Since the beginning of time, creative types have struggled with a paradox. If you are an artist, deep down you want to pursue the passion of your genius. You want to create the purest representation possible of your soul and share it with all who will notice. The further you get from your heart, the more anxiety you feel; but you at the same time, you have to eat.

Every artist goes through a period, usually in high school or college, where he scoffs at the idea of “selling out to the man.” He thinks: those fools running in and out of that big office in their fancy suits… I’ll never be like that.

But soon, the weight of the world starts to stack upon your shoulders as bills start to pile up. Life without a job starts to loose its luster. How long an artist can hold his ground becomes a badge of honor to those who remain.

The Artist’s Dilemma

In the short-run, the truer you are to your own genius, the less it pays.

The life of an artist is a constant struggle between creative control and financial reward. This is one reason why so many great artists throughout history lived such tortured lives. Many of the greats were never even recognized in their lifetimes. It wasn’t until they passed that they reached global status.

As an adult and an artist, you must find your place on a continuum between creative control and financial reward.

Artist's Dilemma

If you choose to live on the extreme left of the spectrum, you choose the life of a starving artist in exchange for total control of your art. You create what you want, when you want, no matter who is paying.

If you choose the extreme right, you “sell out” your creative skill to someone else. You get paid a lot for your talent, but you do it at the expense of creative control. Your job is to create someone else’s vision.

One path is not better than the other, just different. Survival and self-expression are both on the hierarchy of human needs. Unfortunately for the pure artist, survival is necessary before self-expression.

One for Us, One for Them

One approach that many independently-minded Hollywood types have been taking lately is to alternate between artistic and commercial projects. The artsy movies satisfy their craving for self-expression while the commercial films pay the bills. Here are a few examples…

Stephen Spielberg:

    Commercial: War of the Worlds, Catch Me if You Can, Jurrasic Park
    Artsy: A.I., Emperor of the Sun, Munich

Matt Damon:

    Commercial: Brother’s Grim, Borne Identity, Ocean’s 11, 12, 13
    Artsy: Dogma, The Good Shepard, The Talented Mr. Ripley

Robert Rodruiguez:

    Commercial: The Adventures of Sharkboy and Lavagirl 3-D, Spy Kids 1, 2, & 3-D
    Artsy: Sin City, From Dusk Till Dawn, El Mariachi

Richard Linklater:

    Commercial: Bad News Bears, The School of Rock, The Newton Boys
    Artsy: Slacker, Dazed and Confused, Before Sunrise, Waking Life, A Scanner Darkly, Fast Food Nation


The answer (just as it is in every classic duality) is balance. The longer you resist financial gain as a starving artist, the less freedom you have. It’s unpopular, but true: money gives us a certain amount of freedom; and debt takes it away.

At the same time, the more addicted you are to money, the less freedom you have. If money is the center of your life, your creative soul will begin to starve, shrivel, and fade away.

If your goal is to eventually have total artistic freedom, you must begin by freeing yourself from needing money. This doesn’t mean to quit society and move into the woods. It means to live as modest a life as you can bare, and build passive income until you are free to create whatever you want, even if no one wants to buy it.

Without the pressure of money, your art will flow freely from your soul and fulfill you as an artist.