What is an Artist?

"If you're an artist, you've got to prove it."

--Laurence Olivier

Obviously, an artist is someone who creates art, just a baker is someone who makes bread, and a plumber is someone who installs and repairs plumbing. These are simply trades and professions; that is, means by which different people make their livings.

Unlike plumbing or baking however, the difficulty lies in defining "art." Art is pretty much whatever anybody says it is, and an artist is similarly anybody who says he is one. This leaves any definition of "artist" and "art" so vague as to be meaningless. Does the act of creation, be it ever so humble or idiosyncratic, suffice to allow one to lift the laurel of "artist" to his brow? Anybody can call himself anything, but the test is whether or not you actually are qualified. A plumber would not dare to call himself a plumber unless he were qualified in the opinion of others to do plumbing, and had experience and credentials to prove it, and actually got paid good money for his work. The same is true of an automobile mechanic, elementary school teacher or newspaper reporter. You can't just call yourself a college professor or medical doctor and expect anyone to take you seriously. You need to have something to back it up. The term "artist," unlike "electrician," or "dog trainer," neither conveys qualification, nor is it specific enough to shed much light on what a person may actually do.

There are classes of activities that often fall under the term "art," such as the lively arts, the performing arts, and the like; thus a dancer could reasonably be called an artist within the context of dance. But if you were to ask a dancer what she does, and she were to reply, "I am an artist," you would not be much the wiser concerning her activities. It would be far more illuminating for her to say, "I am a classical ballerina," or "I am a choreographer."

A person may be exceptionally good at something, so much so that he may be called "a culinary artist," or "a musical artist," or "a con artist." This implies that he transcends the ordinary, and does something creative in his trade, so much so that by the standards of cooks, or con men, he is an "artist." But it would be misleading for that person to say, "I am an artist," when asked what he does for a living. Far better to say "I am a cook," and leave it to others to call you an artist.

My brother is a professional musician. He calls himself a jazz musician, and more specifically, he plays the bass. He is good at it, and this is how he makes his living. Whether or not he is an artist does not seem to concern him much. What does concern him is getting work in his chosen profession, and getting paid for it.

I find it useful, when asked what I do for a living, to say that I am a printer and graphic designer, and leave it up to the questioner to decide whether or not I qualify as an artist. When I started in my trade, graphic designers were called "commercial artists," as distinct from the more revered class of "fine artists." This title seemed crass and meretricious, and in the late 1960s the trade began referring to itself as "graphic artists," which did not, in fact, change what it did, nor that it worked in exchange for money, nor that the client dictated what was to be done and how it was to be done and for how much. Around ten years later, "graphic artists" began calling themselves "graphic designers," perhaps to avoid the confusion between themselves and fine artists altogether.

"Skill without imagination is craftsmanship and gives us many useful objects such as wickerwork picnic baskets. Imagination without skill gives us modern art."

--Tom Stoppard

Part of the problem lies in the area of fine art itself. People respect skill and technique, the more so in areas that they do not fully understand. A painstaking model of a three-masted sailing vessel, perfect in every detail, is something that anyone can appreciate. The person who made the model not only understood ships and rigging, but was exceptionally skilled at careful, detailed woodwork. Whether or not this model ship exemplifies a great creative glorification of mankind's aesthetic strivings, it is still a well made thing. People to some extent evaluate any manifestation of art in these terms: "Gee! I could never do that!"

A sculpture by Michaelangelo is obviously the product of great skill and imagination. A painting by Giotto, or Rembrandt; an engraving by Durer; a composition by Beethoven, Mozart or Bach; all these recommend themselves to even the ignorant audience as at least highly skilled technical undertakings. Not so, unfortunately, with the paintings of Jackson Pollock. Not so with the average Master of Fine Arts exhibition at a university museum. Not so, indeed, with much of the fine or academic artistic offerings of the last century and this. At the common level, many if not most of these exhibitions are greeted by the general public in these terms: "A child of six could do it!"

This modern work may be creative in every sense. It may be that it is a great expression of the human condition. But, to the general observer, it looks like anybody with a little paint and a lot of chutzpah could have done the same.

What has happened is that the "art" part of art--that is the apparent skill and technique resulting from talent and training--has been replaced by the conceptual part. So much so, that the conceptual part has eclipsed and replaced the execution.

"I have nothing to say / and I am saying it / and that is poetry / as I needed it"

--John Cage

I have no quarrel with John Cage's renowned conceptual composition 4'33'', which is played at the piano and is divided into three movements. All of the notes are silent. The composition takes its name from the fact that it requires four minutes and thirty-three seconds to perform. I will admit that John Cage had nothing to say, and said it very well.

"The more minimal the art, the more maximum the explanation."

--Hilton Kramer

I have less patience with the numerous paintings which are all in white, portraying nothing. I am particularly displeased with such vapidity when they are titled "untitled," thus emphasizing their nothingness. Some of these paintings have more texture than others, but all of them display the same level of skill and competence in execution: none. All of these nameless paintings--at least all that I have seen--are accompanied with lengthy expositions on why they are valid and interesting, flying directly in the face of the observed fact that they are neither valid, nor interesting. I am afraid that I do not understand, and am not interested in, Robert Rauschenberg's Erased de Kooning Drawing: an art work that takes the work of another artist and erases it, and then displays the erased drawing as a work of art in itself. This may be a deep and penetrating commentary on the intellectual climate in which these artists find themselves imprisoned, but personally, I don't get it.

"The history of modern art is also the history of the progressive loss of art's audience. Art has increasingly become the concern of the artist and the bafflement of the public."

--Henry Geldzhaler

Rauschenberg's, and similar, extreme expressions of conceptual art leave me cold, and near as I can tell, also do not interest many, many millions of others. When I see, presented in the name of art, a pile of rocks; or wads of crumpled newspaper encased in chicken wire and spray painted gold; or a load of garden dirt emptied out onto a polished floor, my reaction is simple: if this is art, I don't want to have anything to do with it. I don't want to be called an artist or be associated with this gaggle of over-educated, incompetent, tiresome men and women who have nothing to say and, worse yet, say it very badly.

"It reflects no great honor on a painter to be able to execute only one thing well -- such as a head, an academy figure, or draperies, animals, landscapes, or the like -- in other words, confining himself to some particular object of study. This is so because there is scarcely a person so devoid of genius as to fail of success if he applies himself earnestly to one branch of study and practices it continually."

--Leonardo da Vinci

I am a competent technician. I give value for value. I am an honest workman, and I do not want people to think that I am a con-man, running a scam, cheating the king out of his money under the pretense of making for him a suit of clothes that only the virtuous can perceive.

Therefore I do not call myself an artist. I create flat, representational objects---books, illustrations, posters, stained glass windows, greeting cards, wedding invitations, wine labels--in return for money. I'm glad that people like what I do, because that means that I can go on doing it. I like what I do, and consider it a privilege to be able to make my living doing it. But, I am not, at least in twenty-first century terms, an artist. I'll leave that to those who have no idea at all of what they do, or who they are, or where they are going, and must, for want of any other word, call themselves artists.

"If something is boring after two minutes, try it for four. If still boring, then eight. Then sixteen. Then thirty-two. Eventually one discovers that it is not boring at all."

--John Cage.

Sorry, I don't have the time.

David Lance Goines,

July 31, 20032

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