Reuters/Stephane Mahe
Portrait of the artist as a poor man.
GRATIA ARTIS

Artists are obsessed with this viral gif because it nails a profound truth

By Annalisa Merelli

It’s not for nothing that the word “artist” is so frequently tied to the qualifier “starving.” While there have been some notable exceptions, making art doesn’t tend to be a very lucrative career path. Remember: even Van Gogh died poor.

This gif—which is being shared all over by artists—sums up the sacrifice of many. It comes up on giphy.com under the search terms “whenever i meet a girl that i like and i tell her i’m a painter.”

According to the Pew Research Center, 32 million Americans (a staggering 10% of the US population) consider themselves to be artists, though only 10 million declare to make any money off their efforts. How much money is key to understanding why the gif is striking a cord in so many.

To begin with, while 10 million Americans claim to be financially compensated for their art, only 2.1 million Americans are considered professional artists, according to 2011 research by the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA). Income for these professionals tends to be far below that of other kinds of professionals: the median wage for professionals in any field was $54,000 in 2011, while for artists it was $43,000. (Things are even bleaker for female artists, who suffer of the same wage gap affecting the rest of the population: for every $1 earned by a male artist, a female artist makes $0.81)

Considering that, per the census, artists in the US tend to live in New York and California, states where housing costs are well above the national average, their wages might not suffice to support themselves—which might be why 54% of artists work in the private, for-profit sector, and why only 35% are self-employed.

Outside the US, things don’t look much better for artists: as the Guardian noted in 2012, an Artists’ Interaction and Representation survey suggested that a third of the visual artists in the UK earned less than £5,000 ($7,200) from their creative work, and 57% of artists made at least three-quarters of their income in jobs other than their artistic pursuit.

The consequence: Art remains a field for the privileged, where minorities are underrepresented. A few numbers to get a sense: 80% of museum studies graduates are white, and a staggering 92% of museum goers identify themselves as white. With such a narrow slice of society able to afford a life in the arts, there is indeed much to cry about.