A recent study conducted by German neuroscientists scanned the brains of artists to try to figure out why so many of us are broke. When presenting subjects with a button that delivered a cash reward when pushed, researchers noticed that artists’ brain activity flatlined when compared to dentists and insurance agents. MRIs and dopamine measurements showed artists to have a reduced activation in the brain’s reward system. On top of this, a second test showed the artists were having a heightened response in another area of the brain. When told they could reject the cash prize, dopamine surged. Renouncing money, it seemed, is what got artists fired up.
I’m thinking part of it might have something to do with survivor guilt — that feeling a decent person gets when she knows she’s getting away with something. “Write a novel if you must,” wrote Pearl S. Buck, “but think of money as an unlikely accident.” If art is a calling and wellspring of joy, individualism, freedom and pleasure, getting a cheque for it can feel like an accident. “I cannot afford to waste my time making money,” said 19th Century Swiss-American natural history biologist Jean Louis Agassiz. For those of us with work that doesn’t feel like work, learning to receive what seems like even more good fortune is a cultivated skill.
At the risk of feeling dirty, I’m going to make a suggestion. Might we exorcise the perpetual myth of noble artist starving? “I’ve always found it very sanitary to be broke,” wrote Orson Welles. First, look at your work and ruminate on what it’s really worth, how to make it better and what it is that you are offering the world. Embrace the purity in your heart and in your anterior prefrontal cortex, where your money motivation lies blissfully dormant. Now, push the cash button. Work at it, if you must, until it feels okay. Rocker Bono, when asked about it, replied, “Selling out is doing something you don’t really want to do for money. That’s what selling out is.”
PS: “Collectively, our results indicate the existence of distinct neural traits in the dopaminergic reward system of artists, who are less inclined to react to the acceptance of monetary rewards.” (Creativity Research Journal, led by Dr. Roberto Goya-Maldonado)
Esoterica: I remember a time when I couldn’t buy a potato, tormented by late-paying galleries, scrambling to collect and struggling with endless requests for discounts and studio sales payment-over-time plans. The thing was, I needed the money. After a tearful confession to a friend, she lovingly jotted out a new manifesto and told me to follow it for a year. “No discounts. No payment plans. Retire non-payers.” All these years later, it’s not just my bottom line that’s more buoyant. “Poverty makes you sad as well as wise,” wrote playwright and poet Bertolt Brech. Add a commitment to making the very best work you can. Try to think of money as simply a kind of practical form of love, one of a million wonderful artists’ reward systems — not everything, not nothing. Treat yourself as you would others in this sphere. Know that it takes time and respect. “Wealth consists not in having great possessions, but in having few wants.” —Epictetus
“Money often costs too much.” (Ralph Waldo Emerson)
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