What Makes an Artist?

So what’s the difference between doing art and being an artist?

I’d love that to be sophisticated rhetoric that will lead in to some clever discourse on the finer points of defining oneself within the often surreal world of the arts, culminating in my well-rounded stance on the matter – but no, I’m genuinely asking. I don’t have any hard-and-fast rules to lay down; I will however make some attempt to tease apart the two ideas and give you my two cents on the topic, as well as giving you some insight in to my journey so far as rediscovering my creativity.

An artist, perhaps, is as simply as I can put it (and yet still horribly complex) somebody who says so. They may not be a very good artist, or one who makes a lot of money, or even one that practices as often as they could; but how can we take away their pedestal without invoking our own subjective terms, and so enabling theirs?

Perhaps a better question, though, would be what is art? The definition of art seems to have dwindled and morphed so much over the centuries, from once having connotations of grandeur, status, and skill, to now being so subjective that simply calling something art seems to make it art. Perhaps we can blame the age of humanism we are in, where the Individual’s word has replaced that of god, and if he is to say “to me, this is art” then we haven’t a leg to stand on. Beauty is in the eye of the beholder, apparently.

I never really considered myself an artist until recently (in the last year at the very most, maybe sometime within the past 6 months would be more accurate). So what’s happened in this time that’s changed my perspective? Well, for a start I got back in to actually making art regularly. It has to be more than that though; I’ve had periods in the past where I’ve been making just as much, or more, like when I was studying for my HNC – so what else is different? Well, I’ve managed to sell some paintings, which has probably led to me feeling like ‘more of an artist’ in some professional sense (I finally have an answer for all those cynical ‘have you ever even sold a painting’ types) but that’s not the whole story either.

The reason I make art has changed as well, in several ways. Firstly, the actual process of making my paintings has an entire scope of its own. The creative process can be so cathartic, therapeutic even, that sometimes I go through the whole process just to wipe the paint away at the end – because the end result just isn’t always the point. I’ve found a process of making that I can get completely absorbed in, and that gets me in to that flow state (similar to when you’re in the zone with your favourite sport, or feeling the heat in the kitchen cooking an amazing meal, or meditating – you probably know it from somewhere). I’ve also come to acknowledge my creative side as an integral and necessary part of me, and a part of my life.

More so than any of these things though, what I feel has tipped me over that threshold into considering myself an artist is my style. I’ve finally found a way of making art that resonates with me. My view of art and artists has opened up in many ways over the past year, largely due to me having happened back in to the life of a girl I met a good few years ago now – an artist herself. Over the past year I spent a good deal of time around her studio as she worked on her final year project at the Glasgow School of Art. Between her writing her dissertation and creating, then installing, her degree show project I was given an immersive glimpse in to the work, and world, of an artist. Her ideas enthused me as she opened me up to a whole new world of seeing things, and interestingly gave me vocabulary to express many of the notions I had always felt about the world. Her research in to movements such as the Situationist International, the work and theories of the likes of Guy Debord and Harry Bell, and her own intriguing work transformed the world around me. She still inspires me constantly.

Being around not just her, but seeing all sorts of people, and all sorts of art, really did show me that art is absolutely nothing – in as much that it can be absolutely everything. From shamanic-theatrical type performance, to a load of carrier bags tied to a fan, there was little that the GSA degree show did not have to offer. It also showed me that art (at least in that context) was often not very much about the viewer, at least not in that the viewer was to get the art. Then, what is there ever to get? I think it’s Picasso who was quoted as asking why you would not as well try to figure out the meaning of a bird song, rather than what art ‘means’.

It’s all a lot more subjective, I suppose, than something which allows an answer of x, y or z. Behaviour, perceptions (self-perceptions, in-group categorizations), and context all play their part in someone coming to define themselves, or being defined, as an artist – or as anything else, for that matter. At the end of the day it’s just a term we use to narrow ourselves down, although the nice thing about using the term artist is that it doesn’t narrow you down too much. This can be great, but it doesn’t help in those ‘oh shit, what am I doing with my life’ moments… well, shit man, you’re the one who decided to be an artist. And what about hobbyists who just paint for leisure sometimes? Are they artists? Personally, I would tackle that question the same way I would if someone asked me if I thought I was a plumber after I unclogged the sink. My definitions are constantly evolving, as they ought to be, so maybe I’ll change my mind about all of this. Maybe I’ll decide to become a plumber.

My tea is still warm: a sure sign that I haven’t gotten too engrossed in my writing. Although, it is almost 3:30 am, so perhaps a smidgen. I’ll probably re-read this tomorrow and want to desperately edit every part of it, and I may, but for now at least I’m getting something out. If there’s one thing I’ve learned from all my time blogging (and all the time I should have been) it’s that just putting it, your words, yourself, out there – that’s the only way anything happens.

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