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 isn’t good (however we determine that since it’s subjective), 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.


74 Responses to “Why You Are Not an Artist”

  1. Jon Bach

    Wait, didn’t you write a book titled “The ART of Project Management”?

    You explained above that “mastery of skill in that domain(used in service to a corporation)” is not art, so how would you rename your book title?

  2. Scott Berkun


    1. I have never called myself an artist. Then or now.
    2. It might seem like splitting hairs, but writing ‘the art of FOO’ means something different than saying ‘FOO is art’
    3. And even if you think 1 & 2 are copouts, I wrote this post today. I wrote that book over 5 years ago. I grant myself the right to contradict myself provided the more recent incarnation of my opinions are wiser than the previous.
    4. The book was renamed in 2008 to ‘Making Things Happen’
    5. And even if you don’t buy 1,2 or 3, leave me out of it :) Do you agree with the points in the post independent of me and my behavior?

    1. Yvonne

      That is like if you hear a doctor or a teacher or a driver saying – I have never called myself a doctor-, -I have never called myself a teacher-, -I have never called myself a driver- Nonsense! Do you do it professionally? Then you are an artist, period! Do you do it as a hobby? Then you are an undeveloped artist or immature artist but you are still an artist in a different stage of growth. If you are doing something professionally it is ridiculous not to want to claim your field. This is why the world think that professional artist shouldn’t get a deserved salary! Artists like any other people in the world are all real, are all humans with needs and bills and are all honestly doing a job for humanity. The world needs artists and artists need to embrace who they are!

  3. Jon Bach

    Fair points. (I didn’t know about #4… d’oh.)

    As to the content of the blog, you said:

    “You are being paid to give someone else authority over your creative decisions.”

    I can do that with my (artist’s) consent, just as an artist can let a benefactor influence where they might add some brushstrokes. If that influence is consistent with the artist’s values or intentions, I don’t see how it makes that artist less of an artist.

    You said: “I think to call someone an Artist means they have some sense of a higher purpose beyond commerce… the work itself has spiritual, philosophical, emotional or experiential attributes as central goals.”

    Then that’s me. I speak at testing conferences and I write a testing blog and say things like: “Testing is a craft, dear colleagues, and I’ve given you a few examples of artistry in that domain. It takes skill to do testing well. It is knowledge-work, so requires sapience. As such, we deserve respect as equals to programmers. Testing need not be a mundane job for the lowest caste and here is why…”

    Moreover, some colleagues agree with me that testing is not only an art, but under tight constraints, it is akin to a *martial* art.

    One of my favorite colleagues has opened a business devoted to learning Agile software development. She has called it Agilistry (Agility & Artistry). After having been at one of the weeklong experiential workshops she hosted, I see why she calls it a “studio.” We were in service to a stakeholder the whole week, but each one of us used our artistry (skill, judgment, technique) to deliver something of value to them, with our consent.

  4. Dmitri Kalintsev

    So, to sum it up, “art is anything you do because you simply can’t do otherwise”

  5. Steve Barnhouse

    You said: “to be an Artist requires a specific intent.” I think to be an Artist requires a specific vision.

    Because Art is a creative endeavor, we tend to think that being creative is the same as being artistic. Being creative is a human trait, and anyone can be creative in any job, no matter how mundane the job. But every job still requires that you follow the vision of your supervisor, your CEO, your board of directors, and ultimately, the vision of society. Artists follow their own vision.

  6. Angel Gonzalez

    As always, Scott, great thought-provoking post. I was wondering what your thoughts were on Seth Godin’s definition of art: that it’s created to have an impact or change someone else, and that it is a gift (products can be sold, but the idea is free). Also interesting is Roger Ebert’s ongoing debate that video games can never be art. Keep up the good work.

  7. Jussi Pasanen

    Hi Scott, great topic yet again.

    This reminds me of the eternal discussion on the differences between ‘art’ and ‘design’. To me ‘art’ is internally driven and often solitary (as Steve pointed out), whereas ‘design’ is essentially problem-solving driven by external need and usually done in collaboration with others. Both activities are creative in nature.

    The one point I’d like to debate is: “I think to call someone an Artist means they have some sense of a higher purpose beyond commerce” and specifically the word ‘higher’, which can a certain value judgment ring to it. What of artists who are ‘only’ trying to exorcise their inner demons? Criticise society from their personal point of view? Or just play a prank on the unsuspecting public? Their endeavours are non-commercial for sure but are they really ‘higher’ in purpose?

    Thanks for posting.

  8. Dave

    I like to believe that people have something that they value: Spirituality, family, community, craft, profession, etc.

    I know that I do. I strive to improve. I like to believe that others do the same. There is always more to learn. It’s exciting and I enjoy it. I like to believe that others do, too. I have things in my life that I will never do well. Most of those don’t matter to me. Many that I’m OK at and a few that I’m proud of. I will never be known or remembered, but that’s OK.

    I bust my butt to do my job to the best of my ability. Forces beyond my control: Management, funding, time constraints dictate the size of the box I get stuck in. Sometimes the size of that box is so restricting I just want to barf. Even so, I do my utmost of provide the best quality product I can, given the constraints I am stuck with.

    Think twice next time you call customer service and “Joe” answers. He may be twelve time zones ahead of you, but has been constrained to say/do only certain things. One of those things may well be to up sell. Before you burn a hole into the telephone, remember he is only doing what he has been permitted/instructed to do.

    Looking past all the clutter (constraints) obstructing my path I’m proud of what I do.

  9. Joe McCarthy

    Great post – and comments.

    The words I would use to describe some of the distinctions you draw are intrinsic vs. extrinsic motivations. I believe artistry is a matter of degree, and that a “true” or “pure” artist is primarily, if not solely, driven by intrinsic motivations – expressing some intuitive self-evident truth that may or may not resonate with others (in the artist’s culture or lifetime).

    I think this distinction also applies to the distinction you make in responding to Jon between “FOO is art” and “the art of FOO”: the latter (to me) denotes a certain lack of extrinsic definition, and so one has to rely on one’s intuitions in order to make progress.

    From what I remember, it seems that The Art of Project Management had parts that highlighted the value of intuitions and intrinsic motivations. Any project that has more than one participant is going to have some external constraints (and thus extrinsic motivations), and so I suppose cannot be “pure” art.

  10. Adrian Cho

    To me, “artist” is just a label like any other. Someone can see an artist where someone else will see an automaton. The values you point out are good ones but I think there is danger in associating them with the label “artist” because it implies superiority and believe me, we have enough of that within the arts let alone between the arts and other domains. “Artistes” shouldn’t be encouraged to think that anyone else’s work should be held in deference to theirs. As someone that employs an “Artistic Director” title for one part of my life (simply because I work in the arts and direct things) and a “Manager” title for another part, I don’t feel or want people to think the gap is so huge.

  11. Simon

    Interesting post Scott – I think that to be considered an Artist you have to be of an unbending will when it comes to the intent of your work, and that if you allow too many compromises then that too compromises yourself as an artist and your ability to view yourself as an Artist.

    Although Hendrix himself, according to recent BBC documentary on Rock & Roll Bands, allowed fear of alienating his fans to control certain aspects of his performance e.g adopting certain cliches of his performances, such as playing guitar behind his back and endless repeats of Voodoo-Child on the whole an Artist is prepared to bleed for his art.

  12. Jason Robb

    Like most things, this isn’t a black and white issue of “Are you an artist all the time, or none of the time?”

    Sometimes we’re artists, standing up for our ideas and standards, and sometimes we need to fall back to just being great employees, for the sake of keeping a job to feed our family.

    I guarantee that Van Gogh, Hendrix, and the other “artists” you mentioned above made compromises to make ends meet just like everyone else has.

    Maybe I take it for granted, and maybe I’m just optimistic, but I believe that every “employee” has a higher goal in mind than just getting paid and making their superiors happy. How frequently we compromise on our values and push out garbage we’re sometimes asked (and paid) to create will depend on if we’re perceived as artists or not, according to the definition you’ve outlined.

    Let’s face it, a lot of times the issues we’re uncompromising on aren’t noticed. I bet Van Gogh felt that way until the day he ended his life. I suppose to be more like those “artists” we admire, we should be steadfast in the hope that our efforts will be realized even after we’re gone.

    Very cool article, thanks for that, Scott! =)

  13. Eric Reiss

    Curious post, which I genuinely enjoyed. I’m wondering what inspired you to write this. I’ve heard many people referred to as “artists” but I have never actually met anyone who has called themselves an “artist”. Personally, I tend to look on anyone calling themselves an “artist” with great skepticism. Self-proclaimed “gurus” also cause me to doubt.

    On another note (related to your third main point), is a non-signed lithograph any less artistic? Just because Andy Warhol didn’t sign all the many copies produced of his work, does that make him less of an artist? Or are you suggesting that it is enough to be willing to take credit for a particular work, without actually leaving your mark? Or are you implying that insecure folks wait to see what the critics have to say before admiting to their artistic contributions?

    Just curious…

  14. John m

    I disagree with your broad usage of ‘artist’. There’s a difference between the arts, and the differences are as subtle as the practices themselves. I’m a commercial artist, and the classical painters you mentioned are fine artists.

    I agree with Jason’s post. This isn’t as black and white as the post portrays.

  15. K

    Applying your “artist” criteria, someone who marries a rich person, quits her job and spends her leisure time dabbling in her hobbies while calling it an occupation is an “artist”. Someone who works her ass off at a boring job to support herself and fiercely pursues her artistic passion in her spare time is not an “artist”. Your definition equates being an artist with socioeconomic privilege – someone can only be an artist if they make a lot of money at it or have someone else to support them. That’s way off the mark of what most people consider an artist to be.

    The razors that resonate with me are creativity and passion. Those are invariant of how a person works, how their life is structured or even whether they consider themselves an artist.

    But, as you say, the definition game leads down a rabbit hole full of conundrums and ultimately leads back to “what is art?” to which there is only one answer: Mu.

  16. Scott Berkun


    I’d disagree with you based on the claims of this post.

    “I speak at testing conferences and I write a testing blog and say things like…”

    I don’t think testing qualifies as an Art. Neither does engineering software. The primary goal of these pursuits is functional – to make a thing that solves a practical problem. It can be done skillfully, or with artistry, but I don’t think we can put testing software in the same class of Art as you would a painting, a symphony, a novel or a play.

    Even moreso, the fact that you are giving talks about testing is one step removed from the actual activity. You’re talking *about* testing. I wouldn’t call talking *about* sculpture an art either.

    This doesn’t mean you aren’t very good at what you do, or that it isn’t important, but I would not call it Art.

  17. Scott Berkun

    The fascinating thing so far in this post is how many people seem to have skimmed it. It’s very hard to defend myself against things I didn’t quite say :)

    I’d happily concede to a better definition. But I do sincerely believe most people, most of the time, even everyone who seems to disagree with some of my points, draws a distinction somewhere in the territory I’m trying to lay out.

    I’m aware most painters, including some of the ones I mentioned, took commissions. Being paid doesn’t make you “not an Artist”. That’s dumb, and I didn’t quite say that.

    But I did say:

    “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.”

  18. Scott Berkun

    Jussi wrote:

    > The one point I’d like to debate is:
    > “I think to call someone an Artist means
    > they have some sense of a higher purpose
    > beyond commerce” and specifically the word
    > ‘higher’, which can a certain value judgment
    > ring to it. What of artists who are ‘only’
    > trying to exorcise their inner demons?
    > Criticise society from their personal
    > point of view? Or just play a prank on the
    > unsuspecting public? Their endeavours are
    > non-commercial for sure but are they
    > really ‘higher’ in purpose?

    I think exorcising demons counts as a purpose. As is criticizing society. I’d even accept making fun of art and the idea of art (e.g. Duchamp’s Readymades) Even the desire to make people happy, or to be popular, or famous might count. These are things in the artists mind that they are using their talents to satisfy/explore/resolve.

  19. Scott Berkun


    Most excellent! Intrinsic vs. Extrinsic. I think that’s definitely an undercurrent of what I was trying to express.

  20. Scott Berkun


    Your example conveniently misses several of the attributes I mentioned.

    Most importantly:

    “If you’re not risking anything, and mostly doing what you are told, you’re probably not an artist.”

    The rich hobbyist has little personally at stake (e.g. dabbling).

    And on the other end you wrote “Someone who works her ass off at a boring job to support herself and fiercely pursues her artistic passion in her spare time is not an “artist””.

    Of course they’d qualify – I explicitly say so in the 2nd to last paragraph.

  21. Scott Berkun


    The fact you draw a distinction between Commercial Art and Fine Art suggests to me we’re not that far apart.

    Would you have swallowed this more if the title said “Why you are not a Fine Artist?”

  22. Dan


    What do you think of the distinction between an artist & a craftsman? Once, being a master of a craft was a term of distinction. And, each artist has mastery of a craft that provides the context for their work. Being called a great craftsman would be a mark of honor for me, and much more within my reach than creating a great piece of art, no matter how much I wish for that.


  23. Scott Berkun


    I think being a craftsman, a designer, an engineer, or a dozen other labels are all great things to be. There is certainly creativity and artistry and craft in all of them.

  24. Sean Crawford

    I detect some human ego factor in some of the replies.
    I for one will respect a good craftsman, good commercial artist or good plumber as much as I respect a good artist. I don’t worry which vocation is “superior” but I would worry if society stopped respecting good work.

    In a sense, the artist is willing to willing to work without a hierarchy of goodness. In Van Gogh’s day he was not more good at art than any journeyman or apprentice. How lonely not to have peers. But I’m sure he felt a good calling.

    Regarding whether an artist would create merely to be critical or pull a prank: For me this would not serve a higher purpose, and, forgive me for sounding mystical, but without such purpose my Muse would not touch me, and my “creation” would feel hollow.

  25. Jussi Pasanen

    Scott wrote:

    “I think exorcising demons counts as a purpose. As is criticizing society. I’d even accept making fun of art and the idea of art (e.g. Duchamp’s Readymades)”

    Fair enough, all good points.

    Also, Scott referring Joe’s comment:

    “Most excellent! Intrinsic vs. Extrinsic. I think that’s definitely an undercurrent of what I was trying to express.”

    This is a great way of putting it and in line with what I was trying to say above. Thanks Joe!

  26. Jérôme Radix

    I’m sorry to say that but your definition of an Artist is not enough limited. With your definition, a terrorist is an Artist :

    A terrorist is committed to their ideas in ways most people are not.

    A terrorist does not sacrifice his own ideals.

    A terrorist would be willing to sign their name on what they give to the world.

  27. Mike Nitabach

    What your definition is missing is that to be an Artist, you have to truly not give a shit what anyone else thinks about what you are doing.

  28. Sharon Lee

    Artist is a word that expresses the individualism and self-expression of art, performance, music, etc. It is art for art sake… Heard of that term before? It is creating what you believe in and what you see or hear… your personal expression, not caring or thinking about what others think… That is a true artist.

    Anyone who does otherwise or being paid or told to do any creativity their field, are not artist but are professional commercial creators. These kind of art, are created by collaboration and team work to create a product. They are not artist but designers, art directors, illustrators, musicians and more.

    So before you stem someone as an Artist… think again!

  29. Jim Drummond

    Wallace Stevens worked as Vice President of Hartford Insurance for decades and wrote arguably the best American poetry of the 20th century. Charles Ives had a similar profession. Jean Genet was a thief. Balzac was a prolific hack writer. Richard Dadd killed his father and did his best work in an asylum. Picasso was a pig with women (se SAuviving Picasso). Dali was a fascist. Rimbaud ended his days as a slave trader. John Sayles has funded most of his films — LOne Star, EIght Men Out, Matewan, Nrother from Another Planet –by writing genre scripts such as Piranha, Alligator, The Howling and The Challenge. SCorsese and James Cameron and Sayles all wrote B-movie scripts for Roger Corman.

    I found your model of an artist pretty restrictive and a bit pious for my taste. Many roadslead to Rome.

  30. Stephen James

    Artists make art. Art is based on an idea that is typically not a function for commerce (pop art, etc. aside). Design can have a commercial function.

    That’s why it’s difficult to for me to call most of the contemporary, gold-framed impressionistic work “Art.”

  31. heather gold

    Why is it important to define who is an artist and who is not? This is not a conversation I find myself engaging in or find other artists engaging in. Whose work you like and respect..sure. Why you hate hack commericalism…sure.

    What is the value of making these distinctions? What was your goal Scott. As for intent..that certainly is everything in making art, breaking the law, growing a business or better, as a person.

  32. Scott Berkun


    Why? Sharon had this tweet I disagreed with, so I wrote this to sort out how I disagreed. She wrote “All who create are artists, regardless of the medium”.

    Fundamentally I hate pretense. People who call themselves artists are often pretentious. Offering my idea of what an artist is I hoped would defuse the confusion among designers, engineers or advertisers, and even myself, as to how what they do, however creative it is, is still different (and I think less noble) than what Kafka, Van Gogh, or Mozart was up to.

  33. Chinedu Obi

    Having your work centralized around your own idea and not that of the people means you are sacrificing what the people want for what you want and this definitely means you are sacrificing wealth and in most cases, not just wealth. This is a very rare gift not so many people have. Anyway, I just located your blog via google and I’m loving it. Keep up the good work.

  34. Berthold

    Artists, as opposed to designers, are not constrained in what they do to communicate their message. Even if a designer had the most radical ideas and intentions, the purpose of their design, usually selling whatever it is they are designing for automatically limits their potential. They have to take into account cultural constraints, expectations, business practices, economical implications, superior opinion etc etc. Artists however are inherently free of all limits but maybe physics and funding. That, and that only is what makes artists artists in my opinion. They don’t have a purpose to reach, no schedule to comply and no superiors (usually) to please.

    And many artists weren’t so sure about themselves – a lot of them worked under pseudonyms or even shoved other people out front to bear the public reception (Shakespeare).

    Incidentally, whether Bukowski is an artists is up for debate; causing controversy is certainly an aspect of art, but not art in itself. A lot of wannabe artists get this mixed up.

  35. Jonathan

    I studied Fine Art in College. I know how to draw and paint. Some of the subjects I studied in College were Anatomy, Landscape Painting, Photography, Art History. Now, I still draw and paint(in the traditional manner) but I also can do designs and ‘artwork’ digitally. I have a growing library of Art Books with titles ranging from the Renaissance to Picasso to Dali to Cucchi. I know how to paint in the technique used by Rubens(I do my best at least). Besides painting, I do photography(film before and Digital now), Sculpture, Installation and Conceptual Art. But in spite all of this, I never had a Solo Art Show, even a Group Art Show. To make a living, I’m a freelance Graphic Designer, Illustrator, Photographer and ‘Artist’. Can I be called an ‘Artist’ then?

    1. sean

      Nope. Not in this lifetime. Maybe after you’re dead.

      People need to cut the bullshit. Art is a profession. Whether you choose fortune in this life or fame in the next, if you’re an artist you spend double the amount of time a normal job requires solely on your work. Day in, day out, working in the studio, 8-10 hours plus. If you failed to be able to do that in your life, it’s not your career and you are not an artist.

      You may be a part time artist. Or it’s just a hobby.

      Stop attaching the term artist to genius. There are terrible ones and there are brilliant ones, an artist is simply a job. History will take care of the rest.

      Scientist, lawyers, doctors, engineers; professions that require a high amount of intelligence, creativity and hard work never think about how to define what they are. They just work. It’s the same with art.

  36. A**tinsanhole

    The only way out the circular, exclusive meme of art is too eliminate the word in all of it’s forms. Art, Artist(e), Artistry, Artisinal etc. If you’re a painter, paint; a composer, compose. Other people will like it or not. Anything more than that quickly devolves into flame wars about what is or is not art and who knows the difference. The art meme is really about those who (claim to) know the difference. It’s an exclusive (in the worst sense) club.

    The fact the term “Fine Art” was invented to exclude mere art is a symptom of the problem, not a solution.

    A true artist doesn’t need or want the label. Did I just used the ‘A’ word AND a No True Scottsman fallacy. Sorry…see what I mean?

    Lose the “A**” word and the problems that attach themselves to it disappear (or find another club). Poof! Gone.

  37. Scott

    A definition I liked from Greg Urban:

    An artist is honest about his reaction to the universe. A child does this naturally. Adults need great courage. Most just imitate.

  38. Sean Crawford

    A business executive, or a commercial artist, with skills in bus/art 101 can tradition between a wiggit making business, a service business or resource extraction business. No surprise there.

    But painter William Blake could do classic poems, and songwriter Joni Mitchell has pieces hanging in galleries. I’m surprised. Since the technical skills of writing and painting are so different, it is clear to me the issue is art: Blake had an intention, had aims such as social reform, and he was an artist between the ears.

    Skills can be taught swiftly, sometimes, but to become an artist is always something learned over time. Today in a weekend workshop I confessed fearfully I was becoming an artist, after seasons of technical practise, and the lady next to me cried saying that she too is transitioning from seeing artists as “they.”

  39. Marina

    Wonderful post. I’ve come across it when searching for something that would validate my own visions of what or who Artist is and this post did just that. I actually think every human being is an artist, but most of them don’t know it because our fundamental human need for artistic self-expression has been effectively suppressed by our social conditioning, which resulted in art being accepted only as a “profession” or just another form of skilled labor. But that’s a big separate topic. Anyway, thanks for your insight. Too bad your post is the only insight I was able to find that “gets” the idea or art and Artist. Take care.

    1. Scott Berkun

      “our fundamental human need for artistic self-expression has been effectively suppressed by our social conditioning”

      Well said.

  40. Ryan

    I work on music all the time. I’m a musician, but I have another gig to pay the bills to support my disease. I don’t use the term artist to describe myself. I get paid pennies on the dollar for digital sales, but I like creating music. I despise the term hobby too. I relate it to gardening or making train sets. I’ll record for 8 hours a night during the week while my family sleeps. I love it and I don’t notice the passing hours when doing it. There are millions of musicians, but nobody gives a shit unless they are seen on TV or heard on the radio…..And the band played on

  41. Gary

    Artists make art. If you’re making art, you’re an artist. It has nothing to do with being paid, nor with the quality of your work. Are YOU a writer? Certainly, you are, as you’ve written this blog. Whether you have done so for money or not, and whether your writing is adjudged to be of good quality has nothing to do with the fact that, by definition, you ARE a writer. Art and writing are vocations, not jobs, not businesses, and certainly not professions. A profession is characterized by several factors, not the least of which is the legal requirement to be licensed to practice. Law, medicine, teaching, architecture, engineering and few other occupations are professions because they all legally require a higher education, a period of internship, a license to practice and, on occasion, pro bono work. These are the factors that set the professions apart from all other occupations. Artists, writers, photographers, actors and other creatives are not legally required to attain a college degree (you can be entirely self-taught), nor are they legally required to complete a period of internship, and they are most certainly not licensed to practice. This is the way the professions began, in the late 19th century, and it is the way they have been ever since, the general public’s ignorance not withstanding. The average person believes that merely being paid for one’s work somehow makes them a “professional,” but, if this were true, then everyone would be a professional and there were be no point to calling oneself a professional, as every burger flipper, gardener, store clerk or grocery sacker would be a “professional.”

  42. JML

    Let’s call a spade a spade. This article is like reading an article written by a 6 year old about why 5 year olds are stupid. This crap makes me furious and Ill. I’ve read the same article written by similarly small minded men like Scott who spend their whole lives being critics and speakers and have no real creative inspiration to offer real artists… only condemnation and misguided madness that beats down The innocence of the up and coming. Fortunately I’ve been around the block and have spotted this melarcy before so let’s call bs on this article now. I say this only to make a point and nothing more: I came to nyc from conservatory with nothing and now, as a successful freelancer in Manhattan area and a multi-platinum multi-instrumentalist some might call me an “artist” but not to Scott because from time to time I might score a film I’m not really in to to dabble in what I like to call, “eating food.” Scott says, labels and definitions don’t really mean anything anyway…. oh wait, that’s a total horseshit cause the title of this contrived article is called “why you are not an artist.” Negative rederic is all this is. Slander of his fellow man aspiring to be creative in Scott’s little box. Artists, IGNORE THIS MAN AND HIS SULFERURIC MOUTH. he makes a living off of standing up straight and confidently staring down artists, belting out collections of other men’s quatations with his own sharp exacting brand of judgements fear. He’s spent decades ironically writing about creativity instead of slaving away, on fire to create real art around the clock like a real artist. He himself has no real output other than to write and speak negative basuda like this, and I encourage real artists (and aspiring ones trying to find their way in the dark, you’re not alone kids! You’re gonna do awesome!!) to disregard anyone who goes around claiming the classic contradicting duality that labels are meaningless… and then tries to label you in the same breath. And that’s exactly what this article does, doesn’t it. A spade’s a spade, that’s what’s happening right here in this steamy heap. And he has no idea what it does to the creative culture to write like this because he’s too busy writing and talking with his mouth a gape. It’s irrespensible but Scott doesn’t even know why. So I’ll tell him: Mother Teresa said, “if you’re having an anti-war rally leave me out but if you’re having a peace rally count me in.” Maybe this wanna-be critic would be better at HIS craft if he took a page from her humility and wisdom?

    1. Scott Berkun

      Much of your critique here is about me as a person, where you presume a great many things, rather than the genuine question of what defines an artist – I’ll focus on the later.

      From what I can glean from your comment, we agree more than you seem to realize. I wrote:

      “If you make paintings, movies, novels or similiar things, of course you’re an artist… and even if you do it part time, or have never been paid a dime for your art, you still qualify.”

      Doing work to pay the rent and earn a living shouldn’t be criticized. We all need to try to live well. But if the ONLY creative acts someone takes are done solely for profit, where their ideals (creative/aesthetic/moral) are regularly sacrificed, there’s something missing relative to many of the great works and creators we admire in the world.

      For example, someone could work 80 hours a week on Wall Street selling sub-prime mortgages to people who can’t afford them, and then go home and write a short poem, every few nights, about the pigeons on their fire-escape, and I’d call them an artist, of some kind at least. Perhaps more of an artist than someone who writes advertising copy for luxury car commercials.

      If you don’t like my use of the word artist, that’s fine, but I have to think you recognize there is a distinction, or spectrum, regarding the kinds of work people make and why they are choosing to make it.

      1. JML

        You cannot deny the negative impact you have on a young budding artist with this article. I respectfully, completely disagree with the condescension of this entire article. Sorry but writing publicly certainly entitles others to open opinion I hope you can appreciate an honest rebuttal.

  43. 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.

        1. Dan

          Agreed with the fact that we’ll known art is often commissioned. It’s not limited to renaissance artists either (obviously). Most “artists” who don’t come from money, need to either seek out grants (which may require fulfillment of themes or be deemed appropriate by the party providing the grant) or look to commissioned art opportunities. The person or group commissioning the art will also have stipulations behind what is created… the concept that a true artist goes-it alone is pretty poorly informed. For instance, without an external source of income, a sculptor can’t afford the materials they may need for a large steel sculpture. The metal, the facilities, the welding equipment, and the fact that the artist, no matter how passionate, needs to eat… it all costs money. Like it or not. Those are the facts.

          The people you mentioned such as Van Goh… Van Goh’s background was that he was largely supported by a deeply religious family. He was forced to drop out of school and take a job at his Uncle’s art dealership because his immediate family was struggling financially, failed to complete his studies to complete his studies to become a minister in England because he refused to learn Latin, then decided to volunteer as a minister for the church near a coal mine town, until his already struggling family warned him he would be cut off financially from them as well. So… no, artists are human beings same as anyone else that need money.

          That said, artists are simply creatures who make art. And art is something created for the intent of telling a story. It comes in the form of poetry, music, paintings, dance, sculpture, film, and yes… even video games. Art is the expression of imagination through the lens of human experience. It’s cute that folks try to elevate themselves by saying they understand what “true” art is… but that really only exacerbates their unfortunate misunderstanding of what the actual essence of creating art is. Van Goh’s paintings are of no more importance to the artist… Van Goh… than the cave paintings at Glasgo we’re to their ancient creators, or a child’s drawing of her pet dog is to her. All of them are artists… whether the value of that art is perceived to be of the same importance by others in a community, is a different story, but the opinion of others doesn’t really matter to the internal world of the creator/artist… they create art because it’s their passion and usually one of the best outlets for the artist to relay their ideas to others.

          Anyway, the point is you don’t have to be a starving, self-destructive, tragedy-ridden introvert riddled with depression or anxiety in order to create art. That’s one of he worst self-indulgent concepts the art community likes to cultivate. You just need passion and a willingness to put yourself out there on a limb with your ideas… which admittedly, most people simply can’t or won’t do. But funding your ideas, big or small, is IMPORTANT and a very big part of your commitment to see ideas through. A talented artist ALSO knows how to actually see their vision come to life, through any means necessary.

      2. Augustine Leudar

        /yes you’re right. In fact, amateur comes from the Latin amaew – to love – amateurs do art because they love it – regardless of whether or not they get paid. The expression has come to mean something rather derogatory in our time.which just goes to show how badly the whole pursuit of being an artist fits into our capitalist society where success is measured only in terms of money. Van Gogh created some of his greatest works as an amateur.

    2. Alex

      This article kind of triggers my mania in the sense that I am a strong believer that there are hundreds if not thousands of definitions of the word Artist. Anyone can be an artist in my mind, i believe that anyone with the bravery to put an artwork out there is an artist whether anyone likes it or not. Art is relative, not everyone likes the same artists, there is no “best” artist or “worst’ artists, there are only experienced and unexperienced artists but that doesn’t make their art any less valid and beautiful. If they think it is art, it is art. This is just my belief.

  44. Lisa

    I’m a hobby artist for nearly 20 years. I do animal art using animal replicas, animal pictures. I can take an ordinary sardine can for instance, take an animal replica, or picture and make a diorama out of it using scrap. I’ve sold very few but keep most of my art for my own enjoyment. No two are ever alike. A neighbor who didn’t mind taking my art for free before she gave it away said once “Why do you do your stupid art. No one buys it!” She couldn’t get how much I enjoy doing it. My mind actually ceases when I do my art. Problems disappear, I relieve tension, I dream how to use different things and try different ways to improve or perfect what I do. I look at my old work and see how I improve. I get so emotionally bonded that when I do sell something on rare occasions I miss it. I recycle. I can turn a simple empty cat food can into a little stand up piece using an animal picture. I’m always figuring how to do the outside of the can. I put up pictures on a writer’s list of my craft and describe how I do it. I do my art because I enjoy it. I see things on my walks that one may not notice or consider trash and it goes in my art. Take something as simple as those plastic holders on small cigars. I find it, clean it out, paper it, find strips of different paper, curl it and you have a fountain. I can meld it so perfectly onto whatever you’d think it was attached to the can naturally and no one taught me I figured it out. You would see an ordinary baking soda box. Me? After it’s empty it’s stuffed with shredded paper, paper the front with punches so it looks like scales, put an animal picture and do a few other things and that simple box is transformed. I’d be lost without my tweezers, paper punch, and glue. Foil, cardboard, seed powder, even something as dried used tea I use as an example. I see an ordinary cereal box and what do I get? Paper punches to foil or paper, cardboard tops and bottoms, blanks to do shapes, leftovers to use the colors for embelishments. I see an art supply in practically everything. And my purpose? Pure enjoyment! I can take the same animal picture and no two projects out of it is the same. You could give me a hundred tiger animal replicas and each would be in a different scene. It can be exhausting seeing how different I can make things. But the possibilities are endless especially with happy accidents. I was paper punching cardboard and it slipped and I got crescents and little drops that can make great embellishments. It’ll take years to clean up all my scrap thus I have plenty to do projects with. It’s amazing what you can do with an empty toilet paper roll. You toss it, it’s an art project or a pile of extra supply when I’m done with my trusty paper punch and a good sharp scissors. I get euphoric just talking about it and I do it all out of love! Amen and pass the scrap!

    1. Scott Berkun

      Hi Lisa – thanks for the thoughtful comment. Do you do you have photos of any of your work online?

      Your story reminded me about this scene from The Fisher King:

      1. Lisa

        Hi Scott. I couldn’t seem to find your reference you mentioned about the fisher king. It stopped there. As to where pictures of some of my art is that I put up I put them up on a site called our echo.com. In the search you can put in Lisa and I pop up and I have several pages. Art pictures, scalding political opinions, old short stories. All have titles so you can pick which you want. My art pictures are listed as photograph.

        Hope you have a great New Years!

          1. Lisa

            Hi Scott. You can get there three ways and I’ve been there since 2011 at http://ourecho.com OR http://www.ourecho.com OR ourecho.com. Sorry if I messed up. The “our” can’t be left out which I probably did. I don’t give out web pages that often so I probably forgot. I just book mark and that’s how I go there. Don’t forget the “our” in it. Without it you got sent somewhere else. Sorry about that.

            ourecho.com. then in the search box you can put in my name, Lisa, and you’ll get my pages and there are a few and my art pictures like everything else has a title and you’ll see photograph as a category that has my art. Since it’s the new year every new art project will I delete an old art pic or opinion commentary. I keep my stories up even though stopped writing them as I realized my animal art was my calling more than short story writing. Hope I was better explaining how to get there.

          2. Lisa

            Ohhhhh I see where I messed up, Scott. I didn’t put the entire address on one line like my correction. It looked divided. You just taught me a great lesson. Proof reading I can’t be lazy about.

  45. Leonela

    I see your point Scott but my question to you is, why is it important to point this out? Do you want everyone calling themselves artists to stop doing so? Do you want people to bend the knee only to those artists whom society has currently deemed is worthy? This is the same elitist mentality that keeps people of talent from believing they can become artists. So while I completely agree that there is a distinction in artists who have a point of view and stand by that art honorably and without “selling out,” I don’t think it makes anyone else less of an artist. I don’t see the point of this argument except to make others feel bad or less than.

    1. Scott Berkun

      Hi Leonela: Thanks for asking. The reason I wrote it was a response to people who think of themselves as artists, and even refer to them by that term, who seem not to understand the wider and historic significance of that term.

      From the comments I’m well aware some people found this post to be mean, or judgemental, but that wasn’t my primary intent. Instead I was hoping to widen readers perceptions of the possibly ways people relate to their creative work and perhaps even inspire them to do work that they would truly feel proud of in an artistic sense.

      1. Lisa

        Anyone who does something creative IS an artist. I do art as a hobby although I’m resting. I do animal art. Now maybe younfind nothing interesting about decorating a box and putting on an miniature animal on but I do that. I also use scrap. I use other materials some would overlook. I can cut out the logo off an egg carton for example and animalize it with a picture along with other things. I can use practically any base from cans to boxes. I have jars of little colored Styrofoam balls. I can use them whole, I can half them, I can turn those halves into little ‘Easter’ eggs, I can pierce them. Sound easy? Nope! You have to do it a certain way so you don’t crush it. I can change their color with Acrylics. Would my stuff sell? Nope. I do it for the sheer joy of it. Would you know how to do it? No! Has it ever been done before? Never seen it done. I taught myself. Art is creativity thus you are an artist.

  46. Matilde Tomat

    Not everyone is an artist. There are artisans, crafters, makers, doers, and artists. It feels to me that society is pushing everyone not only to be creative (and I am all for this) but to be artists. Still, not everyone is a brain surgeon, so why should we all be artists? Not everyone is a pianist, but some people might simply play the piano. Not everyone is a comedian or actor or singer. And there’s nothing wrong with that. I think that we would all be happier if we realised our role in society without a constant need to show off, belonging, and a misplaced sense of “deserving”.

  47. Augustine Leudar

    So I saw the title of this and thought “let’s see what this know it all internet cunt who feels he has the right to define what an artist sis or isnt has to say then”
    but after reading it Id have to say – I agree with it. You are right. You only slight exception I would have with it is that it’s much easier for someone from a wealthy background to “not sacrifice ” their artistic integrity for wealth etc – the implication of the above is that it’s easier for wealthy people to be a “true” artist. But many true artists shave no choice to make work and you are right they make incredible sacrifices for their work – including dying poor and alone. It’s also possible to do commercial work and not sacrifice the integrity of your work. But making a living as an artist and being true to yourself is fucking hard, id says you could let people off for occasionally doing stuff for money as long as they don’t sacrifice the main body of their work for it. For me a lot of very talented artists end up in the commercial world because they cant get into a gallery (if they don’t do conceptual stuff ) and they don’t have a trust fund. On the whole though about your article – – yeah right on.You should probably change the title though to why you are “probably” not an artist .

  48. Augustine

    also – add this to my last post
    You have to bear in mind artists always had patrons – it used to be the church. Michelangelo had to let the church guide his creative output to some degree and it certainly informed his creative decisions – does this mean he wasn’t an artist? Is it really that much worse having yo make art for cocas cola than a power structure that has arguably been one of the most culturally destructive on the planet (Christianity) Think you have to be carfeul making these kind of sweeping statements but on the whole – I still agree with you.



  1. […] An Artists Way “I think to call someone an Artist means they have some sense of 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.”- Scott Berkun […]

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