Defining an artist is both simple — an artist is a person who makes art — and treacherous. In the context of Arts Management, cultural policy, or public practice, your particular definition will necessarily exclude most people from the circle, and celebrate a narrow few within. In the latest edition of the evolving video series, ArtsManaged, I explore the definition and how we might navigate that difficult terrain.
It’s kind of important to focus on another definition: What’s an artist?
Hi, I’m Andrew Taylor. I’m on the faculty of Arts Management at American University in Washington, DC. And this is ArtsManaged, a series of resources about Arts Management: what it is, how it works, how you might get better at it.
In this video, I explore the question, “what’s an artist?”
And while that may seem a simple question with a fairly simple answer — well, an artist is a person who makes art — it’s full of sandtraps and sinkholes when you talk about it in the world of arts and cultural management. So to get through those sandtraps and sinkholes, we kind of have to talk a little bit about the terrain.
One important idea is that inquiry has many reasons and many purposes and many forms. E.F. Schumacher and David Bakan and other authors have suggested there’s basically two kinds of human inquiry: One is inquiry for understanding; the other is inquiry for control or manipulation.
Inquiry for understanding doesn’t have an outcome in mind, it’s just a matter of learning the world and how it works. Inquiry for control has a particular intention to make a change or take an action or to manipulate an outcome. So inquiry for understanding and inquiry for control have different intentions and processes and purposes.
But it’s really important to know which one you’re using when you ask a question like, “what’s an artist?”
The important truth is that when we’re asking questions like “what’s an artist,” or “who’s an artist,” in arts and cultural management or cultural policy or cultural practice, we’re really looking at inquiry for control. We have a purpose behind the question. We have a reason to ask the question. And we’re going to take action based on how we answer it.
So a good place to begin the journey either for understanding or for control is in the dictionary. And the Oxford English Dictionary has a particularly useful definition where it says an artist is “a person who practices any creative art in which accomplished execution is informed by imagination.” So an artist is a person — again, a singular in this case, so that we certainly could explore the idea of artists as groups of people or collectives — who practices any creative art. And what makes that art creative is that it combines accomplished execution, or high levels of skill, with imagination.
But again, we’re not defining artists for some general and philosophical understanding of a universal principle. We’re defining artists with a particular intent. We have a purpose for our definition. We’re drawing a circle, where some people are inside and some people are outside, so we can act in the world effectively.
So why would anybody draw such a circle that would include only specific people with a particular designation of artists and exclude everybody else? Well, the truth is, any focused endeavor or action in the world requires drawing that circle. You have to decide with your limited people, money, and stuff, and with your particular focus in the world: What is it that we promote into the world? Who is it do we raise up as the artist of the work? What kind of work do we recognize as that art? And how do we figure out who maintains or directs artistic control along the way?
All of these suggest we need to at least have some vague understanding or agreement or even implicit assumption about who’s the artist in the room, who’s supporting that artist or that group of artists in the work, and what is the art world around it.
So Howard Becker, who I mentioned in an earlier video, was a sociologist. And as a sociologist, it was his job to look at the world and describe what he saw. When he looked at artistic production communities, he found that each had its own way of defining who among the many were the artists. So whether you were in theater, or visual art, or furniture design, or music, or any number of other disciplines, each had its own rules and conventions about well, who among the many people constructing this work and making it available are the artists? And by his definition, the artist in those contexts was “the person who performs the core activity without which the work would not be art.” Whoever it was that the discipline had determined was the key and core mojo and the energy of the work, that was the artist.
But Becker was looking into the art worlds that were already established that had conventions and traditions and assumptions baked into them. That does not describe what might be or what could be.
So anytime you think or talk about artists in your the work of your cultural institution or your cultural practice, it’s really important to define your terms out loud. So everybody at least can be working from the same page, even if they don’t agree on the same definition. And that’s why you might see multiple different definitions in the world, all of them appropriate to the purpose for which they’ve been defined.
So for example, the U.S. Census, when it focuses on artists it’s focusing on the workforce, because it’s trying to do larger comparisons about where and how people work among the citizenry of the United States. So their definition suggests you’re an artist when you spend the most number of hours in an occupation they can identify as one of the arts categories. So is the census definition of an artist correct or incorrect? It serves a particular purpose and they state it out loud. So it’s correct for the purpose for which they intended.
And yet another organization like Springboard for the Arts in Minnesota, which is a support organization that tries to serve creative people across their communities, they define artists in a much broader way. They say an artist is “anyone who thinks creatively about the world and their dynamic place in it.” So there, they don’t have a particular purpose of drawing a small circle. They want to draw as big a circle as possible. But that circle includes people who think creatively about the world and their dynamic place within it. It is a purposeful definition they use because they have a particular goal in mind.
As another example, in the “Investing in Creativity” report from 2003, the Urban Institute was trying to explore and define the many forms of support and encouragement that communities might provide to the arts. Because this report was purposeful — it was intending to define and inform policies that help artists thrive and community — it had to have purpose in its definition of artists as well.
They decided to focus on adults who had artistic skills, had some form of training, formal or informal, had some public engagement with their work, and were at least attempting to derive income from their creative practice. That’s not some universal definition of artists. It’s a definition that’s specific to its purpose and its intent.
So if somebody around you is asking, “What’s an artist?”, your best impulse is to ask, “Why are you asking?” “What is your intention?” “How do you imagine you’d use this definition?” And “How would you constrain or restrain or direct your actions accordingly?”
With that information, you can come up with a shared definition for the particular purpose of your work and the organization or the project or the initiative you have in mind. And you can define or refine that definition for any other purpose.
It’s essential not to get stuck in assumptions and conventions and internal ideas about what an artist is and who an artist is and what an artist does.
And if, like most arts organizations, your intention is to provide special attention, resources, support, and encouragement to particular people, calling them artists, it’s really important you understand how you drew that circle, and whether you drew it with intent.