Artist: A Slippery Word

UnknownAn interesting article I read this morning in The Australian lamenting the loss of credibility of certain words that are too easily bandied around by the media and others when talking about cultural endeavors (e.g. “heritage”, “star”, “creative”) got me thinking about a word that I’ve long been challenged by: “artist.”

In contrast to Europe, where it seems you can only use the word “artist” if you are making your full-time living as a dancer/filmmaker/composer/sculptor etc, in the United States, people tend to use the term very freely. I have heard many people with artistic leanings, even if those leanings are very much a part-time, non-remunerative component of their lives, describe themselves as “artists.” And the word is frequently applied to people who work in all kinds of businesses, from architecture firms to Internet media startups.

In a sense, there’s something quite gratifying about a society which considers activities of many different stripes to have creative merit. It’s possible to bring an artistic sensibility to just about everything in life when you think about it. It’s often said that “there’s an art to doing the books” or “there’s an art to going on a date.”

But being creative is not the same as being an artist.

Recently, out of the blue, I was lucky enough to be awarded a generous monetary prize from the Belle Foundation for Cultural Development. I had never heard of the Belle Foundation when the organization’s missive arrived in my mailbox one day in late January informing me of my accolade. I was overcome with pride, gratitude and amazement by the honor. I still have no idea how I came to the Foundation’s attention.

I was also caught quite off-guard by the letter that the Foundation’s Board sent, which referred to me as an “artist.” I lead a peripatetic life and could apply many words to describe my work. “Journalist,” “broadcaster,” “curator,” “writer,” “producer,” and “creative person” are some terms that come to mind.

But “artist” isn’t one of them. Should it be?


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    • Chloe Veltman says

      A very interesting article, Daniel. Thanks for sharing the link. I have to take issue with what the tax authorities value as art versus what society does. There are differing standards at work, I think. Few artists really turn profits for example. Also, the emphasis is very much on visual art here e.g. in terms of “exhibiting” when of course there are many artists at work in other media who do not “exhibit.” I suppose “perform” or “put their work into the public domain” would be more all-encompassing terms.