Why You Are Not an Artist

Picasso. Van Gogh. Beethoven. Hendrix. O’Keefe. Kurosawa. Kahlo. Kafka. Magritte. Bukowski.  These are people most agree are worthy of the title Artist.

But what if you met them before they were famous? In much of their own lives, certainly for Van Gogh, or Kafka, they didn’t have fame. And in the case of many Artists, including Magritte and Bukowski, their work wasn’t widely accepted until late in their careers. We’d need some other criteria than success to identify them for what they are.

My argument for most creative people reading this post, whatever criteria we’d invent for what an Artist is, few of us would meet that bar. The risks they were willing to take to achieve their artistic visions were well beyond ours. You can chose to be an artist, but if you’re employed as a “creative” you probably don’t.

To be an Artist requires a specific intent. An intent that nearly everyone with a full time job does not have while doing that job. You might be an artist in your spare time, but that’s something else entirely.

While you might have grand aesthetics in your work, or amazing skills that seem magical to others, that is artistry.  How you employ those talents determines whether you are an Artist or not. And sure, you might be the best in your field of designing websites or selling cars, but that’s mastery. The big question is this: your mastery of skill is used in service of what? A corporation? Some stockholders? Customer satisfaction goals? These might be honorable pursuits, perhaps noble in some sense, but that’s not enough to call it art.

Think of Guernica, The Seven Samurai, The Mona Lisa, or your favorite, most powerful work by your favorite Artist. What is it about their work that impacts you? It’s more than just talent.  It’s something to do with the aims they used their talent for. We wouldn’t put a box of laundry detergent (except perhaps for Warhol),or a piece of business software, however wonderfully designed they might be, in the same class of creative effort. We all know there is a distinction, however fuzzy or personal, between one kind of thing and another.

I think to call someone an Artist means they have a higher purpose beyond commerce. Not that they don’t profit from their work, or promote themselves, but that the work itself has spiritual, philosophical, emotional or experiential attributes as central goals. An artist’s work is about an idea, a feeling, or an exploration of a form, framed more by their own intuitions, than the checklists and protocols of bureaucracies and corporations.

In simple terms there are three points:

  1. An Artist is committed to their ideas in ways most people are not. An Artist will risk many things, wealth, convenience, popularity, fame or even friends and family to protect the integrity of their ideas. If you’re not risking anything, and mostly doing what you are told, you’re probably not an artist.
  2. This means anyone who constantly sacrifices their own ideals, and regularly makes major compromises to satisfy the inferior opinions of ‘superiors’ they do not respect, can not sincerely call their work art. And therefore, can not call themselves Artists.
  3. An Artist would be willing to sign their name on what they give to the world. Are you proud of what your company makes? Does it go out the door with even half the soul you put into your designs? If you ship things to the world that are beneath your own bar, can you call it art in the same way you would if it met that bar?

The definition game rarely leads anywhere. You can find many different definitions for the words art, artist and artistry to support any point of view, as it’s an active area of debate. But my favorite definition of artist is:

  1. A person who creates, by virtue of imagination, talent or skill, works of aesthetic value, especially, but not limited to, the fine arts.
  2. A person who creates art (even bad art) as an occupation

If you make paintings, movies, novels or similiar things, of course you’re an artist. Even if your work sucks (however we determine that), and even if you do it part time, or have never been paid a dime for your art, you still qualify.

But if you work for clients/bosses in the making of things that you yourself would not consider art, or are beneath your own standard, or that you blame others you work with for ruining, you are not an Artist. You are an employee. You are being paid to give someone else authority over your creative decisions. This can involve inspiration, effort, sacrifice, passion, brilliance, and many other noble things, but it’s not the same as being an Artist.

As Charles Eames (see video below) said:

Artist is a title that you earn, and it’s a little embarrassing to hear people refer to themselves as an artist… it’s like referring to themselves as a genius.


58 Responses to “Why You Are Not an Artist”

  1. Nick

    Let’s go with the definition of ‘artist’: an artist is a person who makes art. Someone who is fully committed to art is a professional artist, someone who is not is an amateur artist.

    The spiritual element of artistry has nothing to do with the title, and everything to do with the intention of your artwork. If you’re making art that you care about deeply, then what you’re producing might be more important artistically. If you’re making art purely for commercial reasons, then you’re just a business-person through the vehicle of the arts.

    I don’t see a real need, though, to differentiate between people who go all in, and those who don’t. In many cases, a career in the arts, or committing to artworks, is just not practical. I don’t see why we’d want to slight people who avoid being a professional artist but create things anyway.

    1. syd

      I am an Artist. I did art way before I got paid to do art.the difference is from the comment above from Nick who is wrong. The def of art is creating something beautiful from nothing. An artist is a person who creates art. An artist who creates art and gets paid for it is called a working Artist. It’s not called amature. I used to work with Artist who had amuture skill level and still got paid so your comment is not making Sense dude. I worked hard for the title of artist I gave up everything I used all my money to buy canvas ,paints books paper etc anything I need to get work done or be inspired. For my self not to sell. If I sold that was cool to ,if I didn’t I didn’t care, I love art and would die for my craft.

      1. Mickey

        Most Renaissance painters were hired to make art by rich people of the day. They were doing it for money, not for passion. All those portraits from that time period were commissions from rich people. Did the artist have a unique vision with these pieces? No. Does that therefore make Michelangelo not an artist? Of course not. Because we recognize his amazing artistry/skill regardless of the concept behind it.

        Art IS artistry. A great vision is nothing without execution. Otherwise, that’s like saying “Snakes on a Plane” is art because the original script was excellent. Yeah, except… the script was rewritten 50 times and changed in the execution so that the movie was meant to be stupid, and so, if it ever was meant to be art, it’s not art anymore. And even though people got paid to make it, nobody is referring to the filmmakers as artists.

        The mere act of making something means you’re a hobbyist/enthusiast, and if you’re getting paid for it, it just means you’re employed. It’s only when your craft making reaches a level where anybody who looks at it can recognize you have superior ability that you are now an artist.



Leave a Reply

* Required