Detail of The Parnassus, Apollo and the Nine Muses, by Raphael, 1511

“Sing in me Muse, and through me. . .”

Nowadays, one of the things that doesn’t come up in conversations too much, if at all, assuming that your cohort isn’t described as some sort of aesthetic cult, are the Muses*. Once they were invoked by artists to either inspire them or to speak through them.

There are (were?) nine:

  • Calliope, epic poetry
  • Clio, history
  • Urania, astronomy
  • Thalia, comedy
  • Melpomene, tragedy
  • Polyhymnia, religious hymns
  • Erato, erotic poetry
  • Euterpe, lyric poetry
  • Terpsichore, choral song and dance

If you remove Urania from the list, all of the Muses (a.k.a., Mousai) have something to do with either writing or music.**

What isn’t represented are the visual arts.

But odds, should someone say to you, “Who is your favorite artist?”, you wouldn’t name a comedian or a poet (erotic or otherwise) but Banksy or Ai Weiwei or some other visual artist.

For some reason, the word artist has become associated primarily with, well, artists.

Rarely is it said that a given writer is an artist. Some might say that James Joyce was not simply a writer but an artist; it is almost ironic that he titled his early novel Portrait of an Artist as a Young Man, with portraiture being more associated with painting than words on paper.

Similarly, musicians are rarely cited as being artists, although one might refer to someone like Yo-Yo Ma, Daniel Barenboim or Alison Balsom as an artist, but it is more likely that it would take the form of “an artistic performance.”

And while there is a Nobel Prize for Literature, there is none for Music or the Visual Arts. (As you may recall, when Bob Dylan received a Nobel Prize in 2016, it was for Literature, specifically for “for having created new poetic expressions within the great American song tradition.” It wasn’t for music per se, but for the lyrics that the committee considered to be poetry: Calliope, Erato and Euterpe made it happen. It is interesting to note that while Dylan didn’t accept the award at the Nobel Banquet in Stockholm, he sent Patti Smith, who won the National Book Award in 2010 for Just Kids, to accept it on his behalf.)

Which brings me to a recent paper titled “Labor Market Returns of Being an Artist: Evidence from the United States, 2006-2021” by Christos A. Makridis. Markridis includes all types of artists under that rubric, including musicians. He looks at data related to some 20 million workers, both artists and non-artists, during the time frame in the title.

Markridis includes in his analysis art directors, craft artists, fine artists, special effects artists, actors, producers, directors, dancers, choreographers, musicians, and singers.

Those who have opted for the arts simply make less money than non-artists, generally 15% less, and 30% less when adjusted for demographics. Markridis notes that the “myths of high earnings and fame that attract new entrants”—yes, Taylor Swift and Beyonce and Ed Sheeran and a few others mint it—but those entrants are generally “disappointed when they face reality.”

And part of that reality includes being an Uber driver or a food service worker or something else to generate some income: based on a sample of 341 performing artists in 2021 he notes, “72% of respondents reported their primary income did not come from performing and 53% have a job outside of the music sector entirely.”

While the usual suggestion for young people is that they go to college, Markridis finds “artists with college degrees exhibit an even larger earnings gaps, relative to non-artists, compared with those artists without a college degree.” What’s more he finds that those who have gone beyond a bachelors and obtained a masters degree earn 13% less—and are “no more likely to be employed either unless they have a different (non-fine arts) bachelors degree.” What can help, education-wise? Business training.

Just keeps getting better and better.

Categorically he finds that not only are the earnings of dancers, choreographers, musicians, singers, entertainers, and performers being highly volatile, during 2020 and 2021 employment fell among all of those people with the exception of dancers and choreographers. Art directors, fine artists, actors, producers, and directors actually had a slight bump during this period, which Markridis suggests is a function of (a) the decreased amount of in-person entertainment (remember: this was during the height of the pandemic) and (b) the increase in the amount of streaming content: Netflix, Prime, Disney+ all needed material and most of that material was not musical (there was only so much Lin Manuel Miranda to go around).

Generally, whether it is in sports (the Greeks may have established the Olympics, but there is no Muse for athletics) or music, those who are doing seemingly quite well seem to be the norm when they are, in fact, the exceptions.

Going into the arts is not for the weak of will or heart. Given the precariousness of the undertaking it is surprising that the Muses aren’t invoked by musicians and others on a regular basis—any edge can help.


*Or you could simply be a fan of the Throwing Muses, the band established in 1981 by Kristin Hersh and Tanya Donelly.

**That there is a Muse for history goes to the point that historians might be more “imaginative” than one might, well, imagine.

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