A Must Read for Every Artist


Forget the money

There’s a popular and semi-viral video circulating on the Internet under a few different titles, all of which are basically variations of “A must watch for every artist.” When you click play, you will hear a voice that sounds a lot like the mid-century philosopher, Alan Watts, who I happen to think is a sort of interesting guy. In the three minutes that follow, the narrator extols the virtues of college graduates becoming painters or poets or even horse riders (I’m not kidding). “Forget the money,” he says.

“If you say that getting the money is the most important thing, you will live your life completely wasting your time… Better to have a short life that is full of what you like doing, than a long life spent in a miserable way.”

I admit it’s an attractive message. It’s one of those thorny fortune-cookie pieces of advice that is obviously very deep and jabs at you to remember that you’re a good person on the right path and not at all like those other people. You know, “The 1%,” The Illuminati, British Petroleum, etc. As the voice-over continues, you’ll watch inspiring images of adventurers really enjoying a full and meaningful life, traveling and doing nature sports (all of which cost money to partake in, however). And by the end of the clip, you’re back to your carefree, vivacious and rebellious teenage self, having firmed up your dedication – to being broke.

[Cue grating sound of needle shredding across a vintage LP.]

F***ing fantastic. Question: Does the artist population that generally already has a very poor relationship with money, i.e. no money and no money skills whatsoever, really need more messaging about why they should reject money? Really, now, uh uh. Moreover, this belief is especially inviting, unfortunately, and most damaging to artists who come from working class backgrounds and who literally cannot afford to repel what little income they are already only barely making.

Now, are you prepared for the grand reveal? This freedom-from-money ideology is one of the most prevalent and most treacherous deceptions in the artist community and it is itself, at its core, a money trap. Sermons like these help guarantee that artists remain underpaid and struggling and worrying about money, except for the few minutes of relief they get when watching a web video that lulls them back to sleep and temporarily medicates the pain they undergo from being impoverished.

Who needs Alan Watts?

To compare the obsession with making money of modest-income individuals to that of mega-zillionaires is an outright sham. Their motivations are so entirely different. The former wants sustenance and the latter wants world domination. Maybe the big shot at Bechtel Corporation could use more Alan Watts in his life, but not artists. Why would penniless creatives really need more reminders not to be materialistic? It sounds like an awfully twisted joke, if you ask me. Suggest to your favorite charitable organization that they do the right thing, “forget the money,” and take more cuts. Outrageous.

So, how are videos like these really “a must watch for every artist”? After all, money is important, everybody. At the risk of sounding redundant, allow me to say this. Money is important in the cases where money is important. And not so important where money isn’t so important. Get it? Money pays for sanitary living conditions, education, and those fabulous nature sports, among many other things. It helps you get paid fairly and it helps you pay people fairly, unless you count yourself among the miserly rich that you supposedly despise. On the flipside, money has no effect on finding love, aligning your moral compass, or maintaining good relationships with friends and family.

The virtue of “both”

It’s true that many toil too much in order to make a buck. However, it is not because they’re not conscious or virtuous people. It’s because they HAVE TO, precisely because they are NOT rolling in dough. These are good folks that grind and do the best they can with the skills and circumstances they’ve acquired. Should we consider them robots? Slaves to the dollar? Should we convince them to “forget the money” too?

There is this underlying notion that one must choose either what’s commonly referred to as a “straight gig” or a life in art. That you can either be paid or principled, but not both. As if the two are diametrically opposed. As if we could dispossess ourselves toward a more just and equitable world – “If only more people would just choose poverty, many of our problems would be solved.” Sorry, what?

Fact-check time. I’ve personally met individuals who could be deemed successful artists that also doubled as designers, restaurant workers, teachers, and business owners, and had equal promise in their two fields. As it happens, one of the most influential English-language poets of the 20th century had a full-on career at a bank. Betcha didn’t know. That would be TS Eliot. And he was good too, observed by novelist Aldous Huxley as “the most bank-clerky of all bank clerks.” Shall we break it to him that, boy, he really screwed it up for himself? Then slap him on the back and say, “Should’ve really gone all out with that writing thing, old buddy!” Ah, a life wasted. So sad. He could have been somebody.

The only way we will survive

“See, what we’re doing is we’re bringing up children and educating them to live the same sort of lives we’re living, in order that they may justify themselves and find satisfaction in life by bringing up their children to do the same thing,” the sage monologue continues.

In this regard, the old spiritualist is right. We are raising generations upon generations of artists to need money (more accurately, to be needy of money). Sure, it might be from a pseudo-holy point of view, but it’s a paper chase just the same. Everywhere an artist turns, we are manipulated to submit ourselves to being destitute. And it’s unquestionably wrong. To quote Chris Rock, people “love to keep it real… real dumb.” The next time some fraud should question your righteousness because you’re done being a starving artist, kindly tell them to drop dead. I know, not very sweet. But is it any more darling that someone should intend to enslave you with a tired old paradigm that doesn’t serve your best interests?

Not that you need my permission, but because I care and no one else seems to have the guts to tell you: ARTIST, YOU ARE ALLOWED, GUILT-FREE, TO ACCUMULATE WEALTH FOR YOURSELF. Train yourself in the ways. Develop your money skills. Mind your financial strategy. As you advance, spread the love and make sure the people that constitute your various communities come up too. Reward them adequately, share the keys to your success, and cheer them on for their efforts. This is the only way we will survive and reach new heights as artists and as a class of workers.


*** Preview: Next, I’m going to share the talk that I gave at Stanford University. It further and more accurately details what artists should actually be thinking and doing as they kick off their careers. NOW LIVE: FOLLOW THIS LINK. You don’t wanna miss it. Meanwhile, let’s get this critical message out to every artist that must read it! Thank you.


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16 responses to “A Must Read for Every Artist”

  1. So agreed.

    It takes so much work in this world to build up the kind of self worth that validates making money.

    One real privilege of “people with privilege” is that they are taught they are worth the money they earn.

    Having to also do the work of believing you are worth receiving what you are asking for is an extra emotional burden on top of the work it takes to actually earn money.

    Thank you for the call to give ourselves permission to be abundant.

    It’s a lovely reminder to put down the struggle an to stay open to receive.

    • Thank you for your comment, Jenelle. You’re absolutely right. It can certainly be difficult when one wasn’t trained in this particular mindset. I joke that I feel like I belonged to a cult for most of my life called starving artists. And I’m only now beginning to reprogram myself.

      It’s a lot of work but it’s a worthwhile journey. This post is my contribution to the community in hopes that others don’t have to spend 20 years before they wake up from the spell. I appreciate that this resonated with you.

      We’re all in this together.

  2. Meg says:

    Hey Anthem,

    I have to say that I actually enjoyed that Alan Watts video. I feel like in today’s culture–artist or not–the message is always to monetize, monetize, monetize. Everything is for sale. And that it’s not worth doing something if you aren’t get paid for it–and getting paid well. With so much pressure to monetize, it’s refreshing to be reminded every once and awhile that money *will* come eventually when you do what you love. I don’t think the ultimate message of the video is to completely forget about money and to stay a starving artist; simply not to think about it when you are undertaking your art (or whatever it is you want to do) and don’t let it be the driving force behind what you are doing.

    And I understand that it is important to permit yourself as an artist to make money, lots of it. But giving yourself a blanket statement to take all money guilt-free isn’t always good. There will be times that feeling guilt plays an important role in making decisions. Sometimes you have to trust your gut–and actually turn down money {gasp!]–when it’s not coming from the right place.


    • Hi Meg, Thank you for your very thoughtful comment. Yes, life is a wild beast, riddled with nuance and exceptions. Although I did make a blanket statement about accumulating wealth, I didn’t intend for it to be law per se. Naturally, there will be situations when we will need to turn down work. For instance, the time I gave an audition and was asked to do an “Asian accent.” Not in my repertoire nor in my values, not gonna do it. So, I definitely get you.

      I also agree that one should find joy in activities whether they monetize or not. That is why I made the note about recognizing where money works and where it doesn’t. Money certainly isn’t important in everything. It is the reason I talk so frequently about quality time with friends, family, and self in what is otherwise supposed to be a professional development website. However, money is still important.

      I wish we had the problem of too many artists making sales. It would give me proper reason to stop addressing this topic. However, in truth, too few do make any money and it’s damaging us. And as I said, the ones that are thinking about monetizing aren’t necessarily misguided people. They may just be conjuring a fun business idea. Or more realistically, trying to figure out how they’re going to get out of debt.

      We are graduating more BFAs and MFAs in the entire history of humankind. That is not an exaggeration. ‘How are they being prepared for sustainability?’ I wonder. Very poorly is the answer. According to an NEA report, there are nearly 90,000 unemployed artists in the United States, only about 12% of artists make money from their art, about 30% work only part-time (i.e. they don’t qualify for benefits), and worst of all in my humble opinion, artists generally receive less financial compensation than anyone else for their level of education. I admit, this goes beyond the subject of soul-searching for me, and verges toward an issue of social justice. Again, especially because these conditions most negatively affect individuals who come from already historically disadvantaged communities.

      At the end of the day, we’re all in this together. Let’s all of us rise to meet our fullest potential on every front, even in the realm of [gulp!] making money.


  3. Alanna says:

    Right on, Anthem Salgado! Reminding artists to not focus on money is ridiculous. Remember how Oscar Wilde was all–When bankers get together they talk about art, when artists get together, they talk about money? Yeah, money sucks and we should always move away from the evil that greed produces, but I don’t want to hear about how I need to be reminded that money isn’t the “point” until I have me some free healthcare…and a culture that actually supports its artists.

  4. Meg says:

    Thanks for the points Anthem. I think we’re on the same page. Talking about money can be such a sticky issue.

    But I have to say that we are in a time in our culture where art is being supported and being in a creative class is actually appreciated. I least I feel that way. We actually have more vehicles (largely through the Internet) to get our art and craft out there and noticed. (When I started my first design business, I could only rely on traditional means to get my stuff out there. It sucked.) And there is a market out there supporting artists, it’s just that artists have to work harder than ever because of saturation.


    • Thanks, Meg. I do believe we’re on the same page. These are definitely amazing times and it’s true that there are more ways than ever for indie artists to carve space for themselves. Cheers to working harder!

  5. Glad I came across this post! I haven’t seen the video you mentioned, but as an artist, I certainly know all to well the issue of money. Yes, yes, all artists should make art simply because they are moved to. But the reality is, we still have bills and deserve to be paid rightly. And I whole-heartedly believe we should all have to hold a part-time/full-time job as well, in order to survive. Artists should be able to live off their art – in an ideal world that is.

    I actually wrote an article on this subject – if you have time to check it out:
    “Asking an Artist for a Discount is an Insult”

    • Thank you Corinna! I appreciate hearing your perspective. Yes to aspiring for artists to be paid rightly! Great art at your site and excellent piece (Asking an Artist…) too! Thanks for chiming in. Rock, rock on.

  6. Michelle says:

    Here’s the real problem with the poor artist paradigm: it continues to degrade the value of the arts and artists in our society. It’s bad enough artists are reluctant to collect what they’re worth, the people paying those fees, collecting that art are thinking art is not important enough to spend money on. It’s why we’re willing to cut arts programs in the schools.Artists need art patrons, and so long as we diminish the value of art as a whole, there will only be an elite level of patrons for only a handful of artists. If artists are always poor and want to be poor in order to be an artist, then no one has to pay that much for their art. I know that’s not true, but that’s where the warped logic goes.

    • You have a great point Michelle – how sense of value or worth is perceived and then spread… how artists are stratified… how it creates an elite class and an unnecessary scarcity… and how it’s all very circular.

      I aspire to do my part to smash that vicious cycle. Glad we’re all talking about this important topic and agree to try to do something different.

  7. […] is a great article from Time.com. It pairs really neatly with the Art of Hustle® original, A Must Read For Every Artist. Does one’s advice to not worry about money make you enlightened? Or, in the words of the […]

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