“Artist” is a loosely defined term. It’s not like being a bus driver, or a mayor, or a venture capitalist. We know that those jobs have definitions and specific roles that they fill (well, I guess I’m not entirely clear on venture capitalists — they’re the people that waste loads of money on worthless Internet fads like Twitter, right?). Those jobs are unlike being an artist because they have specific definitions, unlike being an artist which means … what exactly?
I’m beginning to learn more about what it means to be an artist, since I have just recently graduated with a degree in studio art and am now having to field questions like “What are you going to do with that?” and “What jobs are you applying for?” I also know about this dilemma from studying art history and reading about all of the artists who have held down several jobs while pursuing their art dreams. Being an artist is much less like having a standard 9 to 5 profession, and much more like an all-encompassing way of living.
Artists, now as they always have, live their art. In an artist, one can find the intrinsic need to create, no matter what their limitations are. A bus driver knows how to drive a bus because they have a tangible skill that they acquired through training. An artist can learn tangible skills too (like how to make a double mocha soy Frappuccino for the venture capitalist. Wait, I meant things more like drawing with perspective and mixing oil paints), and an artist can use their skills in many valuable ways. Some people take their work home from the office with them in the form of spreadsheets and Word documents on their laptops and Blackberries. But whereas other professionals may be able to flick the off switch for their tools of the trade, artists don’t have a choice — they constantly carry around their tools. That’s because the most valuable tools to an artist are their senses — their eyes, ears, smell, etc, but most of all it is their brain. An artist without their most valuable tool isn’t going to get anything done. At best, they’ll be an assistant being ordered to finish this or that task.
Okay, what exactly does Diplo have to do with all of this? For those of you living under a rock, he’s a successful DJ who is known for mixing musical styles from around the world into catchy, danceable songs. Diplo’s musical career has been intertwined with that of Sri Lankan/British/Global Citizen M.I.A. since 2003, when the two worked together on a very favorably reviewed mixtape. M.I.A. has been on a steady rise to fame accompanied by crucial amounts of hype and critical acclaim … and connections. With her third studio album soon to be released, she was profiled by sometimes controversial New York Times columnist Lynn Hirschberg. The interview, a 9-page story in the New York Times Magazine, has achieved its own kind of fame due to the spoiled princess picture Hirschberg paints of M.I.A., and because Hirschberg indirectly accuses M.I.A. of making the political situation in Sri Lanka worse due to her cavalier over-simplification of it. After the interview was published, M.I.A. released Hirschberg’s phone number over Twitter, and because we later learned from audio recordings that a particularly damning portion of the article was at least partially contrived by Hirschberg, and because M.I.A. released a diss-track about Hirschberg, and because …
Whoa, sorry about that. The whole thing sort of spiraled out of control. That is unless you don’t care about it, in which case you don’t need to worry about this very public social media-fueled feud. But for those who are paying even a modicum of attention, the deluge of media coverage that has been given to M.I.A.’s reaction and Hirschberg’s clandestine sponsorship by the Coalition of Potato Farmers of Idaho has drowned out any serious discussion of the article. Believe me, I’ve Google’d. But wait, I tell you! There are a series of paragraphs near the beginning of the profile that you might have missed because of all the other distractions. I’d like to call your attention to them in order to give Diplo a lesson about what it means to be an artist.
It starts when M.I.A. relays her admiration for Madonna. Hirschberg writes:
Like Madonna, Maya is not a trained musician but instead a brilliant editor, able to pick and choose and bend the talents of others to fit her goals.
One page later, Hirschberg drops a quote from her talk with Diplo about the singer:
In the end, Maya is postmodern: she can’t really make music or art that well, but she’s better than anyone at putting crazy ideas into motion. She knows how to manipulate, how to withhold, how to get what she wants.
For all of Hirschberg’s editing and editorializing, she lets these comments go without qualification. Does Hirschberg agree? Subtly, yes it seems this way. There is tacit agreement that M.I.A. is not an artist for a variety of reasons. Near the end of the profile, M.I.A. is describing her “crazy ideas” to two technically gifted designers. She wants the two women to incorporate some of her own designs with some of theirs. Despite the bewilderment and nervousness of the designers, they realize that they have been drafted onto Team M.I.A., and are now at her beck and call. As Hirschberg describes it, neither of the two fully comprehend M.I.A.’s ideas, but they wouldn’t dare disagree with her. She is the artist, she has the ideas, she wants them to be made real, and therefore she is the one calling the shots.
Repeat After Me: Art Is …
I would argue that, that is what being an artist is all about, and that is why Diplo got it so wrong when he said that she can’t make art very well. The function of art may have changed over the years, but the command of the artist has remained relevant and important. Diplo’s statement implied a sentiment I’ve heard many times before, namely that the artist must do something personally, by hand, in order for it to be art. I’ve never believed this to be true at any point in history, but now it holds even less weight than ever.
I would like to banish that mode of thinking forever, but that would be the wrong thing to do. When we hear it over and over again, it forces us to continually reaffirm it’s lack of validity and pushes us to positively assert what it means to be an artist. So really Diplo was doing artists like M.I.A. a favor: he was wrong for the right reasons.