plausible, yet moderately ridiculous portrayal of the common lost cause that an artist/musician can become. Films like The Soloist display another section of the spectrum of representation, which is darker and more characterized by mental illness than just being a slacker or not being very smart. Like any other idea depicted in media, between these two extreme depictions is a golden medium that relates more to reality. It is very rare that this medium gets a fair representation, but when it does, there is more truth for others to gain. A film that encapsulates this reality best is Inside Llewyn Davis. This film shows that fictional representation can be both truthful and entertaining. In this film, Llewyn is a folk singer who is struggling to stay alive as he bums around and accepts the hospitality of others constantly. There is a sense of realism to his story and the way others are treating him. It is a film that more accurately depicts the day to day struggle of a musician, or any artist for that matter.
When looking for the most accurate information from films, the most obvious and safe choice is a documentary. Documentaries about musicians, painters, actors, and other artistic roles are often some of the more accurate documentaries, and it tends to be for a very simple reason: Artists like to talk about themselves, especially on camera. This is especially true for those who have gained fame and notoriety for being artists. They like to make it personal, because their art is an expression of themselves, and if they get a chance to share their own view on their life and work to an interested audience, likely they will jump at the opportunity. However, the inflamed ego and self-righteousness readily expressed by many artists does not come without its fair share of ridicule, both from viewers as well as other filmmakers. There have been many metacritical and satirical movies made about these sort of biographical films. One of the more popular examples of this is the mockumentary This is Spinal Tap. It centers around a band called Spinal Tap, and their story of becoming a force in the British heavy metal scene. While Spinal Tap are a real band, their intentions in this film were to satirize bands of their stature, and the documentaries made about them. There are plenty of famous lines and sayings that have been repeated ad nauseum by fans of this film, simply because they are so memorable and relatable to the egotistical and fruity lifestyle of a rockstar. Unforgettable moments like Nigel talking about his amp going up to eleven, and the band incessantly shouting “rock and roll!” backstage before they play, are constantly referenced as the reference point for cheesiness and silliness in popular heavy metal music of the time.

Aside from mockumentary films about musicians, many great and informative films have been made that really cross the bar for artist representation. Exit Through the Gift Shop is a film that mainly centers around an obsessive shop keeper who tries to befriend the famous street artist Banksy so that he could film his exploits. The documentary delves deeply into the shopkeepers story while also giving an extensive background on Banksy and other street artists. It simultaneously tells a very entertaining story of an ordinary man’s journey to becoming an artist and gives perspectives from other artists on both him and their own journeys as artists. While being a film about various artists, it serves as a critique of art itself, leading the other artists to really think about what they do with their own lives. As the shopkeeper becomes more obsessed with the idea of being a street artist, it shows more and more that he knows nothing about what he is doing, and that his art is terrible and meaningless. Despite this fact, he opens his first ever art show on a whim with very little time to prepare and still sells millions of dollars worth of art. It made the long-time street artist Banksy question the point of art and whether or not it was worth his time to really focus on his craft. The humble shopkeeper’s rapid rise to fame and wealth got him and the other artists in the film thinking hard about the purpose of art in today’s society; how do people really see art? Does it need any sort of creative force behind it? Could someone simply do what Thierry the shopkeeper did and still have the same merit and genuine influence as they do? What is the importance of an artist to the world today?
The United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) has discussed such questions, namely the last one posed. The World Congress on the Status of the Artist was held in 1997, at which three matters were discussed: “the artist and society, the role of art in society and art as a major challenge for the coming century” (1). A large group of speakers met to discuss the importance of artists in today’s world, relative to aspects such as the need for art as cultural sustenance, the possible saturation of art in any form, and the struggle to keep art and technology in line with each other. The importance of art education and the funding of artist was also a main topic, which most members of the congress could agree on: “Art education should be central to the education system, with the same status as scientific subjects and languages. Art was fundamental to the harmonious development of a human being” (5).
The general public, let alone the media, seem to lack a solidified opinion on the role of the artistic individual. As determined by UNESCO, art should be held in high standard from an educational perspective at the very least, and artists should be publicly funded if there is demand for what they do. Film depictions may try to generalize certain types of artists, but in no way is being an artist made to be a shameful thing in today’s world. People often make a fuss over the idea of art as a source of income, but what I have found is that artists who wish to pursue what they love are rarely discouraged entirely by media outlets.

“World Congress On The Status Of The Artist.” Global Media Journal: Indian Edition 4.2 (2013): 1-6. Communication & Mass Media Complete. Web. 3 Dec. 2014.

Inside Llewyn Davis. Dir. Ethan Coen and Joel Coen. Perf. Oscar Isaac. 2013. Film.

Exit Through the Gift Shop. Dir. Banksy. Perf. Banksy and Mr. Brainwash. 2010. Film.

School of Rock. Dir. Richard LinkLater. Perf. Jack Black. 2003. Film.

Walk Hard: The Dewey Cox Story. Dir. Jake Kasdan. Perf. John C. Reilly. 2007. Film.

This Is Spinal Tap. Dir. Rob Reiner. Perf. Christopher Guest. 1984. Film.