We all know about artists, right? They’re always poor, smokers, live in Paris or New York, they all wear berets and are just waiting for their work to be discovered. This is the image conjured up when people think of modern day artists. But is it a fair or accurate representation?
First off, lets touch on the poverty issue. This cliché probably came about due to the romanticized notion of artists. The ‘poor artist’ conjures up images of past artists, sculptors and playwrights who, to be fair were relatively poor and not particularly celebrated in their day.
Artists often struggled in the past and would often share accommodation with other artists to keep a roof over their head. Even the notable Vincent Van Gough did not escape the ‘starving artist’ stereotype. During his lifetime he only ever sold one painting and it was to his own brother.
Imagine being a struggling artist and the only piece you can sell is a pity painting to your brother? Of course Van Gough is now wildly popular with his paintings selling for millions if they ever become available for sale. In fact Vincent Van Gough’s painting “Still Life: Vase with Fifteen Sunflowers” smashed all previous records in 1987 when it sold for the equivalent of $39,921,750. I wonder what Van Gough could have done with that amount of money when he was alive?!
It’s a known fact that all artists smoke – just look at Andy Warhol. But do they really? Smoking and beret wearing seem to go hand in hand in the public’s mind. The only reasonable explanation I can come up with for this particular cliché is that artists are a bit more free thinking than most, so possibly would be more open to trying recreational drugs. This would then lead on to smoking, as a legal alternative. Oh and because it looks cool – but no self-respecting artist would ever admit to that!
Who thinks of an artist and the image doesn’t include a beret? Where did this notion come from? Even Marge Simpson dons a beret when she goes to art class and several of her fellow artists are wearing them too. This particular trope’s origin is a bit easier to identify. During the renaissance period, artists were working for the Catholic Church, rich families and nobles. There was no way some peasant artist could just walk into a noble house, or the Vatican without showing respect! Maybe this is why the beret came into fashion, specifically so the peasants had something to take off their head in a mark of respect for their employer.
So why must all artists come from Paris or New York? I think this all ties in with the berets, cigarettes and borderline alcoholism of the romanticised artist. Paris is a very romantic city and the surrounding countryside is simply stunning. The young Claude Monet wanted to be an artist and even though his parents disapproved, he still went to Paris to learn to paint. He often went on trips around France specifically to paint. The story of American abstract expressionist, Jackson Pollock is similar to the one of Monet. Pollock grew up in California where he began his education in the arts and at age 18, Pollock’s dreams of being a successful artist led him to New York where he worked and studied under Thomas Hart Benton at the Art Students League.
So, are the biographies of those blockbuster artists the immediate assumption for the lives and personalities of modern day artists?
So, is our imaginary artist telling every friend they possess that their big break is coming and their work is going to be discovered any day now? Probably not, there are several modern day artists that haven’t had to wait until they die before they make good money. Damien Hirst is one and he sold a pickled shark for goodness sake! The problem with a lot of artists is that they do their work not for money, but for the love of it. And that is called success.
Any artist who does indeed want to make money and live with their art as their sole occupation, generally has their work showcased online, in galleries or in the case of the British artist Banksy, on the streets.
Most people who are working with art don’t always wear berets; sometimes they like fidora’s. You’d also be surprised how many bank accounts belonging to artists are bigger than yours and that not all artists smoke cigarettes, some choose the pot.
So is the image we have of the modern day artist even remotely close to the mark? I’d say no.