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.


66 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.

        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. 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.

  2. 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.


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