What is an Artist?

People have wondered when they can call themselves an artist, singer, dancer, writer, or whatever. At what point can you say you have finally arrived, and call yourself an artist? There are different answers to this question, and they depend on how you define an artist. Here are several responses with my comments on each. Feel free to add to the conversation in the comments box below.

1. “If you can quit your art and move on to something else, then you are not an artist.”
This makes sense if you think being an artist is based on what a person is and not what a person does. If you do a lot of art projects, then you might be an artist. If you don’t do any art projects, then is that person an artist? Surely what we do matters, not what we think. Does time really matter? If you do art for only a year, are you not an artist for a year?

2. “If you are very creative, then you can call yourself an artist.”
This makes sense if you have a romantic notion of being an artist. (This is a kind way of saying that you are clueless about how an artist actually creates.) In practice, though, an artist absorbs ideas from many sources and often adds his or her own small spin to the work. There’s no such thing about being entirely original; it’s all been done before, but given a different spin. Inspiration feeds on inspiration. It’s not all about feelings; mental work and many attempts often precede the work. Read my “process” blog posts to get an idea of that.

3. “If you work for money, then you are not a real artist.”
This makes sense if you have romantic notions of being an artist. Artistic merit does not depend on money flow, does it? The amount of payment does not make one an artist, only a well-paid artist or not, but one is still an artist in either case. To look at it another way, if you do a work for no pay, but do the same work for pay, suddenly you are no longer an artist — even though you created the same work both times? You decide if money flow defines artistry. It’s perfectly acceptable to use your skills and get paid for it.

4. “If you have to work hard at your artistic pieces (if it doesn’t come easily), then you are not an artist.”
This comes from the idea that those who are “gifted” are true artists while the rest of us are wannabe’s. My take on giftedness: Some people have sharper auditory senses in music and can quickly mimic a tune on the keyboard, while many of us need lessons to read and play music. Others have greater abstract intellectual development which is great for philosophy, coding and math. Others are gifted physically so they can run or climb or swim more efficiently. Some have the ability to memorize pages of chapters or numbers with little training. Even so, some minds are tuned to graphic design patterns and can more quickly put things together in an eye-pleasing way while the rest of us need to learn the basics of design patterns over time. If both latter groups of people can produce eye-pleasing work, then why can’t both be artists? One will be the “gifted artist” and the other will be the “artist.” But both are still artists.

5. “If all you have to show are practice pieces, then you are not an artist.”
An artist wants to create, but an artist also needs to learn. Practice and warmups are part of an artist’s work. But I think an artist makes finished or nearly finished works, even if they are never shown to anyone. If all you have to show for years of effort is a pile of exercise sheets with practice letters and sentences, I’m sure of one thing: you might be an artist, you’ll be hard pressed to call yourself one with any conviction.

6. “You are not a real artist if you only work at it on weekends.”
How many hours do you have to create in a week to call yourself an artist? 4 hours? 8 hours; 40 hours? Is time really a factor? If I can create art pieces only some nights after work and part of a weekend, am I less of an artist than the one who creates eight hours a day? I work at my calligraphy sporadically and call myself a calligraphy enthusiast. I am skillful enough to do nice work, but I am not as skillful, knowledgeable, or as experienced as those who do this for a living. I’m okay with that.

7. “You are not very knowledgeable, so you’re not an artist yet.”
Do you have to know the complete history of your art form to be an artist? Do you have to know all about the tools of the trade call yourself an artist? Do you have to be able to rattle off the famous names of artists in your field? Do you have to have X number of calligraphy hands at your beck and call to award yourself the moniker of artist? I am grateful for the incredibly knowledgeable artists we have have who love to share their knowledge of the craft. I am wowed by those with intimate understanding of paper, inks, paint, techniques, history, and so on that I do not possess. If this is an important metric for defining yourself, then you are a very knowledgeable artist, a student artist, or whatever. How much knowledge of the tools and history does not define us — it just makes us appreciate the depth of our craft the more.

8. “You are not as good as [name of artist], so you are not a real artist.”
Comparing ourselves to others is never a good idea. Artists run the gamut of skill levels. Whether we are a skilled artist or a student artist,we are still artists.

People have wondered whether they were real artists because they could not sell their work, or have a gallery showing, or their work doesn’t appear in a book or magazine, or didn’t get X amount of likes in social media. These artists feel insecure and plagued with feelings of inferiority. They need an identity. They are looking in the wrong places for acknowledgement, unfortunately. I grew up with feelings of inferiority, so I’m no stranger to this thinking. Each person has to decide whether acknowledgement comes from within or from elusive bits of gratification from the pubic, of which building up your identity is low on their list of concerns. Is it wise to let strangers’ opinions of you define you? I saw the folly of this and decided no.

Who cares whether we are “real” artists? Artists don’t really care what anyone else thinks of their identity. We just create because we want to. And if we don’t make any money off of it, we get a job to pay the bills, and create on our own time.

About Steve Husting

Steve Husting is a mild webmaster by day and fearless writer by night. He is deaf, loves making calligraphy, hiking, terrific movies, and making the Bible's message clear to his readers. His devotionals are regularly published in Daily Devotionals for the Deaf, and his latest apps are sold in the iTunes App Store. His self-published Christian and calligraphy books are on lulu.com/spotlight/stevehusting
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