WHO IS AN ARTIST? (And When Can You Call Yourself One?)

“Artist” is a loaded word these days… Is it a label? A title? An occupation? I think it’s simply a means to an end?

A reader emailed me today with a simple question. She’s been on her creative path for awhile now. She wanted to know if what she does, is art. And when we know it’s time to call ourselves an “artist”.

Here’s how the internationally-respected art blog Making A Mark introduced the topic a few years ago. It’s an interesting read. You’ll find in the comments that opinions run the gamut from the sublime to the ridiculous, the strict delineations to the all-embracing. I love the one explaining how Canada defines “professional artist.”

Me? I really don’t know.

Seriously. I just had a consult with someone who works with archetypal symbols to help us chart our course. I seem to be top-heavy in “magician”. Magician sees many perspectives, and tries to hold many points of view. Sometimes this leads to deeper knowledge and understanding. But sometimes we get lost in a “hall of mirrors”, unable to find our real path for all the confusion of multiple images.

Hence (I’ve waited all year to use “hence”!) I see the validity in many opinions on what is a “real artist”.

But here’s the bottom line: If we really say that people have to have credentials, sales, fame, and a life dedicated entirely to art in order to be considered real artist, and that only certain media are eligible (painting, preferably oils, for example), then we are going to eliminate thousands upon thousands of people who have created works that have stood the test of time. And I’m not just talking decades or centuries. I’m talking millennia. (Not counting half the human race that weren’t recognized at all during that time. Yes, girls, I’m talking about US.)

On the other hand, I know junk when I see it. Just sayin’.

One of my favorite stories about this–who is, and isn’t, an artist–took place over a decade ago, when I was looking for a studio space in a newly-renovated building not far from my house. My husband and I were talking with some of the building’s owners and one of them asked what I did. I replied, “I’m a fiber artist.” He said something like “That’s nice”, and the conversation continued. About ten minutes later, he mentioned a local painter and exclaimed, “Now, she’s a real artist!”

I was pretty grounded by then, and bemused, not insulted. The person he’d mentioned wasn’t actually a very good painter, and she eventually moved on to other media. But it didn’t matter to him that she wasn’t that skilled, and I was. Her media automatically defined her as a “real” artist, in his mind.

Another telling tale: Many times, at parties, gatherings, etc. someone I don’t know will ask what I do. I’ll tell them, and again, I get the equivalent of “That’s nice.” But later in the conversation, when they ask me where I sell my work, I’ll reply, “Well, my biggest retail show is the League of NH Craftsmen, so I do ‘Sunapee’ (the show’s totally unofficial and informal nickname) and sell through a lot of the League galleries.” Then there’s a respectful gasp of admiration and the inevitable, “You do Sunapee?! You must be awesome!”

Of course, these are assessments made by people who may not know a lot about art. They may not know how exquisitely tricky those “official” delineations are. For example, if you make a sculpture in clay, it’s usually classified as “craft”. But if you create a bronze cast of that sculpture, then the bronze version is considered “art.” (How’s that for weird?)

I’m the same person, before and after, credentials notwithstanding.

So how do we decide?

Well, as I’ve said before, you don’t need a license to practice art. But here’s what I really think….

If you are making something that makes your heart sing, if you enjoy it, if it connects you to your higher self, if it connects others to their higher self, even for a few brief moments, then yeah, you’re an artist.

And you can start calling yourself that right now. Go ahead! You have my permission.

Short version, for you: It’s tempting to wait til you believe it, to say it. But one of my most powerful mentors said exactly the opposite…
You have to SAY “I’m an artist” before you can believe it.
How many times do you have to say it?
You have to say “I’m an artist” as many times as you’ve been told (and told yourself) you’re not.

So if you’ve told yourself a million times you’re not an artist, you need to say it a million and one times to truly believe it yourself. And if you believe it, others will, too.

I had to do this. It works. It took a year. But by then, the phrase, “I’m an artist”, rolled off my tongue. And I knew it was true.

If people are curious, and it’s hard to explain what you do, hand them your business card (which absolutely should have a bit of your artwork on it, if at all possible) that has your website (because you need to have an online presence of some sort so people can see/hear/watch what you do).

And let them decide for themselves.

Let others decide. Let history decide. Let your credentialing institution decide. Let your family, your boss, your peers decide.

It doesn’t matter.

Only you know the true worth of what you do.

Don’t doubt what you are. Don’t second-guess what you do. Just constantly strive to make it as good as you can.

After all, only you can do it.

Say it loud, say it proud, “I’m an artist!” right out loud.

14 Comments

Filed under affirmations

14 responses to “WHO IS AN ARTIST? (And When Can You Call Yourself One?)

  1. This, right here, is why I love you much, Miss Luann! I am an artist!
    Enjoy the day! Erin

  2. Thanks Luann~ This is a very interesting topic.. and it really can be funny too )) I actually love the surprise of revealing that I primarily use markers. Of course I can oil paint a portrait.. but we Artists are full of creativity so why do what anyone else expects or categorizes us to do!?! As You point out – it is our job to expand awareness and yes be guides to a higher self.

  3. Hello Luann,
    Although I have been calling myself an artist for years, I still seem to have to justify it continually to family and certain un-enlightened friends. It is a shame but I think it still has a lot to do with me working at home which has always been perceived as easy to people who have to drag themselves in to an office or shop each day. I still love all of these people but wish they would quit trying to find me jobs in the real world. Thank you for your insightful writing on this and other subjects.

  4. Masha

    Luann, what a stirring post. My heart has jumped into my throat. I want to see myself as an artist but don’t think I’m good enough yet. Consequently, I will be one of those saying “I am an artist” one million and one times. How long does that take I wonder?
    Maybe I can record myself saying “I am an artist” one million and one times. Performance art!

  5. Hmm, interesting :) First of all: I call myself an amateur painter (or artist). I think there’s nothing wrong with the word ‘amateur’. For me, it says that you’re not busy with art fulltime and you’re not selling your creations. Also, I think it’s fair to call myself an amateur artist to all the people who really invested time and money to study art and master specific techniques. But what really matters in the end, are your creations. Right now, I don’t want to worry about how to call myself, I just want to paint and master new techniques. After a few years, I hope to have my own recognizable and unique signature. Maybe that’s when I’ll become an artist without the word ‘amateur’. But even then it shouldn’t matter. Let me end with a thought I’m having right now: you’re an artist when someone who’s better than you (with better techniques, a stronger signature) honestly thinks you are one…

    • If only people who actually sold art could be called artists, what would you call Vincent Van Gogh? The only person who bought his work while he was alive was his brother Theo. And much art in the world was not made to be sold, for example, the very cave paintings that inspire my own art.
      You’re right & confident to not be worried about what you call yourself. This post was for all those folks out there who feel there’s a test to be passed or a credential to be granted or a club to belong to, that will make you feel like a real artist. When, in reality, many “real” artists still struggle with the label.
      I just want to see more people make stuff, and I hope that writing this article will help.

      • Okay, maybe selling art isn’t that important. It’s more that when I think of the word professional vs. the word amateur, I automatically think of ‘earning your living with something’ vs. ‘mainly doing something for fun or personal growth’. But your blog isn’t about the words professional and amateur, but only about the word artist. Then I stick to my two other points of view: an artist tries to spend all of his (spare) time on art and calls him/herself artist because others with more ore the same amount of talent think he or she really is one. These two things also apply to Van Gogh. In the end, he spent all of his time on art and was admired by other great artists of his time, like Gauguin or Lautrec. I’m glad you picked my ‘fellow Dutchman’ Van Gogh as an example, because he’s also one of the great ones I admire a lot. Let’s not forget that leading the life of Van Gogh isn’t easy; it must have been very hard. When you only create some nice things and after that start calling yourself an artist, I think you’re not being true to yourself. Being (only a little bit like) Van Gogh is about leading your whole life as an artist. But I can only agree with you that creating stuff with an artistic passion is a good thing. Again, the label ‘artist’ shouldn’t be important to you when doing the latter. And I’m glad that worries about being an artist or not never stopped Van Gogh to add more beauty to our world. He just never stopped creating. That’s also what I want to do: never stop creating.

      • I’m honored you responded so thoughtfully to my post. I set my feet firmly on my artistic path the day I said, “I HAVE to be an artist or I’ll die”… (as I was already sabotaging my life with resentment and deflected dreams). “And I don’t even care if I’m a GOOD artist. I just have to do it.” And so I whole – hearted ly say YES to your last two sentences, and may what others think never discourage you from making your art.

  6. Luann, as a California artist…I am enjoying your search here for a “home.” I show in the bay area and also in the Los Angeles area…but mostly I think about what you said about expectations….not just in art, but in life! which I also write about in my newsletter…meanwhile at a Marine Dinner last night, my “mature” WW2 husband and I sat next to another Marine and his wife..looking to be at least a Korean Vet…very poker faced and not very social…while I visited with a woman Marine across the way who was very lively….my husband’s comment about the couple , ‘The are taking aging much too seriously.!” so also myself as artist? have fun..hope to see you this way somehow sometime…One of the places I show regularly is at the Heather Farms ARt Festival in Walnut Creek in June…beth summers
    http://bethsummersartist.blogspot.com

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