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What Makes an Artist an Artist?

by Jillian Steinhauer on March 20, 2014

An artist at work. (photo by Mike Baird, via Flickr)

An artist at work. (photo by Mike Baird, via Flickr)

The question of who, exactly, is an artist — what that word means, who defines herself by it — has always been a tricky one. All sorts of surveys purport to the tell us the number of artists in the US, from the government census to independent initiatives, but the terms of the discussion have never been entirely clear. Are artists self-defined? Must they make money off their creative work (a certain amount)? What kinds of creative work count? Can you be a professional artist if you spend 30 hours a week doing something besides making art?

Each survey defines “artist” in its own way and then moves on with its results, but a new study in the journal Poetics takes up the root question itself: “Who is an artist? New data for an old question,” by sociologists Jennifer C. Lena and Danielle J. Lindemann. Lena and Lindemann look at data collected in the 2010 Strategic National Arts Alumni Project survey as a means of exploring the confusion over who or what constitutes an artist. As they write in their abstract:

In this study, we explore the ‘‘professional artist’’ as the outcome of an identity process, rendering it the dependent rather than the independent variable. In their responses to the 2010 Strategic National Arts Alumni Project survey (N=13,581)—to our knowledge, the largest survey ever undertaken of individuals who have pursued arts degrees in the United States—substantial numbers of respondents gave seemingly contradictory answers to questions asking about their artistic labor. These individuals indicated that they simultaneously had been and had never been professional artists, placing them in what we have termed the ‘‘dissonance group.’’ An examination of these responses reveals meaningful differences and patterns in the interpretation of this social category.

Specifically, Lena and Lindemann home in on a group of 3,816 respondents to the SNAAP survey who said they had worked in the arts but never been professional artists. Now, of course, there are plenty of arts jobs that don’t involve the actual production of art, yet the pair identified many writers, architects, musicians, photographers, and more — that is, people who create artistic products — that fell into this group. “Clearly, for many respondents, there is a disjuncture between ‘work as a professional artist’ and ‘work in [artistic occupation],'” the pair write. Why?

They go on to examine various possible answers: the SNAAP survey specifically states that teachers do not qualify as artists, a distinction to which a number of respondents object; designers constitute a fuzzy “boundary group,” with some of them identifying as artists and others not; people have faulty memories. But Lena and Lindemann’s strongest contender, and the one on which they put their money, is the idea of embeddedness and cultural capital — that people who grow up with artist parents or relatives, attend specific arts schools (rather than just programs), and work mostly in arts-related jobs feel more comfortable identifying as professional artists. “There is something that arts graduates get in their lives, through their connections with other artistic individuals, that contributes to the salience of their ‘artist’ identities,” Lena and Lindemann write. They continue:

We hypothesize that highly embedded art world members experience less ambiguity around their identity as artists, while those who only entered art-centered environments in their graduate training years experience more difficulty identifying as professional artists. Seeing one’s self as a professional artist is an achievement that compares to entering other elite status groups, in that advantages accrue to those with the implicit and explicit knowledge of group conventions, attitudes, habits, and ways of being and can remain beyond the reach of even those who are trained to belong.

Lena and Lindemann readily acknowledge that there’s lots more research to be done and that their conclusion is far from absolute — some people purposefully choose not to be embedded, for instance, and although the paper doesn’t mention this, it seems plausible to me that some people may associate the term “artist” specifically with visual art. But the sociologists are right in pointing out that if organizations want to target artists, and if governments want to use research data to shape policies geared towards them (both of which are already happening), it might help to first figure out who an artist is.

h/t Pacific Standard

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  • punktoad

    Some artists don’t even know they are artists.

  • Chris Egan

    I’m an “artist in training” if you will, my only drive and direction is to create. Once I start living off my work and once my work moves someone I will identify as an “artist” by trade.

  • Shawn Chapman

    Alas, the age old question: If an artist falls in the woods, and no one cares, would it smell as sweet?

  • PhyllisO

    I am torn about this, because why should Kincaid be on the same level as Picasso, Monet, DaVinci, or Van Gogh? He’s not even on the same level as Warhol. And I hate saying everyone is an artist but I also hate the MFA art mafia, the only time you should have an MFA if you plan on teaching in the school system. My friend Riva Levitan was an artist. She led her life as one.

  • PhyllisO

    I also hate that everyone is some sort of artist; it just seems to cheapens what it implies.

  • Skip Van Cel

    I know I am on the far end of the spectrum with this, but here I go. First and foremost the term “professional artist” grates on my very nature. Yes, we can go to school to “learn” art, however much of being an artist cannot be taught. I can’t push my way into a work. I have to let the work create itself. I am nothing more than the vehicle, the tool, that puts the piece together. I created an income source outside of my art so I would be completely free to create as I am moved to create. I did this because I realized at some point I was looking to “get into the market” and that would have been death to my spirit. So, am I an artist? You bet your ass I am.

  • Jeffrey Turner

    I think this is a silly question and for starters I’d say that having an MFA doesn’t make you an artist! Look at the outsider artists, are Thornton Dial and Howard Finster artists? Of course they are and in this day and age I think that the term “outsider artist” should be done away with anyway.
    For me the bigger question is, “If someone says that they’re an artist regardless of arts education, are they?
    In the past I have had a hard time wrapping my head around this but
    If they’re passionate,
    If that’s all they’ve ever wanted to do in their life,
    If their world revolves around art,
    If they work at their practice,
    YES, they are an artist!
    And that goes for people who’s art education came from watching Bob Ross videos!

    I happen to know a couple, both awful painters in the sense that they try to do realistic work but can’t draw, know nothing about composition or color, yet they work at their art every day and own a gallery which is open every day. As a trained artist I hate to say this but they are artists! Besides that, lately I’ve been thinking that their work is so bad that it’s almost good!

    My god, what is happening to me? I definitely need a trip to Moma, the Met and some good galleries in Chelsea! :)

  • penahs

    As an Artist for almost 40 years, I define Artist as someone who makes their living with their Art or, someone who makes Art not for money but to make Art because of the voices in their head. I am both. The rest of the so called artist groups I view as artistic not Artist. Like all those lol (little old ladies) who do art in their retirement years.

    • thelovelyjazmin

      But aren’t the “little old ladies” making art because they feel called? The voices in their heads urge them to create just like your voices.

    • clvngodess

      I’m an old broad who makes art. I make art because I make art. I don’t need a reason, it’s what I do. Not because I need medication for severe bipolar disorder or
      schizophrenia –seriously, if you are hearing voices, take your fucking
      meds.

      • penahs

        Judging by your reply you need meds or to quit smelling the fumes from your paint.

  • brendanmccallnorway

    Interesting article. And a highly political, combustible one.

    I was curious by this statement: “the SNAAP survey specifically states that teachers do not qualify as artists”. Does this mean that you cannot be an artist if you work SOLELY as a teacher? Or does the survey mean that, if you are teaching during your week, then you disqualify yourself as an artist?

    I find this problematic in the performing arts, anyway, as there has always been an synchronous relationship between successful creative artists who also teach. From Stanislavski to Grotowski, and Ballanchine to Cunningham, many actors, stage directors, choreographers, dancers, and playwrights teach workshops or have part-time faculty positions at universities, conservatories, and/or other institutions. In the United States, some of our most famous and respected artists–from director Anne Bogart to playwright Paula Vogel, and from choreographer Stephen Petronio to designer Jennifer Tipton–all teach extensively. Would these people be disqualified by the SNAAP survey?

    Maybe it goes back to the sentiment, “those who can´t, teach.” I hear this frequently in the United States, but it is not one that is shared in Europe, Asia, or Australia. Furthermore, even in America it doesn´t really have legs: even some of the most successful commercial actors and directors have other “jobs” that are not related, from owning restaurants and vineyards to being in charge of producing and management (though there is a lot of ingenuity and artistry to successful financing a feature film). How many people ONLY earn their income exclusively from acting nowadays? Or directing? Or playwriting? And is such an ideal even desirable?

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