I once thought the case of the genuine artist who did nothing except for what maximum amount they could extract from their work was a fairly modern thing. Hollywood seems to have a lock on the model these days, and perhaps always has. There are any number of high-profile creative types around who, in another era or had their brains not fused to their wallets, might be doing lesser-paying but infinitely more rewarding work.
But even that “in another era” gets slippery, I find. I am reading Norman Rockwell's autobiography, the 1988 update of the 1960 original My Adventures as an Illustrator. All I will say in the manner of a review is that Rockwell appears to be every admirable thing you'd imagine of him, while managing to be more interesting and complex than most might have ever guessed. Recommended reading.
There is a long passage that talks about his admiration for the noted illustrator J.C. Leyendecker, who dominated commercial illustration in the early part of the 20th century. He was sufficiently older than Rockwell for art-student Norman to have admired his work and aspired to someday be on the same level (which, arguably, he surpassed). By a series of quirks, the men met after Rockwell was established but still rising, and remained friends for some 25 years.
Although Rockwell's admiration for Leyendecker shines through, years after the older man's death, he spares no feelings in describing his predecessor's work ethic:
But he was [...] living splendidly—the mansion, servants, an automobile. Joe believed that an artist should live just a little bit beyond his means so that there would always be a challenge. “Buy more than you can afford,” he used to say, “and you’ll never stop working or fret so over a picture that it never gets done. If every day you have to save yourself from ruin, every day you’ll work. And work hard.” But this is a bad credo for an artist to have. If he adheres to it, his work suffers, for finishing the picture, rather than the picture itself, becomes the primary consideration. And he takes on too much work, not more than he can do but more than he can do well. Joe took on advertising jobs—a lot of them, all he could get. And magazine covers. And illustrations. And posters. As a result, when someone offered him a job which was badly paid but artistically challenging, something which would raise his stature as an artist, he had to refuse it. He was asked to do the ceilings in the New York Public Library once. But he turned it down. Too busy. Couldn’t let up on his commercial jobs; he needed the money. (p.167)
Boggle. Here's an artist as acclaimed as any in his day or in the history of his field, and he deliberately set himself up to be a whore, whipping out his brush only when paid enough to do so... and self-bound to whipping it out for a check whether he wanted to or not. Leyendecker was successful enough that he could have lived well while calling his own artistic shots, but he chose to deliberately exceed his financial limits to force himself to grind out commercial work to support that cycle. Instead of accepting the commission to paint the NYCPL ceiling, a job that would reward millions over the years and enshrine his name in common art history, he turned out now-forgotten advertising and book illustrations.
Why would anyone with talent, even the most minor talent, choose to prostitute it only to foster the life of a whore? Furthermore, why would anyone choose to live the life of a whore, doing hated work or working far beyond needed limits, just to support the life of a crap junkie?
I find it whorrifying. And can only strengthen my resolve to break the back of a cycle that convinces people that whoring themselves in job and career paths only taken and sustained to support endless see-want-buy is normal and desirable. Or even reasonable. “Twenty bucks, same as in town,” folks.