What does it really cost to be an artist? Severin Matusek on the state of the arts

Cover Image - What does it really cost to be an artist?
Illustrations by Millie von Platen
WordsSeverin Matusek
IllustrationsMillie von Platen

The world is in a chaotic place, and it’s having a huge impact on budding and existing artists. How many creative people quite literally cannot afford to pursue their craft? And how many are making an absolute mint by selling their wares via Patreon or on TikTok or Etsy? Finances aside, what toll does the pursuit of a creative life take on one's mental health?

In this piece, which is the cover story of WePresent Magazine Issue 6, writer and researcher Severin Matusek meets artists and musicians to hear what they’re up against, and to work out how much it really costs to be an artist today.

It’s a Sunday in Berlin, the first with blue sky and bright sunshine after what seemed like six months of grayness. At a picnic in Hasenheide, a popular park between the city’s Kreuzberg and Neukoelln districts, I sit on the grass and talk to a friend, a painter in her early thirties, about what it takes to make a living from your craft. “The two things I wish someone would have told me before becoming an artist,” she says, “are; you can’t sustain a studio practice from a money job anymore, and life is not a meritocracy.”

Somewhere in the mid-2010s it became a cultural ideal to live an artist’s life. Not just in the traditional sense of the word, but in a way that meant; do what you love and be successful at it. The studios and apartments of carpenters, chefs, designers, ceramicists and painters filled the pages of blogs and magazines like Apartamento, the Shelby or Friends of Friends, demonstrating that doing what you love is as self-fulfilling as it is aesthetically pleasing. It might not be a care-free life, and it sure is hard work, but at least it’s self-directed. Freedom.

But what is the cost of freedom? We like to think that art and creativity are sacred, closely tied to the deepest secrets of our human existence. We want them to be separate from the market and its profane mechanics of assigning value to our work. In fact, many artists are likely drawn to art as a refuge from thinking about money. But artists don’t exist outside this market and the cost of being an artist is ultimately connected to how you participate in it. The market is not a place you can simply enter and exit, but it is an all-encompassing system that's become part of almost every interaction in our lives. How do artists make it work in this system? I decided to call up and meet with some of them to find out.

“If we made a calculation about how much money we earn per hour for each commission we do, it would be less than a Euro,” Fredrik Hellberg, one half of Swedish/Spanish artist duo Space Popular, says. We meet over schnitzel in Vienna and I find myself oddly comforted by his sincerity, as much of my own creative work brings in similar numbers, but I don’t dare talk about it. Hellberg and his partner, Lara Lesmes, just unveiled their latest work at Vienna’s Museum of Applied Art; an installation that showcases hundreds of portals throughout history and culminates in a 20 minute VR video experience. The duo, who are in their late thirties, have established themselves as a fixture in the global architecture and design circuit world, with solo shows in renowned institutions like Rome’s MAXXI Museum or Stockholm’s ArkDes. They also regularly get teaching assignments from institutions like UCLA in Los Angeles and INDA in Bangkok. “We were lucky to get into teaching early on, to sustain our artistic practice,” Lara says, “but there were times when we searched the sofa for coins and ended up walking 10 KM to university because we couldn’t afford the train ticket.”

Since the late-18th century, when the figure of the “starving artist” first became popular, we’ve romanticized artists for their dedication to their craft. The German word “Lebenskünstler”—which roughly means “artist of life”—feeds off the same notion, describing people who live life at ease, despite all the hardship they face. The artist, so we think, must be happy to create, as long as they find a way to get by. A more accurate equivalent in today’s market conditions would be the “hustling artist”. Many of today’s artists face extremely high degrees of uncertainty, an incredibly competitive and speculative market and constantly changing parameters—from rising rents and costs of living, to artificial intelligence, which threatens to make all creative practice obsolete. There is no clear path to having a sustainable income other than going from one gig to another. The opportunities seem endless, but the competition is fierce. More content than ever is created today, but there is less attention available to have it seen and discovered. 

“The internet has democratized access, but it also demonetised creativity,” Anton Teichmann tells me at his office in Berlin's Neukoelln district. The Berlin native has been running his independent music label Mansion & Millions together with his partner for a decade, releasing alternative pop music at a time when it became next to impossible to make a living from selling music. “The pool model of Spotify erased the middle. If you want to earn any money from streaming, you must be in the top 2 percent, otherwise you won’t have any significant earnings,” he says.

The resulting gap is mirrored not just in music, but everywhere in culture, where similar algorithmic data models decide what you see and who gets paid. What we have today is global artists like Taylor Swift, Bruce Springsteen or Beyoncé playing sold-out stadiums, while middle-tier artists like Animal Collective or Santigold are having to cancel tours because they can’t make the numbers work. The margins are getting smaller on all sides, and the only ones benefiting are the major platforms, the chart-dominating artists and the conglomerates behind them. The result, Teichmann explains, is that “taking risks has become a luxury”. In other words; you must come from privilege, which is either wealth, connection or—ideally—both, to be able to afford becoming a musician in the first place. Otherwise you won’t be able to rent a studio, pay a band or afford a tour that provides the basis for building an audience, signing a label and releasing music, at least in the established sense of the industry. Everyone else has to find other ways to put themselves out there.

Tweet this
I wonder when was the last time I heard someone being accused of selling out. Maybe a decade ago?

“The old shit doesn’t work anymore” is the title of a recent Substack post written by Yancey Strickler, in which the founder of creative operating system Metalabel, and former chief executive of Kickstarter, explain how the digital age has changed culture. “The established patterns for releasing music, going on tour and putting work into culture are no longer relevant,” he writes. “The infrastructure, the audiences and the money just aren’t there. There is a fundamental change in the digital age that applies to essentially every creative field. In the past, consumers bought and collected physical editions of creative work, creating a direct value exchange between fans, artists and producers. Today, almost all creative work is digitized and essentially rented, lowering payouts, devaluing work and redirecting the lion’s share of rewards to the platforms hosting the work, rather than the creators themselves.”

I wonder whether the scam culture we celebrate today is a direct result of this divide. I find myself scrolling through TikTok late at night, watching the people who made it. The real estate guy who drives a bugatti in Dubai, the 21-year-old who made millions dropshipping Chinese toothbrushes on Amazon, the creator with millions of followers who makes 50,000 dollars per sponsored post. All of these careers, assuming they are real, aren’t built on merit but on scam: tricking a system that’s known to be unfair to get the maximum benefit for oneself.

You can’t blame them. If the middle class is disappearing—both in the sense of the mid-income worker whose paycheck can sustain a family and the artist-creator who can make a living—it is understandable that many can’t imagine any other way of living a good life than hustling (or scamming) your way to the top of the pyramid. Reading up on last year’s #nepobaby upheaval, when teenagers discovered that their favorite actors are the daughters, nephews and nieces of well-known Hollywood producers, actors and writers, the Guardian summed up the discussion as follows: “So, is this just Gen Z making the discovery that every generation makes, that meritocracy is a lie and all the scales are rigged? Basically, yes.”

“There's being an artist and then there's the performance of being an artist,” Maya Man tells me on a Tuesday morning from Los Angeles. When we spoke, the final show of a Master of Fine Arts Program at UCLA had just finished. Man’s practice explores notions of performance, identity and presentation of self in the 21st century. Initially, she worked in tech while she developed her artistic vision, but she has since taken a late leap of faith in pursuing art full-time. “The performance of being an artist to me is not just the work itself. It's delivering the work to the public and how you do that. A lot of the labor around being a professional practicing artist is that,” she says, “and it's tiring because there‘s sort of no end to it.”

The desire to perform online—to be seen—is one of the most visible factors of how the logic of the market has taken over our sense of self. It existed before in a way; for years, record labels, for example, have preferred to sign musicians who already have a following. But today, it has become virtually impossible to get signed or booked at a venue if you don’t have a significant following online. The same applies to other forms of creative expression. Cultural capital is no longer about what you create, but how big of an audience you cultivate and monetise.

In an article from early 2023 titled “The State of the Culture”, cultural critic Ted Gioia suggests that audience building is the only way you can still meaningfully contribute to culture in the age of algorithms. The supply side is not the problem, he argues. The problem is its distribution: how do people see it? His solution is that not only individuals, but also institutions, must strive to build an audience similar to Mr. Beast, who is one of the world’s most popular Youtubers, with a combined reach of 200 million subscribers. If grants just tackle the supply side, allowing artists to create work but not providing them with an audience, you’re already outcompeted in today’s market.

A new way of creating value from your audience, not least in a financial way, are NFTs. Non-fungible tokens have become a way for artists to create a direct value exchange with an audience on the blockchain, bypassing the platforms that usually take a cut. Reflecting on “Ugly Bitches”, a collection of 500 digital dolls released as NFTs by Maya Man and Ann Hirsch, she reflects on the criticism artists often receive for releasing NFTs. “I've always felt a little bit confused because I think the thing that makes people uncomfortable with NFTs is not that the work is being sold. Because that's how the contemporary art market works. The work is sold like stocks, and we all know that there's this whole ecosystem of art advisors and dealers, collectors who are hyper-fixated on the potential fluctuating value of an artwork. So that's not new. What is embedded in NFTs is the pace and the publicness of the flow of money through an artwork. Even though contemporary art is built on a lot of the same systems, it's not as out in the open and much slower.”

Join the club

Like this story? You’ll (probably) love our monthly newsletter.

In a world where margins are shrinking and competition is increasingly globalized, I wonder how much we can still separate our sense of self and our work from the market that assigns value to it. “L’art pour l’art,” the 19th century French bohemian conviction that “true” art is utterly independent of any and all social values and utilitarian function, seems like a hallucination now. It’s a romantic relic, similar to “the American dream”, which promises that everyone can make it if they work hard enough. Several generations ago, people embarked on a journey to the US in the hope of a better future. Today, you go online to compete with everyone else for fame and fortune.

For a long time, resistance to the mainstream was a defining factor of independent artists. In the 1980s, subcultures like hardcore and punk defined themselves by being anti-establishment, which included the ways mainstream culture was made. Bands prided themselves with jamming “econo”, a term that meant you’d reduced your resources to remain independent, playing shows in B-venues, sharing a van and sleeping on the couches of friends. If you broke that codex you were selling out, losing credibility from your fans and respect from your peers. I wonder when was the last time I heard someone being accused of selling out. Maybe a decade ago? In the precarious situation most artists find themselves in, it’s become an accepted fact that you do whatever it takes to make it. Take on every opportunity, be on every platform—even though you know that it accelerates the problem you were trying to solve in the first place.

“I honestly don’t know how one can survive as an artist in London,” Isabel Ramos tells me over Zoom. Ramos is one third of Keiken, a multidisciplinary artist collective based between London and Berlin, co-founded by Tanya Cruz, Hana Omori and Ramos in 2015 after meeting at Falmouth University, where they studied Fine Art. We talk about the realities of making it work. When two of its three members lost their jobs during the pandemic, the trio started applying for grants, none of which they received. Due to increasing rents, Ramos was forced to switch apartments every year, while others were stuck in place because they couldn't risk losing their locked-in rates elsewhere.

At first, small online commissions provided some income, along with unpaid micro labor such as taking over a gallery’s Instagram. “We were definitely stressed, and I think one thing that we fell into as a result was just accepting too many things,” Ramos mentions. Besides Arts Council England funding and commissions by renowned institutions, what really made a difference was the inaugural “Chanel Next Prize” that they won in 2021. “We did all this short-form content because the opportunity was there. But what we actually enjoy making is long-form content, which prizes like this allows us to do. It's still a massive struggle to make ends meet between us though,” she says. “We're three, so there's always someone to sustain it while the others work. It’s a support system. We’re a small collective, that's our real strength.”

For Keiken, world-building is at the core of their collaborative process. The piece they’re working on as I write is “Wisdoms for Neknel”, a gaming experience which inspires players to imagine a world in which the dissemination of knowledge is in everyone’s best interest. Players can mint NFTs, made by AI, to create an in-universe $WISDOM currency, which can be exchanged for NFTs, in-universe artist collabs and more. The game is yet to launch, but according to its description, “currency is a tool that can change the gameplay of our reality.” I remember the term “gameplay” from my childhood playing video games, when it was almost a religious question whether you had a Nintendo or a Playstation. The Playstation had better graphics, we all agreed, but nothing could beat the gameplay of “Super Mario 64”. What if we changed the parameters that define the world we live in? As artists, programmers and tech monopolies invent new worlds for us to escape our current reality, I‘d still prefer better gameplay over fancy graphics.

I’ve already closed the door to my studio when Ramos calls again. We’ve spent an hour discussing the challenges of being an artist today, the many financial, emotional and mental costs associated with it. “But money,” she says, “is just a means to an end. What we want to show,” she continues, “is that we have power and agency, and that other value systems exist; care, friendship, community, knowledge exchange.” As I cycled into the dark blue sky of Berlin’s summer night, Ramos’ words still resonate in my earplugs. She said, “we want to create our own world. One that operates differently to the world around us.”