Friday, March 12, 2010

When is an artist not an artist?

When they're self-proclaimed.

JES was prompted by my mention of Hugh MacLeod at the start of the week to honour the man with a post of his own (apparently JES had discovered him quite some time ago, but had lapsed from being a regular follower for a while). This has provoked a lively discussion about the nature of art and being an artist (JES may perhaps not have very many more readers than me, but they're all writers, and so they comment!). I tried to offer my two penn'orth last night, but the comment went astray somehow (I'm sure it will be salvaged shortly; poor old JES has been having some gremlin troubles this week on the blog), so I thought I'd recycle it below. Mr MacLeod, you see - in this interview that I linked to earlier - disdains the use of the term 'artist', while not being above sometimes describing his output as 'art', an apparent contradiction or incongruity that troubled JES and a number of his commenters.

I don't think there's anything necessarily incompatible or disingenuous about disowning the term 'artist', but wanting to think of your output as 'art'.

There's something altogether more precious - and more obtrusive, more wheedling - about the use of the term 'artist'. I think it is possible to describe your work as 'art' without necessarily implying/demanding that the rest of the world must see it that way; but people who label themselves as 'artists' are usually trying to convince others - and maybe themselves - that everything they produce must therefore be acknowledged as art.

That seems to me to be getting the whole thing backwards. If enough people, now and in the future, accept your self-definition of your work as 'art', then it can be generally recognised as such and you earn the title of 'artist' - it is an accolade that should only really be conferred by broad consensus over time, not your own self-assertion here and now.

I don't think any of the artists I've ever met or read about who really impressed me typically referred to themselves as 'artists' - because they realised it sounded poncey, conceited, perhaps even overcompensating for some insecurity about their work. They almost always just say "I paint", "I make photographs", "I do installations", "I write".

Further to that original comment, I might add that I can see why it seems to be becoming more common for people to declare themselves to be 'artists' these days. It's probably partly because they don't work primarily in any single medium, and so these other labels aren't so convenient for them. But I fear it's also largely because being an 'artist' is becoming more and more of a lifestyle choice rather than a matter of creative output: people who choose to call themselves 'artists' are primarily defined by the fact that they spend most of their time hanging out with other 'artists' and talking about 'art', rather than by what they produce.

Works of 'art', I feel, should be humbly submitted to the world, to see if anyone else will accept and appreciate them as valid art - not launched amid a narcissistic fanfare of "I'm an artist! Look what I've done now!"

Soi-disant 'artists', I'm sorry to say, are mostly a bunch of tossers. And I fear it is this trend - that 'artists' are starting to define 'art' as being 'whatever artists do' (often with the arrogant and exclusionary further corollary that only 'artists' can understand or appreciate 'art') - more than any shortcomings of the artworks themselves that is leaving modern art increasingly marginalised, disrespected, ignored by ordinary people.


JES said...

Yes, your comment had been stalled in the spam queue for some reason. And then when I released it from spam, the blog software itself still held it for moderation. It's obviously some sort of software-driven conspiracy.

I think we're in agreement about recognized artists vs. self-styled "artists." And, as I hope I made clear, I'm really something of a fan of MacLeod's. I don't think he was being falsely modest, as though trying to provoke disclaimers -- "No! You ARE an artist!" I just think he shouldn't have made such a big deal about the "Am I an artist or cartoonist?" question, because if he felt so strongly about it, then why use the word "art" for his work, rather than "cartoons"? Maybe he needn't get all prickly and defensive when somebody uses the term "artist," and instead just accept that correcting people's casual (even sloppy) diction calls attention to the wrong things.

Now I'm sounding like a pedant myself -- see what you've wrought?!?

Froog said...

I suppose there's a further level of confusion here in that the word 'artist' is often applied to anyone with a technical skill in drawing, painting, etc. - the graphic arts. There's a bit of a disconnect (though easily overlooked) between that everyday, relatively non-reverential use of the word, and using 'artist' in the more portentous sense to denote someone who purports or aspires to create 'high art'. All cartoonists are artists in Sense 1, but only a few of them are in Sense 2.

Conversely most artists (in Sense 1 or Sense 2) probably in theory have the technical skills to be cartoonists, but lack the wit or the inclination to use that medium (or use it well).

I resent the fact that the prevalence (and pretentiousness) of the use of 'artist' in Sense 2 in recent years is killing off the use of it in Sense 1.

You can almost hear the air-quotes around 'artist' these days, and the shrill demand for attention embedded within it like an IED.

The word 'art', I feel, hasn't yet been quite so tainted. You can still describe your work as 'art' in way that sounds merely aspirational; but to call yourself an 'artist' always sounds emphatically declaratory - and I hate that.

JES said...

the shrill demand for attention embedded within [the word "artist"] like an IED

Oooh, very nice.

Cedra Wood said...

Froog, hi! Thanks for this post, it gave me a lot to think about.

It's taken me years to even reach a level of comfort calling myself a "painter." My personal standard had always been that a label only applies when the person using it legitimately engages in that activity for a major percentage of their time….so painting two or three hours a week, as I did when I started in college, didn't make me a painter anymore than putting out my campfire made me a firefighter, I felt. After a while of spending significant chunks of my time painting, my standard shifted to "you can only call yourself a painter when people pay for your paintings." Then, when that came to pass, the rule became, "you can only call yourself a painter when you can make a living off your paintings."

Because I keep making such labels into moving targets, I can only assume I'm distancing myself from them intentionally. When I went to go set up a second bank account to put my travel funds in last week, the nice teller asked me my profession. This used to be easy; "student" is a great catch-all and incurs no judgment, but now that I have graduated, I can't hide behind its familiar, scholarly skirts… I stammered out, "uh--a--artist," and in the following moment of instant regret, discovered I was blushing to the tips of my ears from embarrassment. It felt exactly like being caught in an obvious lie. Sometimes if I remember to put the word "freelance" in front of the word, it sounds a little less like I'm a dilettante living off an allowance; and "freelance illustrator" is much more convincing, if I think of it in time; but "artist" tends to translate uncomfortably like "I don't have a job and am delusional about my own importance."

Living near Santa Fe ("Fanta-se," one of my professors used to say, with disdain dripping nastily from each syllable) loads the word even more for me. Everyone is an "artist" here. It's an incredibly vague term…and I think that's where your comment about the artists you're impressed by eschewing such labels in favor of more specific terminology comes into play. The criteria I was asked to apply to the recent slew of compositions I scored included the idea of "superficial development" versus "depth of thought," where the shallowness of labels and lists were considered antithetical to any sense of authenticity or writer's voice. "Artist" sounds pretentious because the word doesn't communicate any real information (not any more)--and when it can't exist to communicate anything concrete, its only remaining purpose can be to indicate how one wants to be perceived--which is by its nature hollow, and rings as such.

This is not to say that everyone who calls hirself an artist is superficial. I admire the confidence of someone who can declare it with no second-guessing.

Anyway…I'm rambling. This is one facet of a complicated concept that's been mutating and reinventing itself for hundreds of years, so forgive me if I've gotten too free with the generalizations.

I guess I sort of think of vocationism like I think of nationalism. I may truly love my country--but the mad chest-beating of some of my countrymen keeps me from being able to proudly proclaim my birthplace as a cherished part of my identity. I'd never dream of calling myself a patriot, because of the jingoistic connotations surrounding the word, and the shame of being associated with all of the extreme attributes, both positive and negative, of the people who choose to share that label. "Artist" feels like that.

Froog said...

Hi Cedra,

So glad you found time to share your thoughts on this.

Interesting that you seek to give the term substance for yourself by imposing conditions like the recognition of others and/or the ability to earn a living from your output. Do you think that's just a personal work ethic, or partly driven by a social anxiety that many people perceive art as a self-indulgent hobby rather than a 'serious' pursuit?

I too remember the strange comfort of being able to 'hide' under the label of student (particularly exhilarating when I went back to being one in my thirties). It doesn't conjure too many negative associations (some - lazy, pretentious, party-mad bloody students - but not too many!), and it's so wonderfully vague. We're all students of something, aren't we, 'students of life'?

I don't know that 'vocationism' is really a word, but it ought to be. Perhaps you have just coined it for the first time!

It's a fair point that, although there are some special difficulties with the way 'artist' is used and the way it is widely perceived, all professional identities can be rather limiting, and hence unwelcome and uncomfortable for the bearer. I've never known what to call myself: even when I was a lawyer or a schoolteacher, I didn't really like to identify myself as such - because people have so many expectations of what a lawyer or whatever should be. I've never felt myself to be defined primarily - or to any significant degree at all - by my job. I am Froog. I currently earn my living doing this, and this, and this, but... I AM FROOG.