What is an artist?

I’ve been mulling this question over in my mind for quite some time now. It seems like a simple question, but it all depends on who you ask. To be frank, the question often irritates the hell out of me. Partly because when someone asks me what I do for a living, my answer is sometimes “I’m an artist” and for some reason I feel guilty saying that.
You see, I’d rather tell them that I’m an illustrator or a designer. Graphic Design is, after all, my studied trade. Illustration has always been a part of my life so I obviously latched onto it as tightly as possible after I decided that I like to avoid computers when it comes to my design work. (Don’t get me wrong, I don’t dislike digital design, I just leave it to the last possible second with every project I do).  So I’m quite comfortable with identifying as either of those things. But sometimes when asked, “What do you do?” I just blurt it out. “Artist.” And then I feel stupid.

Now, most of my friends and family would likely call me an artist. (Trust me, my mother is reading this right now saying to me silently, Bee! Of course you’re an artist!  Thanks Mum, but if I wanted to be a unicorn you’d tell me I could be that too, love you) I just asked Matt the other evening if he would say I was an artist. He did, more or less. We had a short discussion on the definition of the word and eventually we both agreed it depends on who you talk to.

A musician is often, almost universally, called an artist. Go look at the categories on your iPod, the first one listed is of course: Artists. Dancers call themselves artists. Performing artists, I believe is the term. And there you go, when you put an adjective in front of it, a huge demographic can call themselves an artist. So I could easily claim I’m a graphic artist, and feel completely fine about it. Why is it that once I take the word “graphic” away, I’m not so quick to use the second word?

It’s odd, because, for the most part, I don’t like to toot my own horn (I’m sure some would beg to differ), and I guess that means I find the word “artist” almost snooty. Mind you, I have no issues with labelling others with the term, with the utmost respect and admiration. But in my own sense of the word, I tend to think of artists as visual creators devoted to specific things. Painting, sculpting, performing, etc.

“Fine art.”

I do none of those things (well, not frequently). It’s as if I have this pre-conceived notion in my head that an artist is only one of those professions. The type of art you would see at the Louvre or MoMA. Fine art. Now, as I said before, my friends and family would call me an artist. And my mum, bless her heart, will adamantly argue that I deserve to be ranked among all the fine artists. But if you took my art and put it up in the Louvre, it just wouldn’t fit. And maybe that way of thinking is my problem.

During this debate with myself I’ve done what any person in this day and age would do and I googled the definition.

art·ist
ˈärdəst/
noun
  1. a person who produces paintings or drawings as a profession or hobby.
    • a person who practices any of the various creative arts, such as a sculptor, novelist, poet, or filmmaker.
    • a person skilled at a particular task or occupation.

So there’s that. The actual definitions of the term. Thanks, Ol’ Man Webster, when you put it that way, I feel a little better about it.

A person who practices any of the various creative arts. This brings the question, what do you consider a creative art? Or we could bring it to the next definition: a person skilled at a particular task or occupation. This would refer to the use the of the term “They’re an artist” if the subject is extremely good at whatever it is they do. “He’s not just a surgeon, he’s an artist!” in relation to a very gifted surgeon.

So now that we’ve explored that idea, I guess you could say that yes, one can consider themselves an artist in the illustration and graphic design field. But I still have that nagging insecurity. For example, a great little gallery in my city featured my work for a text themed show. It was all good fun and I so enjoy openings and mingling among creatives, however, I remember a particular instance that still bothers me to this day. I was talking to one of the regular artists whose work is often featured in the gallery and when they asked me “So are you the artist?” gesturing to my pieces, I almost couldn’t answer him! All he was doing was asking if the work he was looking at was mine, but his wording made it difficult for me to answer what should have been an easy question. This man is incredibly talented with a paint brush. A bonafide fine artist. For him to basically label me the same as him, well I almost felt like he was testing me. And I know he wasn’t, but everything about it was a little unnerving.

Should I have boldly said “Yes, I am the artist!” or was I right to feel a little silly? I know we should proudly and unapologetically present our work, especially when it means a lot to us personally.  It’s just that word. Why do I let that stupid word get to me?

Norman Rockwell once said, “Some people have been kind enough to call me a fine artist. I’ve always called myself an illustrator. I’m not sure what the difference is.”

I feel you, Norm. I feel you.

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