The Myth of the Starving Artist

The Myth of the Starving…

I liked to draw as a kid. I liked it a lot. My mom devoted half of the shelves in our mud room to my stacks of paper, pencils, markers, charcoals and pastel paints. In my free time, I’d be huddled under a lamp sketching some face or figure. Then I got serious. As a high school sophomore, I dropped my art elective in order to max out other college prep opportunities that seemed more logical for a kid who wanted to go to law school.

Two of my own children especially enjoy sketching, and my daughter, in particular, finds time for creative expression. (That’s her artwork above.) I can recall and relate to her enthusiasm, but I admit feeling a sense of guilty relief when she joined a robotics team this year. After all, isn’t a STEM major where it’s at for the next generation?

A recent article in the Wall Street Journal (“What to Do If Your Child’s First Love is… Art”) caught me by surprise and softened my cynicism. The Journal noted some surprising statistics about job placement among Fine Arts majors. Not only do they have excellent placement rates, but they find their jobs in their fields of choice – not by brewing coffee at Starbucks or selling life insurance. According to an earlier 2013 article in the Journal, “for artists who go on to graduate degrees, the most common of which is the master of fine arts, the unemployment rate for recent graduates [is] just under 5%.”

I was, candidly, surprised by data suggesting Fine Arts majors have every reason to expect gainful employment. I was less surprised by additional data indicating they are happier with their employment than most people. According to “happiness research” discussed in the 2013 article, “artists generally are happier than the rest of the population.” Of all arts professions, fine artists, writers and composers were found to be the happiest, because “the profession they have chosen gives them autonomy, and that makes them happy.”

My daughter isn’t dropping her calculus class, and if she and her brothers chase engineering degrees, that will be fine by me. But if they follow mom and dad into a classic liberal arts degree program – especially if it’s one they’re good at and passionate about – that will be just fine too. And if their happiness is a measure of their success, maybe we will all have learned something truly valuable.

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