What makes an artist?

I put this into Google and it thought I hadn’t finished the question. It tried to complete it with ‘successful’, ‘great’, ‘famous’, ‘genius’, ‘unique’ and even ‘a target’!

What I really wanted to know (and what I should have put into Google) was simply: what makes a person an artist? Is it the art, or the person? Is it what you create, or why you create it? Or is it simply THAT you create it. (Surely not – what about all those painting elephants etc?). Are you an artist if you create the art even when no-one is paying it any attention (like Van Gogh), as if the art is like something living inside you which is trying to tear its way out, whatever the consequences of exposure? Are you an artist if you just want to make something pretty – or does it have to be something with a ‘message’? Does it have to have an effect (positive or negative) on another person before it becomes art? So what about the cave paintings at Lascaux then? Weren’t they art before they were discovered in the 1940’s and shown to the world?

It’s an impossible question, I know, simply because it is so completely subjective. What is art to one person can be incomprehensible, or even pointless, to another. Even when presented with a list of some of the most famous painters, people will say things like, ‘No, I don’t like Mondrian. But Cezanne is nice.’ Or ‘I only like Monet’s water lillies,  not all the earlier stuff when he could see what he was doing.’  So we often can’t agree even on the body of work of one artist, let alone different schools or styles of painting.

It’s not all about painting though, is it? There is art in nearly everything – theatre, film, literature, design, presentation. Although possibly not in plumbing. Having said that, Duchamp’s urinal installation, Fountain, was art, and it did definitely have an effect on those who first viewed it in an exhibition – not a particularly positive effect, it’s true. The board of the exhibition at first refused to exhibit it, but the artist resigned in protest as the board was obliged to accept all submissions from members.  One of the points about Fountain is that the artist influences the thoughts of others and the way in which objects are viewed and considered. If someone we accept as being an artist says it is art, we are more likely to look at an object or a picture or an idea in a more open way, to try to move past the limitations we automatically impose on the subject and to adopt the mindset of the artist – to free ourselves from the constraints of the every day view and to look at things with a fresh eye.

As you can tell from the title of this blog, I live with an artist. Calling him the Painter (and me the Painter’s Wife) is in itself very limiting. My partner, Colin Bailey, is in fact primarily an etcher. He creates wonderful works on copper plate, which are then printed off on an old fashioned press. He uses the same techniques that   Rembrandt used, and many of the same materials. He is talented, clever, adaptable, original and, most definitely, an artist.

However, I believe he is an artist not because he makes his living by producing art and selling it to the public, and not because of his incredible skill and technical ability, but because of his mindset. He will find a truly creative solution to almost any problem we encounter.

And that, in the end, is what I believe makes someone an artist – being in possession (and sometimes even control of) a creative, problem solving mind!

Here’s a little example of his work.

Etching and giclee print by Colin Bailey. St Pancras station clocktower rises out of the courtyard of Midhope House in 1980s Kings Cross. Washing lines across the courtyard give this picture its ambiguous title

And here is a link to his website: www.ryepress.com

So what do you think? Is everything art? Or is it only for the rarified few? Do you have to be an artist to produce art, or does producing art make you an artist? What if you only ever do one good thing, are you still an artist then? If you only write one novel, but it’s a work of sheer brilliance, are you a writer for ever? Or does an artistic licence have an expiry date?

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13 Responses to What makes an artist?

  1. Trapper Gale says:

    Beautiful works. As for the thought process… isn’t being an artist a mindset as well? If I believe I am, and I work at it, then I am… even if no one else sees me that way.

    • painterswife says:

      I hope you’re right – I sometimes think I am an artist, but then my confidence goes and I just think I’m an idiot!

    • painterswife says:

      Trapper Gale – I have spent the last ten minutes trying to come and look at your blog, but neither Chrome nor Mozilla will allow me to view any WordPress sites other than my own at the moment. It’s very annoying. Forgive me – I will be over just as soon as my software will let me!

  2. LOL. You are not an idiot by any stretch of the imagination. But you are an artist. I believe you’re an artist if you create from your emotions, whether it be joy, sadness, passion, anger or even boredom. You’re driven to and inspired to create that sculpture, painting, drawing, poem, novel, architecture, whatever. And it doesn’t have to be beautiful or pretty or pleasing in any way. It can be ugly or disturbing, it’s still art. Okay, that’s just my opinion and everybody has one, don’t they? Oh and I like this guys art. 🙂

    • painterswife says:

      Hi Elizabeth! You are right, of course. And I think humans have a need to create – even if it’s just building a shelter to live in – and most of us would decorate it a bit with a few wild flowers or a collection of interesting bones, just for the sake of creating a more pleasing space, We just can’t help ourselves, can we?

  3. Shannon says:

    This topic came up during a music history class I’m taking. The instructor noted the difference between (musically speaking) craftsmen and artists is that craftsmen repeat the same thing and do as instructed, whereas artists write and play their own music. As visual artists, it’s the same thing except with other tools.

    • painterswife says:

      Yes I guess that’s valid too. I don’t know where I stand with my sculpted dolls on that one though – they are the same basic steps to get them made, but each one is very different to me!

  4. This makes me wonder, the difference between being creative and being an artist.. I consider myself creative and not the latter, but my own mother would disagree! It really is personal. I think your dolls are works of art! Very haunting to me, must be their eyes 🙂

    • painterswife says:

      Thanks Michelle – they do have strange eyes – whatever I do and however differently I make the eyes, they always come out looking a little bit crazy…
      I am having problems with WordPress at present, which stops me commenting and liking as much as I want to – I was trying to comment on the little white dress you made for your daughter – it’s so pretty!

  5. sunemoonsong says:

    This is a thing I have struggled with for some time too. In part calling ourselves something is a drive or need to ‘define’ ourselves as something.

    How does one BECOME and artist? When do you get to give yourself the title? How do you earn it? School? When you become self sufficient and can sell your work? Is it a body of work?

    My own private opinion is that you have the will to create something which did not exist before. The will to create.

    Some people will call this a hobbiest, or a craftsperson.

    The real question becomes: Do you need the title to validate what you do?

    Once you realize that the title doesn’t affect you, it is no longer important. It is always difficult when people ask you ‘what do you do?’ This is really the only reason that we (as artists) struggle with the question. Once we know why we have the need for the title we can prepare for that question, the rest… well they can just wait until you are famous 😀

    Good luck.

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