Commentary by Lucas Hargis
My mama grew up the opposite of rich. As a kid, she lived in a house on a bend in a dirt road way out in the North Carolina country. Her family of seven kept a few chickens pecking the yard, escaping the southern sun in the shade under the house. Mama fed those chickens through gaps in the kitchen floorboards. In exchange, the chickens supplied eggs.
One day in 2nd grade, Mama got in trouble for eating a mustard sandwich. That’s all she, her brothers & sisters ate for lunch most days. Well, she didn’t get in trouble for the actual eating of the mustard sandwich. Nah, she was forced to walk laps around the ball field at recess because of another little girl’s tattling to the teacher.
Now, it’s possible the principal’s daughter simply misunderstood what my mama answered when asked, “What you got for lunch, Debbie Jean?”
But when Mama tells the story, there was no misunderstanding. The tattletale twisted Mama’s words around. She knew exactly what she was doing.
Seemingly unrelated, there’s this archetype that’s been in the social consciousness for, idk, plenty of years. As soon as you read the words, you’ll be like, “Oh, yeah. Totally know that phrase. Everybody knows it. Heard it so many times I aint never thought much about the truth behind it, tbh.”
That archetype: Starving Artist
I usually get my groceries at Kroger. The one on Park Ave. Curious if I could do so, I searched online for the going rates of their store brand sandwich bread & mustard. Sure enough, this is what I conveniently found:
In our current economy (tax included) this pair of items comes to $2.02. I’ll spare you a screenshot of the spreadsheet I used to calculate that total. But I’d be remiss in my duties if I didn’t share the spreadsheet explaining why I chose the largest bottle of mustard available even though it obviously contains way more mustard than necessary for a single loaf’s worth of mustard sandwiches.
My mama taught me to spend my money wisely. Plus my starving artist frugality means that—even though it’s two whole dimes more expensive—I must splurge. At half the price per ounce compared to the smallest bottle, the extravagant 20 oz store brand yellow mustard clearly makes more economic sense.
Today, I ate an inexpensive mustard sandwich for lunch. Not out of necessity; I chose to. For experiential art’s sake. I did not attempt to calculate the cost breakdown for a single mustard sandwich.
When I was in High School & in my 20’s, I often did pro bono work with my artistic talents. A tattoo design for a friend here, a Vacation Bible School sign for my Pawpaw’s church there. These were fun opportunities, challenges, learning experiences for an artsy kid just starting out, trying to discover a way to do something productive with his art. With my art. Anything beyond cramming more sketches & paintings into my closet.
I’ve created & sold a couple pieces since then. I’ve grown old enough to worry about the price per ounce of varying sizes of the cheapest condiment in existence. I’ve never literally been a starving artist.
I, like a lot of artists, occasionally get hit up to use my skills for the greater good. Beautification! Visibility of the arts ‘round these parts! Progress! More times than not, there is zero compensation offered by the person, business, or organization making the request.
These conversations go something like:
“Hey! I/we need artists & I thought of you! Here are the details.”
“Cool. That sounds interesting.” Then the pivotal question. Although the answer is predictable enough since this all-important detail was omitted from the inserted details. “Is there compensation for the artists?”
I still donate time, talent & pieces for truly good causes—when actual need is there, if it feels right & I choose to. But I’ve tried many, many times. It is impossible to eat exposure.
Working artists don’t have to starve. Working plumbers don’t seem to. Neither do working mechanics, working masseuses, working anyone-approached-for-a-product-or-service. I totally have to pay the Kroger on Park Ave for my bread & mustard.
I’m not sure where, when, or by whom it was decided that artists are excluded from the basic tenants of supply & demand. Maybe there’s way too much supply for the demand the same way there’s way more product in a 20 oz bottle of store brand yellow mustard than one could comfortably fit into a single loaf’s worth of sandwiches. Maybe artistic talent, to some seeking such, is only valued at $0.00 per ounce.
Perhaps those wanting something for nothing receive free dental care & groceries & utilities, etc & therefore don’t realize. Perhaps they’re selflessly trying to keep the Starving Artist archetype alive for posterity’s sake. Perhaps they’ve never considered any of this. A simple oversight.
Artists need food?!
Misunderstandings are quite easy to fix when the parties involved listen, understand, value one another. Call me a dreamer, but a little empathy in any transaction doesn’t seem like all that bad of an idea.
Artists are, if I risk speaking for us all, generally very much okay with not starving.
At the planning stage of any project requiring working artists, compensation for these working artists should be as important as every other aspect. If there’s no budget line item to pay working artists, the project plan isn’t ready.
Or maybe the project is perfect as a fun opportunity, a challenge, a learning experience for an artsy kid just starting out, trying to discover a way to do something productive with their art. Something beyond cramming more sketches & paintings into their closet.
Even then, the Starving Artist archetype can either be fed or starved to extinction. That’s up to both the requestor and the artist.
So let’s say they’re both unsure of the fair market value of requested services. I mean, it’s not a living wage, but may I suggest a negotiable starting point of $2.02? That’ll at least allow the artist to buy a whole loaf of bread & an extravagant bottle of mustard.
Back to an elementary school lunchroom in North Carolina. Circa 1955.
So the tattletale gnawing her second fried chicken leg goes, “What you got for lunch, Debbie Jean?”
My mama blushes & stops chewing. “A mustard sandwich.”
The little girl jumps up. Pigtails swinging, she races to the teacher. “Miss Barker! Miss Barker! Debbie Jean just said…can I say what she said?”
Miss Barker nods at the principal’s daughter.
“Debbie Jean said turd.”
My mama didn’t say turd. She said mustard. She had to walk laps at recess anyway.
That afternoon, in a home on a bend in a dirt road way out in the country, my mama grumbled at the chickens she fed through gaps in the kitchen floorboards. In exchange, the chickens supplied eggs.