Louisa May Alcott, Jo March, Art, and Money

by Ivonne Spinoza

Only a fool or someone with vast resources should even attempt to make a case about money’s supposed lack of importance because, as Louisa May Alcott put it originally and later Jo March would put it in the 2019 movie, most of us ”cannot afford to starve on praise”. This, however, is not the case. Not even close. 

Every day I encounter plenty of economically-disadvantaged people, and even intellectuals that should know better, who love to wax poetic about the supposed virtue embedded in doing work for any reason other than monetary compensation.

This is a nonsensical mentality for anyone who isn’t super rich or trying to manipulate those less fortunate for their own benefit. Then, how come we, as a society, have decided to play along and even romanticize this idea of art for art’s sake along with the myth of the starving artist?

It’s like we have forgotten how fundamental money is to the development of, well, anything in a capitalist world. There’s a reason equal pay was one of the pillars of the feminist movement and that’s something women artists need to keep in mind, especially, since money and our autonomy have always existed hand in hand.

Many of the great old masters worked basically as painters for hire for the rich of their time, so as amazingly talented and devoted to their craft as they were, they definitely weren’t in it for the love of art alone. This shows that the pervasive, and honestly perverse, myth of the starving artist is not as old as most think, and it definitely hasn’t always been the de facto mentality on this matter.

One of the great triumphs in Greta Gerwig’s Little Women adaptation is that she isn’t shy about the fact that, while Jo might have always loved writing, as an adult, first and foremost, she needs to make money from her writing. The very real money concerns of the March sisters are at the center of the movie and feel like the main theme of this adaptation. This is a major departure from previous adaptations that, while mentioning the war-time hardships of the family, didn’t focus so much on how that shaped Jo (and Amy’s) life choices.

There is no glamorization of an artist’s struggle in Gerwig’s version and that feels like a much needed conversation from my perspective as an artist who lives in the 21st century. Given the fact that Louisa May Alcott wrote and sold her novel responding to market demands (which explains the ending), I think she would agree with my sentiment and with this treatment of her work.

Joyce W. Warren says in Women, Money, and the Law: Nineteenth-Century Fiction, Gender and the Courts, that “implicit in Alcott’s focus on the search of power is the realization that the ability to earn money was in itself a source of power for women”. Alcott herself wrote: “I want to realize my dream of supporting the family and being perfectly independent”. She reveled in the freedom her writing conceded her and this is reflected by her portrayal of Jo March in her most famous work. Neither is a starving artist, which is very important for any artist, but even more so for a female artist. 

This focus on female independence and ability to make financial choices, and even their own money in Jo’s case, is why I think out of all the adaptations Gerwig’s if the most faithful to the true spirit of the work and its author.

Another unconventional creative choice, but probably very faithful to her actual spirit, is the portrayal of Alcott on Apple’s series Dickinson. In her short cameo, we see the author embodied as a practical no-nonsense and all-about-the-money woman, which is probably how Alcott would have been in real life had she not been constrained by the need to keep up appearances according to what was expected from her at the time. We can now say this with some certainty just by analyzing the work she published anonymously.

Alcott’s understanding of the precarious female position when it came to money, and also the material needs of an artist in order to be able to produce work, were perhaps advanced for her days, but as true now as they were back then.

Making art is a complicated pursuit, it’s full of obstacles and tribulations, not only on a societal level, but on a personal level as well, so it is beyond unfair to expect artists to suffer financially on top of it all. 

Art has immense value in our society and even for the capitalist system itself (see the major media conglomerates that own most commercial art and the profits they report), so who exactly is benefiting from continuing to perpetuate the starving artist world view and tired narrative?

If large companies are making billions, and society as a whole is benefiting, why does everyone insist on robbing artists of their fair share? 

Studies show that many artists in fact struggle, and it’s even worse for women artists, but this myth is not an inevitable fact. Quite the contrary. It’s a modern “romantic” construction that needs to be dismantled, and should have been dismantled ages ago.

I vouch for all artists and creatives, but especially for those of my gender because historically economic independence and female autonomy are inseparable. They have always been and probably will always be linked, much like Alcott shows with Jo, Amy, and in her later works (like her novel Work).

At the end of the day one needs money to make art and there is no way around that.

In a capitalist world, this idea of making work for love alone is unsustainable unless you were lucky enough to receive some generous inheritance, and even then, if capital confers value and art is unquestionably valuable, why the disconnect? Art needs to be validated in that way as well.

Gerwig said that her decision to make money so prominent in her adaptation came from re-reading the book at a much older age and realizing that “so much of what the book was about was the kind of underlying economic question of how-because they didn’t have ability to earn money, hold property, vote-women had no way to really make art”.

We can’t possibly know how many great artists we’ve lost to menial but “safer” occupations, and while we need all kinds of people doing all kinds of works for a society to function, we also need art to make our often bleak existence bearable. 

As someone said somewhere on the internet many moons ago: Anyone who doesn’t see value in art and doesn’t think artists should be fairly compensated, should be forced to live his life with zero access to anything any artist has made, and then report back to see if his stance hasn’t changed after his life is devoid of so many things he didn’t acknowledge, but that were most definitely art.

Life doesn’t need art to exist, but is life without beauty even worth living? 

What would you do if you woke up one day and all the movies, tv shows, books, music, buildings, paintings, and even those colorful charts that make your boring work information more digestible were gone? Would you still think artists should just do something else if they really need the money?

Pay for art. Pay artists. And especially, pay female artists.

Ivonne Spinoza is a trilingual Latina writer and illustrator. She’s been a Feminist since her early teens and this fact inevitably tints her work to this day. She believes in the transformative power of art and in sisterhood through lifting other female voices. She sometimes writes for television, and is always jet-setting around, drinking coffee, and spoiling her kitties. You can learn more about her at ivonnespinoza.com and find her everywhere online as @IvonneSpinoza

Ivonne Spinoza Contents Page