Tuesday, September 12

Artists and not-artists

I have been thinking about Edward Winkleman’s open thread from last Friday about distinctions between artists and not-artists. Questions about academic degrees, institutional validation, performance, and creation aside, I wonder why is it that people in the culture and entertainment worlds need to substantiate their work with the qualifier “art.” For example, why is it that actors, writers, chefs, tennis players, and the like need to elevate themselves as “artists,” or have others recognize their accomplishments as art, when the work should be addressed in its own terms?

Artists are those people who create (visual) art. Perhaps I’m taking a narrow (conservative?) viewpoint here, as much art as we know it often blurs distinctions among disciplines, but the fact that a person makes visual art makes that person an artist, whether this is by profession, hobby, or forced labor. Here I am thinking about both holders of MFAs, children in elementary-school classrooms, and creators of outsider art (as described, for example, in James Trainor’s article on the Creative Growth Art Center in Oakland, California, in the September Frieze). Visual artists can be amazing, mediocre, inconsequential, really bad—insert your own adjective here. Still, they are all artists.

I don’t feel a talented chef is an artist, but a damn good chef. A superb musician is just that, a suberb musician. (I cringe every time I hear a pop-music star called an “artist” or “recording artist.”) The same for atheletes. Michael Jordan is an elegant, graceful basketball player, while Shaq is a brute on the court. Both excel at what they do, but neither I would call artists. Does Tiger Woods bring art to golf? No, but he’s a damn good golfer. Conductors aren’t artists but conductors. Designers design. A politician with good rhetoric is surely talented, as is a convincing salesperson. But none of these people, specifically, are artists. Rock stars like Ronnie Wood and Paul McCartney are also painters with gallery shows. The work they produce for that arena is art, not music. An artist who picks up the guitar or cooks dinner is still an artist, but now he or she is also a musician and a chef.

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