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Poor Artists and Patreonage: Part I

Updated: Mar 31, 2023

Carl Spitzweg: The Poor Poet (1839)
Carl Spitzweg: The Poor Poet (1839)

The vast majority of artists are poor. This is an ahistorical certitude, as true now for the struggling author who eschews an office job as it was for the first early human who spent an afternoon etching a cock and balls onto their cave wall rather than foraging for berries. There are without question more immediately profitable ways to spend one's time than sitting in front of a blank page or screen and attempting to fill it with arrangements of words or images, and even that slimmest slither of the creative demographic who have gone on to make a pretty penny would hardly say that they got into it for the money. Most are in it for something else, and financial success is not a necessary or expected consequence. If truth be told, we have rather romanticised the notion that the artist should be poor. The idea of the malnourished writer, pen in hand and hunched and shivering in the corner of a dingy garret, nothing for sustenance save for the flies on the window ledge and drips from the ceiling, is ubiquitous, popularised by painters such as Hogarth and Spitzweg and writers like Murger. The artist's is a noble and apt poverty, the price paid for their chosen path, or even a necessary source of inspiration; Orwell didn't write “Doing Pretty Well in Versailles and Kensington”, and if he had, so the logic goes, it probably wouldn't have been as good or sold so well.

Though Orwell's 'down and out' phase was arguably more of a deliberate choice to garner experience than a real enforced poverty, there are plenty of artistic behemoths who lived and died broke. Van Gogh died destitute, considered a failure and a madman. Ben Jonson's funeral at Westminster was attended by half of the town, yet he had died in squalor, forced to beg friends for sustenance and medicine. Erik Satie earned money playing in Parisian pubs and writing hackwork for cabaret, living in miserable conditions until his death. Emily Dickinson had only published a handful of poems in her lifetime. Jack Kerouac lived and died 'beat'. These are just a handful of examples of some of the most critically acclaimed artists in history distinctly having not 'made it' finacially from their work. So if these creative geniuses couldn't make it work, what of us mere mortals who are trying to pay the bills on the back of much more meagre slices of talent pie?

Ask most artists and they'll tell you the dream is solely to comfortably pay the bills whilst being true to themselves as an artist. When I tell people that I am a stand-up comedian, they are somewhat confused. “I've never seen you on TV/Netflix before” they affirm, as if fame and relative fortune were a pre-requisite for my profession. This is perhaps testament to the newness of the genre. Up until fairly recently, especially in non English-speaking countries, the only comics they are likely to have seen would have been on TV, or more recently Netflix. Live comedy is still in its relative infancy here. The idea that somebody could be jobbing away in obscurity (and barely treading water financially) at my chosen craft doesn't really occur to them. This is of course not the case when somebody announces themselves as a musician or painter. It is not assumed that they must have had a top 10 hit or an exhibition at the Guggenheim. Here people are aware that there are many rungs to the ladder of artistic success, and for most of us our position thereon is not vertiginous. There is a vague awareness of the grind of it all, and the slim financial pickings that are the fruits of most creative labour.

Before this starts sounding like a whinge, I don't mean to suggest that hard work and talent don't get you anywhere. In the English-speaking comedy world of Berlin, the better you get, the more often you are booked for paid shows, and the more opportunities you have to perform for cash. Yet the fact remains that unlike the infrastructure in say the UK or US, where a country-wide circuit of established gigs of increasing prestige and payment exists, the best paying regular English-language gigs in Berlin might offer you 60-80 euros, and there aren't many of those. Considering that Berlin is widely regarded as the capital of European continental comedy, it gives you an idea of how hard it is to pay the bills solely by being a performing artist. Of course one always has the option to move somewhere like the UK in an attempt to 'make it', but then one would also be constantly surrounded by British people.

Enter the hybrid comedian-marketeer. For some years now Berlin's English-speaking comics have come to the uneasy realisation that the only way to make ends meet is to produce and promote their own shows. On the one hand this could be commended as part of a hard-working hustler mentality; if you want more stage time, and potentially a wedge of wonga, then build a brand and a network of shows yourself. All you need is a dingy basement and a microphone and some bums on seats. If the universe is not providing, do it yourself. A fellow comic, perhaps with a touch of hyperbole, described this as a positive kind of punk, DIY mentality to be praised (albeit one ironically, at least for now, heavily reliant on a certain multi-national tech corporation's ad platforms to get said backsides in place - Johnny Rotten would be turning in his grave, if he weren't still alive and appearing in butter commericals or preparing to perform at the Eurovision Song Contest). On the other hand, this extra, non-creative fluff which is necessary to promote your shows and rope in those derrières is at best massively time-consuming, and at worst wrist-slittingly dispiriting (unless, like some masochistic advertising flagellant, you are into that kind of thing). Either way, one thing is for sure; the comedian-marketeer has a lot less time on their hands to be an artist. You'll often find them spending more time analysing the results of their ads, emailing venues, designing promo images on Canva, editing yet another video of some inane crowd work, or dutifully and cynically replying to each and every comment on their Instagram post with a fire emoji in a brazen act of algorithmic housekeeping, than writing new jokes. This is the sizeable and lamentable baggage of self-promotion.

This is then the two-fold grind of creativity and promotion with which the busy modern artist fills their time, vainly hoping that they may be able to pay the rent in doing so. Selling tickets to performances, or products such as paintings, songs, or poems, is the most obvious way for the artist to attempt to interface with capitalism, but this is both often insufficient and fraught with uncertainty. Are there any other potential revenue streams of which the artist can avail themselves?

Crowdfunding websites have been around for about 20 years now, and platforms such as Ko-Fi or Patreon allow members of the public to step in to support artists with financial contributions which make their lives a little more stable, allowing them to focus more time on producing the kind of art they want to produce. In return they can be offered perks like early access to tickets and content, or even bespoke commissions. The idea of patronage is nothing new of course. In fact it's the oldest form of revenue for anyone working in the arts. Long before capitalism reared its shiny golden head, allowing, for better or worse, artists to sell their creative output, rich benefactors were bankrolling creatives, but often with rather questionable motives. Check out next month's blog for a delve into the long and chequered history of the murky patron-artist relationship, from the mixture of state-funding and artistic 'wealth taxes' of Ancient Greece, through the 'artwashing' of the Medici family in Renaissance Florence, the bragging rights of Victorian-era collectors, all the way up to present day Patreonage and public crowdfunding, and the related charge of 'cyber-begging'.

[Disclaimer] If some of you wealthy* readers had contributed to me, I might have been able to spend a little more time on this blog post and turn in a well-rounded, insightful piece full of nuance. As it is, because of you, this half-baked jumble of words will have to suffice as my morning's meagre offering to the gods of content. I have now run out of my daily quota of 'art time' and must go read up on Meta's new ad protocol, make a poster for an upcoming show, add some subtitles to a video where I ask a guy where he is from (and quick as a flash, like a true professional, regurgitate some stereotype about that place), then research the most effective time to post it on my social channels, not because I am proud of it, but because the algorithm is insatiably ravenous and I'm told I need it to eat me and my art. I will remove this disclaimer when I reach the prescribed amount of monthly contributions to allow me to escape the tyranny of social media and self-promotion, which at the time of writing is set to be achieved 497 years and 3 months hence. Click here to contribute to my artistic endeavours with cold money on Ko-Fi and let's speed up this process.

*having an actual job

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