What Is An Artist?

For people who work 9 to 5 jobs, the idea that they could be an artist is alien. In many respects, there’s no room for art in work, but…

image of hands forming a clay pot for article titled “what is an artist” by Larry G. Maguire

Photo by SwapnIl Dwivedi on Unsplash

For people who work 9 to 5 jobs, the idea that they could be an artist is alien. In many respects, there’s no room for art in work, but this concept is flawed and it needs to die.

What is an artist? What is art? How are these things defined and who exactly gets to set the definition? Is everyone an artist like Picasso said or is creative genius reserved for those fortunate enough to be blessed with talent at birth as the ancient Greeks and Romans believed?

Perhaps the answer is not so clear or easy to define. Some ideas of what constitutes art, and as a consequence the artist, are narrow and elitist. Other ideas, such as defined in The Artist’s Manifesto, are open and all-inclusive, suggesting that everyone is an artist albeit perhaps many don’t believe it of themselves.

The concept of art has changed over the centuries and not everyone will agree on its definition, so perhaps a good place to start is the origins of the term and what it originally meant.

The use of term artist dates back to the 13th century and is derived from the French word artiste, the Italian word artista, and from the Latin ars.

Initially used to refer to someone who exercised their skills in the areas of the arts such as history, poetry, comedy, tragedy, music, dancing, and astronomy, it later in the 15th century came to apply to those who were skilled in any of the visual arts or craftsmanship.

Image of example of 13th Century art

13th Century Art courtesy of Gold Star Studios

In scholarly endeavours, the term, Bachelor of Arts was used to describe one who excelled at “human workmanship”, or systems of rules and traditions for performing specific actions in fields such as the sciences or liberal arts. The term is still employed today although many college graduates may not see themselves as artists unless, of course, they have studied in areas of the creative arts such as writing, music or performance.

In contemporary culture, creativity in domains of the arts, science and crafts still possess somewhat of a mystical quality.

From the earliest studies of humanity and the nature of the universe, there was never much doubt regarding the existence and influence of supernatural forces in the production of art. Most religions refer to the creation of the world as the work of one or more divine beings, and the degree of influence religious ideology has had on conventional thinking on creativity has been significant.

Greek mythology spoke of the Muses, nine daughters of Zeus and Mnemosyne named, Calliope, Clio, Erato, Euterpe, Melpomene, Polyhymnia, Thalia, Terpsichore, and Urania. Each of the Muses was believed to be the guiding spirit and source of creative inspiration to artists, philosophers and scientists of the time.

Despite the considerable interval since the days of Plato’s ancient Greece, the term muse survives. Today, when I suggest that “I have lost my muse”, I refer to my lack of creative inspiration, my control and influence over it, and perhaps its ultimate indeterminate nature.

The ancient Romans too had their links between the divine and artistic expression through the term genius. The term initially stood for the noble spirit who guided a person through life and afforded them distinct individuality. Later, during the Renaissance period in Europe, the word became a reference to someone with supernatural gifts, intelligence or talent.

In the last one hundred or so years or so, however, with the development of empirical scientific methods of investigation, the idea of the artist’s otherworldly source of inspiration has all but been removed.

“Art is anything you can get away with” — Andy Warhol

These days, there exists the widespread notion that creativity, and the artist by association, is something as banal as a binary system. To some investigators, our creative expertise is no longer mysterious. It is merely the result of practice and repetition, resembling that which is programmed into a machine.

Psychologists such as Anders Ericsson mostly believe that your creative exploits are no more than the results of dedication to your craft, of something he calls deliberate practice. With sufficient practice, anyone can develop the skills required to become an expert.

Maybe this is so, but taken on its own it seems too mechanical, too reductionist to be accurate. If it was solely the means by which you and I may become an expert, how then would any domain of work ever develop something previously undiscovered?

How would we ever create beauty in anything if the product of our creative pursuits were merely the outcome of a binary input/output process?

The reductionist ideas of the scientific method prominent in conventional thought have attempted to sterilise art. We have reduced the wonder and marvel of art to a stale and soulless process of a dumb and random universe.

Perhaps in this, we’ve gone too far.

Today, when we refer to art and those who practice it, we are generally referring to someone we consider creative, someone who makes original bespoke things, writes, paints, draws or performs in some way. We see the independent craftsperson as an artist. We rarely if ever see the work of accountants, engineers, and service workers for example, the normal everyday work of ordinary people, as art.

We believe artists are slightly off centre, that they live somewhat of a bohemian lifestyle, maybe a little crazy or challenged socially in some way. And this view is true in some ways, but only in that artists stand out from the norm. We admire them, but only if they become commercially successful. If they are not, then we don’t wish to emulate their apparently less than successful lives. It’s better for us to remain inside the fold of normality.

A predominant view is that artists are not wealthy, and can never be. In large part, we see them as poor, scraping by on the fringes. Perhaps they are a little bit scatty, disorganised and undependable. We inherit these cultural ideas and apply them unquestionably. But in all of these stereotypes, we never really get to the hub of what it means to be an artist.

In truth, the term artist is really quite broad and can include people from all walks of life, engaged in all areas of expertise, within all personality types and may or may not be doing their work for a living. In many respects, our concept of what an artist is dictated by how we pursue our careers.

There are many stereotypes we use to group ourselves and other creative people. Holding ourselves and others to a stereotype is fine, as long as we accept that stereotypical views are not necessarily correct and may inhibit us.

As far as The Artist’s Manifesto is concerned, an artist is whatever you decide it is. It’s an open book. It’s good to remember, however, that putting art in a box with a label limits our creative expression and slows our development.

Ideas are powerful, they encourage thought and behaviour in you and me, and if these thoughts of who we are don’t support and promote, then they restrict. We’ve got to create the work for the sake of creating the work, let it flow, and allow it to be whatever it will be.

In the process, we should be who we need to at the moment, then when we are done, let it go.

We have seen how society has adopted stereotypical views of what art is, and of what it means to be an artist. Historical pretence, and stereotypical portrayals in our favourite movies, novels and TV have all played a role in forming our popular opinion of what constitutes as an artist.

The creation of art is otherworldly and impossible for us mere ordinary people to produce, let alone build a well-paying career around it.

In many respects, we assume that there is no room for art in our work. Our work is transactional, formulaic; we do as they tell us.

You may be a graphic designer, a painter, a plumber, an accountant or a basket weaver and within the boundaries of your profession make useful everyday things.

You make stuff, and people pay you for it, but on the whole, you feel there’s nothing remarkable about what you do.

You see your work as functional with no room for such whimsical notions as art.

Therefore work has become a means to an end.

“I want them to discover that they are artists; everyone is an artist, a creator, and a refiner of sensibility without knowing it” -Yves Klein

Professionalism in the arts is reserved for the elites, people exceptional enough to “make it”. Utility for the rest of us is the name of the game, and if what we make cannot be utilised, then we risk becoming useless members of society.

So we play it safe, and we make a choice; if we are to pursue this creative endeavour we love, then we better take it up a pastime, as an amateur. Because to work in this field professionally is the stuff of idle dreams.

It seems to be set in stone then; in the humdrum of ordinary life, our work can never be remarkable or reflect anything close to something called art. Bringing art to our work is not an option.

So I call bullshit on this idea.

It’s a lazy conditioned mind that accepts this notion, a mind satisfied in its dissatisfaction. We are capable of experiencing so much more if we are only brave enough to graciously present the middle finger to these established ideas and take a chance on ourselves.

Art is giving a shit about the work we do, to such a degree that we become completely immersed in the doing of the thing solely for the sake of, and the gratification we obtain from it. Blinkers on, yet aware of everything — one with the work.

Distractions, self-consciousness and the need to have results turn out a particular way are all removed.

This is what art is, and this is what an artist does.