Songs for the Struggling Artist

Creativity and Bandwidth
May 15, 2014, 7:08 pm
Filed under: art, Creative Process | Tags: , , , , , ,

I recently read Scarcity: Why Having Too Little Means So Much by Sendhil Mullainathan and Eldar Shafir. It is a remarkable book – wise and thorough and a book that, if read in the right circles, could be revolutionary. (You can watch a video interview here if you want a taste.) One of the major ideas that come out of the research these guys did is that our minds have a limited amount of bandwidth (i.e. Brain processing power) – and scarcity, of any kind, puts a tax on that bandwidth. That is, when things are scare (money, time, calories) our minds behave like a computer with too many applications running in the background. Scarcity acts like a constant jackhammering outside your window. It takes effort to tune out and it taxes patience, executive function and self control.


There is a persistent belief that poverty in the arts community is good for us, that it’s romantic. There’s some idea that artists are better when they’re hungry. The research shows what a load of mularky this is. Many of us are consummate jugglers (juggling often being the result of scarcity of some kind, especially money.) The more we do this, the less bandwidth we have for our art. Not only are we suffering from the strain of poverty but our work is suffering too. And maybe I just take Art too seriously but I’m somehow more upset about the effect of poverty on art than I am about the effect of poverty on me.

The thing that makes the artist’s poverty all the more complicated is the Art part. I mean, we are considering something that sits completely separate from the economic model. We could say we’re following something counterproductive but it’s not that. The artistic impulse runs counter to the drive to solving the problems of scarcity. I get into trouble financially because I value something so separate from money, I can’t focus on other stuff. I mean, the pursuit of solving my scarcity problem runs exactly counter to my impulse to make art, which in turn, is the whole reason my resources are scarce in the first place.

When I am doing a show, I tunnel. (Tunneling is another result of scarcity that the authors discuss. It’s when we focus on one thing and tune out everything else.) And when I emerge from the tunnel, I find I am once again behind, once again broke, once more in the hamster wheel of poverty.

None of this is good for my art. And yet it is all FOR my art. Poverty doesn’t make us more creative – it decreases our bandwidth, making everything more challenging. It’s not romantic. It doesn’t make better art. It just makes more tenacious art. If we could increase our economic power, we would be able to make better art. Artists with some wealth do better not just because they have more time and more money but because time and money increase their bandwidth. This allows them to think ahead, to make long-range choices, to be more creative. But then the art that we get is all shrouded in privilege. The perspectives we see are bubble wrapped. Hey – if you’ve got some money and you’re making art, I salute and applaud you and am not suggesting that we topple you from the throne. But if we want to be a truly democratic society, we need to find a way to include all the perspectives, not just those of the wealthy.

I make good work when I get a chance but my bandwidth is highly taxed by figuring out how I will make rent. It’s also highly taxed by figuring out how to make money to keep my company afloat. For better of worse, those things are deeply linked to one another.

As an artist I am much more concerned about my bandwidth than just about anything else. It is my bandwidth that allows me to solve creative problems, to create creative problems to solve and to generally bring work into existence.
But I see that in trying to preserve one aspect of my bandwidth (time) I have inadvertently greatly reduced my bandwidth with poverty. I have had to engage in all the strategies for managing Scarcity. I have no slack. I juggle constantly. I trade money for time, trade clothes for food, socializing for art-making, comfort for flexibility.

And yet at the heart of it, there is a deep commitment to my art and all the trade-offs that seem to come with it can be worth it when the art is good. Good art seems to bounce that bandwidth back, make it feel like there is no shortage of anything, no scarcity. Just good art.


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