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Alexandra Franzen gets people thinking. If you’re not yet familiar with her blog, Unicorns for Socialism, you need to go there and get caught up with what’s what. She’s a young entrepreneur who has made copywriting an art form. Even a quick peruse through her archives lights the mind on fire with metaphors, clever neologisms and brightly-coloured prose.
It was she in this blog post, Are You An Artist or What? who first got me thinking about what exactly that word means.
I wrote a super long, ranty comment on the post, but after reading it over, I decided that it’d be interesting to turn it into a blog post so I could further develop the idea.
Summary of The Original Post
Read this next bit or you’ll have no idea what I’m referring to as we move on.
Don’t worry, this summary is a fair representation of her original statements and sentiments- I haven’t butchered it to prove a point or anything like that.
The word Artist is LOADED … with symbols, expectations, romanticism, allowances.
“Oh forgive him, he’s an Artist.”
I hear Artist. I think: Nabakov (lurid. twisted. synthesthetic. he could SMELL colors, for fuck’s sake.)
I think: Picasso (cubism. uh-huh. say no more.) I think: Isadora Duncan (she metamorphosized the world of modern dance, then died in a tragic scarf accident.) I think: Keats, Yeats, Wilde, Beckett (my quartet of Celtic bards.) I think: Maya frickin’ Angelou. I think: Alexander McQueen.
I don’t think: Me.
At least, not until recently.
That’s a lie. Not until never. …
Lately, my inner mentors (that’s what I call the voices in my head, by the way) have been asking me,“are you an Artist, or what?”
And I get squeamish and feeble and weepy and look down at my toes.
‘Cause … I wanna be. Can I be? Please?
I don’t feel like an Artist … or at least, what I think an Artist should feel like….
Some furrow of my brain has decided that the title of Artist is something I have to earn — no, further, it has to be bestowed upon me, like being knighted. I can’t claim it for myself. That would be too … blustery.
I think this is the exact line of thought that a lot of young artist go through before they feel comfortable truly calling themselves artists. Or at the very least, this line of reasoning resonated powerfully with me, because it is the same thing I used to tell myself.
Response- a.k.a. If Not Now, Then When?
1) The line- “the word artist is loaded” is a factual observation about our culture’s use of the word. The normative claim I’m going to make about this is that the imprecision of the word actually an empowering idea.
There are a great many things that are and aren’t artists, and is and isn’t art. So, if you feel that you can properly justify your declaration of artisthood, you’re probably on your way. And if you genuinely feel as though you can’t justify your artisthood, that being an artist means something more structured, exclusive and rigid in a way that excludes you from being able to participate, well…if you feel your reasoning is airtight, then there’s no more room for growth there.
2) All the artists mentioned (Nabakov, Picasso, isadora Duncan, Keats, Yeats, Wilde, Beckett, Maya Angelou, Alexander McQueen) are famous artists.
We do this a lot. Famous artists are the only ones of reference. Part of this comes down to practicality in communication. You refer to the public figure that the most number of people are most likely to know. However, internal references don’t need to be publicly visible. You see, before they were famous, these people were still writing, and dancing and drawing and designing. If being able to consider oneself an artist is based on how many positive reactions the work is getting, then we’re completely externalising the experience and the purpose of the art.
People don’t become brilliant at their craft by aiming to be famous, they do so by finding something they love and working really, really hard at it until other’s start to notice. But if nothing is considered good until people notice, this defeats the intention of getting good at it in the first place.
This is my original comment on the post:
I think we need to make a distinction between “art” and “fine art”. The famous artists that you’ve described are more fine artists in the sense that they’re creating art for the aesthetic value of the work as opposed to something that is incidentally aesthetically pleasing and is therefore art, but not necessarily created by an Artist with creative intentions as such.
There can be an “art to” something without it being an art.
As well, something can be a “craft” without the end result being an art.
My blog post aren’t art pieces, but the collective of my thoughts and efforts is a masterpiece onto itself and the stories being crafted and shared are very much works of art.
As you can see, this definition means a lot more things are art than museum curators and Pulitzer judging crew would like to admit.
I think the hesitation to call oneself an artist, besides the attitude of self-preservative exclusivity created by the industry of fine art, comes from certain ideas about quality of work, and breadth of audience:
An “artist” has X amount of skill and X amount of experience and X number of eyes on them, loving what they do. The problem with this is that if an artist has to have at least 1,000,000X, are they magically stripped of their claim to peerage at 999,999x? At X – 3 months of experience, are you not skilled enough to call yourself an artist? Structurally, this kind of justification re: what it means to be an artist is wrought with flawed premises and general non sequitur.
The hoops have been placed at arbitrary locations through superfluous criteria. Unlike British peerage, there’s no qualification to titular artistry other than ones own inner aesthetic and desire to create.
What I saw when I read the blog post was something along the lines of “Artists are the only one who make art.” But I think what’s much more empowering and accurate is to say “The ones who make art are called artists.” The difference in wording is subtle but key.
Artistry is a subjective state of being, much like gender and the overwhelming majority of social identities. Unlike cliques though, there’s no us vs. them i.e. making art is a we kind of thing. As a part of speech, it is a noun, describing one who makes art, not a level of proficiency to be achieved that excludes everybody but the notorious.
So, I think that if there’s a certain checklist of things you have to be in order to consider yourself an artist, you might as well throw them out the window. The list is broad and not really meaningful. An artist doesn’t make art because they’re an artist. They make art, therefore, they are an artist. If you see your work as an aesthetic pursuit with an intrinsic creative value, why not just skip the formalities and associate with whatever aspect of your identity that you find empowering?
The other really important aspect about why people wait until others see it in them before they feel comfortable using the word, is that externalizing your identity allows you to forfeit a little bit of responsibility for who you are. It means that you don’t have to step your game up until the pressure’s on. It’s better, it seems, to disappoint yourself as opposed to disappointing those whose opinions matter to you. Odd, isn’t it?
I think the journey to legitimizing your own self-worth is a long and many-faceted one. This is why it’s so important to do it little by little, allowing yourself to make baby steps into your full identity. And you must begin today. You’ll be at it for a while- pace yourself.
So there you go: if you want to know whether or not you’re an artist, you are as much an artist as you decide to be.
Have a great day!