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“I’m an Artist” …can you say the words?

October 18, 2009

“Have you admitted, or come to terms with yourself, that you actually are an artist?”

Byrne posed this question on his blog recently and it got me thinking…

For many of us, calling ourselves “artist” can be a very difficult thing to do. I know it’s hard for me! Maybe it’s the dread of other people’s reactions, maybe it’s the uncertainty that we are actually artists, or maybe it’s the fear that others won’t agree, but something about that label makes many artists uncomfortable.

First of all, what is an artist? This term is harder to define than you might think. If an artist is someone who creates, then are construction workers, furniture makers, and bricklayers artists? They create! Where do we draw the line between art and craft? Maybe it’s the idea that counts, and the artists are the architects and the draftspeople and the designers.

Answer.com defines the artist as, “a painter, sculptor, or writer, who is able by virtue of imagination and talent or skill to create works of aesthetic value, especially in the fine arts.”

This definition is still troubling. Have you seen some of the contemporary art out there? There’s not a lot of aesthetic value in much of that work, but we still call the creators artists!

So if “artist” is a vague term for a person who has an idea and creates it, why do some people have such a hard time using that word to describe themselves when they clearly are making original, creative works?

The word “artist” is very loaded in society and has all kinds of connotations. When I call myself an artist, I can’t help but compare myself to the other artists in the world who are showing more, selling more, and having more success. Does that make me less of an artist? Sometimes it feels like it!

In art school, it was drilled into me that not just anyone could be an artist. To be a true artist, you had to be recognized by your peers (other artists) as such. You had to have several exhibitions under your belt as well as other professional experience. This is just another of the pretentious teachings inherent in art school: you’re not an artist until other people say you’re good enough to be one.

Even by that definition, I could call myself an artist. And yet, I still have problems with it!

One thing I’ve noticed is that people have so many expectations as soon as you tell them you’re an artist. You get questions like “is your work in a gallery?” or “do you sell your work?” If you’re not represented by a gallery and haven’t gotten to the point that you’re regularly selling, it can be a bit awkward answering these questions. People don’t always understand the nature of galleries and often seem disappointed when I say that my work isn’t currently in any galleries, but that I’ve had several shows.

The question that really annoys me, though, is the “have you ever considered doing such-and-such show/fair/market/etc?” one. People always suggest these things as if I’ve never heard of them, and never seem to understand when I explain that much of my work wouldn’t fit into these types of commercial exhibitions.

Then there’s the awkward pause where you know people are thinking “what’s the point?” If you dont’ sell and aren’t exhibiting, then how can you be an artist?

The term artist implies “professional” as in, making a living from. Those who aren’t making a living from their art might find it hard to call themselves artists!

When people ask me what I do, I automatically reply with my day job. I consider art to be my career, but for some reason it’s never the first thing that comes to mind. Maybe it’s my subconscious trying to avoid those awkward questions!

Whatever it is, I know I’m an artist. It’s just that sometimes it’s hard to tell other people!

What about you? Have you come to terms with being an artist? Was it difficult, or was it easy?

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From → Drawing

11 Comments
  1. Miranda, you pose a great question. I think my age and my experience in a creative field (interior design) prior to painting made a difference for me. The transition was easier than stepping right out of school and instantly having to give myself a title of sorts. One of the things I have learned is that if you are working towards some goal you really want, then it is time to live like you already have it! That means admitting you are an artist!

    You are right, people do not get artist as a label. We are constantly having to define ourselves. What I have done is to try to think of it as an opportunity to educate the public on this little known field. Typically, they get the idea you are smart and talented and they could no more do the work you do than the man in the moon, so they usually decide you can call yourself whatever you want! 🙂

    I have to say, it also irritates me to have to constantly defend myself to the venues which do not really fit my work! At the same time, I have learned to just smile when people talk the prices of art in local galleries!

    Go ahead, call youself an artist, because you are! There is not a reason to deny it!

  2. Miranda, Good blog post. I would suspect you have a hard time calling yourself an artist because you’re honest and you have high standards. I looked at your artwork on the site. I see an honest attempt. I can see in your writing both in word and image you are sincere and focused on hitting your level of standard. This is great. I see great potentiality in your work. Honestly — I have to say it’s not to the standard that you have for yourself and therefore you’re not comfortable calling yourself artist.

    Like many sincere developing artists, they look at the ones who came before them in our tradition and know in their core that they are missing something. You work hard — but your work just doesn’t “snap” together like you can see — but can’t put your finger on in a “Master” artwork.

    Don’t be discourage. This is an awesome place to be. Here is how I brought peace into my studio.

    It took many many many years to understand and then separate my Art from the way I make my money. In America capitalism in all it’s glory — as some faults. Let me be clear — I am hot blooded American Capitalist and Love it! — but before I knew the power that come from money — I knew the power that comes from Art. It took me years to train myself to NOT baptize Art in Capitalism. You don’t have to capitalize on your Art. At this time if I make money from my Art one day that’s cool but from me, Art History and for my daughter and her long line of family artists to come — it is vital that I do Art for Art sake and not for any other reason.

    At the point I bring in another motivation — like paying my mortgage I dilute the Art. My father told me, Aladine make a choice — either your make money so you can paint what you want or you make money painting what someone else wants. That was the words of truth that gave me the clarity to be free.

    I will not call myself an artist yet. Because in my Scale of Artist — I am write am a “SMART-ist” (level 4) “ARTist” is a level 5. The reason I’m not an “ARTist” in my book because I’m not consistently hitting my mark, my standard. I can hit it the mark — but not consisting. I look at a Norman Rockwell and say he could consistently “nail it”. When you can produce what you want and your system of hard work, deep thought and quality production appears to flow gracefully then I will feel I MERIT the crown of Artist. I need more work.

    Now saying that — my peers call me an artist — but they have no clue what it talks to create a work of art. They think because I can make a picture they can’t then I must be an artist. Well, just because an aspiring writer can spell word you may never heard of doesn’t make him a novelist — at these to the likes of a Shakespeare.

    All that to say this — I encourage Miranda to do Art for Art sakes and let others know you do Art simply because it is what you love to do. And let them know you use your day job to pay your bills. It works for me.

  3. Hi Kim! I always look forward to reading your thoughts! I can see how yours might have been a more natural transition from designer to artist. One thing I’ve heard people say, and I think it’s probably true, is that sometimes you have to fake it till you make it! Walk the walk and talk the talk and eventually people will believe it and so will you.

    Aladine, I’m glad you stopped by! I think you might be right; I do set high standards for myself and I’ve always said I’m honest to a fault! I appreciate your honesty as well. I’d really love to merge the “art” and “making money” things, but I get what you’re saying about separating them. This is a great quote: “either your make money so you can paint what you want or you make money painting what someone else wants.” Your levels of artists sound interesting, too, I’d love to hear more!

  4. Stealing a little bit of my comment to Byrne’s blog entry:

    Becoming comfortable with responding to the question “what do you do?” by saying, “I’m an artist,” is the hardest thing I’ve had to train myself for. I have *always* associated that question with “how do you pay your bills,” but lately I’ve reassigned it to mean “what makes you interesting?”

    By forcing myself to say “artist,” instead of “architect” in response to the question, despite the discomfort it brings, is starting to work.

    The other day I met someone whose first question was, “you’re an artist, right?”

    I beamed and answered, “Yes. Yes I am.” 😀

    • Hi Jennifer! I think that is a great idea! We just need to train ourselves to interpret that question differently. The question “what do you do?” is so boring anyways, and how many people actually define themselves by what they do to pay the bills. “What makes you interesting?” is a much better way to respond!

      Your other comment made me laugh, only because I recently had someone at work stop me in the hallway to ask, “you’re an artist, right?” She then followed with a request for me to some drawings of a certain male body part… long story short, her daughter was having a bachelor party and she needed name tags! That was probably the strangest request I’ve ever had!

  5. Name tags… LOL! Hey, did you or didn’t you?

    If you’re an artist at heart, and actually do your artwork regularly, then you’re an artist.

    I’ve grown comfortable saying it. By degrees. I started to say I am a painter of pictures (works better in my language), and invariably people responded “oh, your an artist then”.

    It is a bit like new shoes, they’re not comfortable the first weeks, but once they’ve molded themselves to your feet, you just wear them naturally, without thinking of them.

    Your art school experience: It is basically them saying that if you play by the rules, they will give you the right to be ‘somebody’ in their eyes (and also the threat that you have to *continue* to play by the rules, or they’ll take it away). It aint their right to give or take, it is yours to claim!

    • “It is a bit like new shoes, they’re not comfortable the first weeks, but once they’ve molded themselves to your feet, you just wear them naturally, without thinking of them.”

      I think that’s the key! It’s like anything, the more you do it the more comfortable it is until it just becomes second nature. It’s a work in progress, but I’m getting there, haha!

  6. Excellent post! I’ve gotten comfortable with saying I’m an artist, but because my art isn’t traditional art (drawing, painting, etc.), the uncomfortable part comes with the explaining of what kind of art I do. “Are you an artist?” “Yes, I do digital art that combines photographs that I take and then put together in Photoshop.” It’s much easier when I can say, “Here, let me show you!” It’s why I’ve started carrying a gallery of my art on my iPhone. When people ask, I can show them!

    • Haha, you’re right, Giesla, it’s often a lot more complicated than just “artist.” I have to do that awkward explanation when I tell people that I spent the weekend painting and they automatically assume that I mean house painting! The iPhone portfolio is a great idea, I have one on my iPod too! A little visual goes a long way.

  7. Oh – I so relate to all this.. Especially with the high expectations of others – both artists and viewers. No – I am defniately not comfortable with that word. I use anything else to identify myself. Thank You for this very useful post – I’ll have a lot of thinking to do now 😀

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