How Do You Define an Artist?

Here in Washington, D.C., we are all swept up in amazement and wonder with the Redskins’ rookie quarterback, Robert Griffin III. He is as flawless off the field as he is on. It becomes difficult after a while for writers to find new ways to describe how amazing he is, but in yesterday’s Washington Post, Thomas Boswell found a way with his column, “Robert Griffin III: A breathtaking artist who makes fans hold their breath.”

We know that many great athletes are also great artists. We don’t like to talk about it, because every darn thing doesn’t have to be analyzed to death. Sport-as-art is a secret that we fans keep so the wrong people, the ones who can make “serious” art a misery with their pretension, can’t mess up our fun.

I found that opening for a sports column to be fun. I’ve been obsessed with sports my entire life–on my daily commute I listen to sports-talk radio and I TiVo ESPN’s “Pardon the Interruption“–but I hadn’t thought about great athletes as artists before. Perhaps I should have. I’ve spent much of my professional career pondering the question of what makes an artist.

I didn’t name this blog “The Writer’s Road,” although creatively I am, first and foremost, a writer. And when I drove across the U.S. interviewing artists, I defined the term broadly, meeting with painters and photographers and film directors and musicians and sound engineers and songwriters and oral storytellers and actors and, yes, writers and editors.

I will confess, however, that I found the word “artist” limiting at times. Some simply associate that word with, say, painters or photographers; that would more accurately be termed a visual artist. And I have learned that some songwriters don’t like to be called artists. In their world, an artist is the performing artist who records their songs; often the songwriter is not a performer, and may even feel disdain at being lumped with performing artists. After all, only they could have written that song, but any number of artists can perform it.

For a long time I used the word creatives. It’s used by some creativity experts including, if my memory serves me, author Eric Maisel (from whom I blatantly stole the phrase “art-committed life”). In fact, I used that term as recently as October. But while creatives captures the essence of an artist–creativity–it is not a word in common parlance. In a writing workshop last year, many of my fellow MFA students found themselves hung up on my use of the word in the piece I had submitted. Our workshop rules are that you cannot speak while being workshopped–you must wait until the end–so I had to listen to a lengthy debate over what exactly a creative is. When it was time for me to speak, I couldn’t fully define it.

And perhaps I don’t need to. If you are living a creative life–and if you’re reading this blog, I suspect you are or long to–then you should by all means feel free to choose to apply the term “artist” to yourself. I ask of you, however, to not affix “aspiring” as an adjective. I hear from many writers by Twitter and email who thank me for writing this blog, and they sometimes will call themselves an “aspiring” writer. No, I reply, you are not an “aspiring” writer. If you are writing, you are a writer. You may be aspiring to be published, if you’re not already, or be aspiring to improve (aren’t we all aspiring to that), but don’t limit your self-identity with limiting adjectives.

What are the limits to the definition of an artist? Can a talented politician be an artist? A skilled window installer? An experienced auto mechanic? And does it really matter how we define the word?

About Patrick Ross

I'm the author of Committed: A Memoir of the Artist's Road.

14 Responses to “How Do You Define an Artist?”

  1. You pose some great questions. Sometimes people don’t think of themselves as “artists” until they have some type of recognition–publication, an award, an exhibit, etc. But if you are creating, I think you should be able to call yourself whatever you want and not worry about definitions.

    I run, and in the running community there’s a similar conversation about what it means to be a “runner.” Do you have to run at a certain speed to be a “runner”? A certain distance? A certain number of times a week? I had a dear friend say to me “You are a runner” when I once told him that I only jog on occasion. His words meant a lot to me and helped me take my commitment to exercise to the next level.

    I enjoy sports, too. Part of me feels like it gives me a “break” from the creative world. But the more I think about it, the more I agree that a good football game, basketball game, whatever, is truly artful, like a ballet. RGIII (and others like him) have to make any number of creative decisions during a game.

    • Your mention of runners, Rachael, opens another door in this conversation, the notion of groups choosing to include or exclude “membership” in a label. Thomas Boswell, in his column, seems to deride people who claim to define who an artist is (i.e., they don’t recognize it in artists). You took pride in being called a runner, but it sounds like that means you think of runners as an elite group that have some standards of inclusion (distance, frequency) that you perceived yourself falling short of. Would some serious runners not consider you one as an occasional jogger? Probably. Should that matter to you? Probably not, but your dear friend’s endorsement suggests it would a bit. I suspect we’re the same way about the label artist. We’d like to call ourselves that, are thrilled when others do, but wonder if we meet that standard, i.e., an award or exhibit. Great comment.

      • Absolutely! It is all about those societal standards that exist for certain groups. As individuals when we let go of those standards, that’s when we find success and satisfaction.

  2. Once in an acting class, my teacher, Susan Batson, gave an excellent definition of “what art is.” Susan said, “It becomes art when the artist (Yes, auto mechanics count here) marshals the intention to employ his or her craft to create an artifact that slightly alters the way the viewer experiences the world.” I can work with this definition.

    Over my years of roaming the globe, I’ve known loads of creative people, many of whom would be considered “successful artist” by any measure. The more successful they are, the less they reference themselves as artists. Instead, they often say, “My work is going well, thank you for asking.”

    Could it be we are spending more time than necessary defining ourselves? I know identity is important, essential even. I’m a poet, but do I have to keep saying it all the time? I think not. Even so, I do like the idea of “Free Lance Life Artist.” It has a bit of a ring, don’t you think?

    • I love that definition, slightly altering the way the viewer experiences the world. I like it because alteration from the norm is what separates, say, a photograph I might take on vacation from an artist’s photograph that plays with light and framing. I also like “experiences,” as it suggests engagement and interaction by the one perceiving the art.

      I know what you mean about “successful” artists. A few of the artists I interviewed were economically successful as a result of their art by any standard imaginable. They saw their art as a product of work for compensation. But, on some level, they saw themselves as producing art. I wonder, if pressed, the ones you’ve met would have owned the label, even if they weren’t volunteering it.

      We probably label ourselves too much–our society is so full of division, and self-labeling encourages that–but it can be helpful as well. Rachael (above) felt inspired when called a runner.

      I like “Free Lance Life Artist,” James. But of course you do so much more in the space that is creativity than just poetry, so calling you a poet is, in some ways, fairly limiting. Your self-created label allows for far more inclusion.

  3. “Artist” has weird connotations in different parts of the world. In Eastern Europe (where I come from) it usually denotes a bohemian with pretensions of creative genius (like a drunk who recites famous poems in a bar with no audience). And yes, mostly the word “artist” is linked to plastic arts (such as painting, sculpture and architecture), but I feel in the English speaking countries it’s often use freely (and righteously) for anyone who is truly dedicated to something and performs exceptionally therein.

    I share your aversion to “aspiring”. It always sounds like they’re just pretending, trying it on for size but not yet really committing, and that’s definitely the wrong impression to give—although it’s often the case. :)

    • Wow, Vero, love that insight from Eastern Europe! I know that type, and few would want to be associated with that!

      Well, you tell a hard truth about the notion of people trying it on for size. The folks who are proactively reaching out to me–reading the blog, wishing to connect–by my definition aren’t just trying it on. They may not keep it on–the art-committed life is a twisting back-country road, and most choose to stay on the flat, wide interstate–but they’re sincere in intent.

      But I’m sure you have at times told someone you’re a writer, and they pontificate about that Great American Novel they’ve got in their head that they will someday write and amaze the world with, once they have time to put aside all of the other amazing things they are doing that, by implication, are more important than what you’re doing. Let’s call them pretenders! :)

  4. User beware: if we call ourselves artists, we will be expected, and rightly so, to live up to the name. It will soon become apparent if we’ve oversold ourselves, if we’ve overblown our own PR. It`s potentially embarrassing. At the same time, I can imagine how adopting the term ‘artist” might provoke actual artistry in oneself. I dared to call myself a “writer” when I had barely begun, and it worked. Through much practice saying it, I came to believe it–that was the key. It was in the way I said it. I could look the other person in the eye and say, “I’m a writer,” such that I saw in their eye that they believed it. Having their trust in me, I no longer had to spend energy faking it. I could perform like an artist. (Hey, it`s complicated!)

    • You know, PJ, on your first point, you can embrace the label without proactively promoting it. In my professional life, I’m known as a writer. But I rarely tell people I am a creative writer. I’m not embarrassed, I just don’t think it’s relevant to them and I don’t need to “live up to the name” with them. So we can exercise some discretion.

      It sounds like in your case you created a situation in which you needed to be accountable to yourself. You didn’t want to fail yourself, so you succeeded. That’s not always a sure-fire path to success–I’ve failed as many diets as I’ve started–but it worked for you, which is great.

  5. Patrick – what an excellent post! I was writing poems long before I started to call myself a poet. I had to consciously acknowledge and accept my role as an artist in the world. As you know, it is not an easy road. We artists must strive to infuse beauty and truth in all that we do. Which means digging deep within our psyches–past fear, hurt, and disappointment–and bringing what we find there to the page, canvas, piano, kitchen, clay, gridiron, spreadsheet, etc. Although, I definitely feel the work of window installer, auto mechanic, or football player (think Jerry Rice) can rise to the level of art, the individual has self-identify as an artist.

    • “We artists must strive to infuse beauty and truth in all that we do.” That’s beautiful, true, and more than a bit scary. Because it involves deep digging into our psyches–I have a blog post about sharing Oprah-style that discusses how I’ve forced myself to learn to do that–but also suggests a great level of responsibility to others. Artists can’t be, in that sense, selfish, perhaps, because if it isn’t shared with others, it can’t objectively be called art. Now I want to go down an entirely different path, the question of how much an artist produces for their own satisfaction and need, and how much they do it for the “audience,” and does it matter to the audience the degree to which they were considered. Thanks for your thought-provoking comment!

  6. “Artist” has become such a loaded word. I, too, have trouble with it. I was reading on another blog (the blogger is a painter/writer) about a gallery exhibition, wherein a janitor’s mop was featured as a work (or implement of) of art. To me, that sort of summed it up. I imagined the janitor using the mop. Working at a paricular stubborn corner of floor for an hour, finally walking away pleased … with a final look back on the entire hallway he (or she) had mopped. Maybe intent has something to do with art? Maybe craftsmanship? Maybe the combination of both? I think it requires care. Brings to mind a Japanese tea ceremony. I’ve seen this care working with kids … the care with which they approach drawing or even baking. You’ve asked one of the questions of the ages, my friend. I’m not sure if there’s an answer.

  7. I’m going out on a limb: the true “artist” is one whose work — whatever it is, even mopping the floor, yes! — is in some way transcendent. And by that I mean the creating or the appreciating has moved the creater or appreciator beyond their small self. Art is a wider window onto reality than the one through which we view our day to day life. Life! It’s all about the possibility– with great effort — of transcending our oh-so-functional belief systems. We may think of someone like Van Gogh as a great aritst, but it’s possible that his brush was his mop… that he, like the janitor, was not unlike the monk perceiving the world in a grain of sand.

  8. I love your comment, pjreece!

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