Who Gets To Be An Artist?

It’s become increasingly difficult to differentiate between artists and everyday people. In the past, artists were writers, actors, Broadway performers, designers, musicians, painters, etc. These people eschewed normal jobs in order to pursue their talent or passion, often because they struggled to fit the 9-5 mould. Nowadays, new technologies, the façade of social media, and misleading follower counts complicate the question of who can identify as an artist. Thankfully, because the world undoubtedly needed it, I’ve come up with a list of criteria to separate the artists from the imitators.

In the online world, where most of us begrudgingly live, people can change their titles, and thus, their identities, with a swift keystroke. We’ve all seen that person on LinkedIn who brands themselves as a photographer, despite having limited experience; or that person on Twitter who claims to be a poet in their bio; same with that Instagrammer who shamelessly tags their posts with #model.

Unlike the business world, where first you need a degree in your field, then your job title is defined by your employer and confirmed in a legally binding contract, the “creative” world is sort of like the Wild West, full of imposters, hucksters, and the utterly untalented. Most of whom claim to be artists. It’s a pretentious term, undoubtedly, and carries plenty of cache. The romantic notion of the artist dates back millennia, so it’s clear why someone would want to identify as such.

But allow me to invoke a bit of sophomoric logic: if everyone is an artist, then nobody is an artist. So, in the digital era, when everyone from your grandma to four-year-old cousin can upload a YouTube video, who are the real artists?

The problem is apparent in Apple’s ‘Shot on iPhone’ ad campaign. In the past, Apple has encouraged iPhone users to submit their best photos, which are then selected to appear on billboards, in Apple retail stores, and online. It’s a beautiful bit of marketing, designed to engage their customers and give artistic validity to their work. The latest iPhone campaign, called ‘On Tour,’ features candid shots of 16 musical artists, from Lizzo to Skrillex. It’s photos of famous entertainers, taken on iPhone, ostensibly by average people, and the subtext is that iPhone’s camera technology is so advanced that laypeople can take world-class photos. Which is a convenient idea, especially if you’re trying to sell a bunch of phones.

But where does that leave professional photographers? You know, the people who’ve studied the history of photography and spent years honing their craft. Their craftsmanship, technical ability, and experience are far above that of the average person. But can the point-and-touch iPhone user claim the title of photographer in the same way that a long-time DSLR owner might? Well, Apple would like you to think so.

To be clear, this isn’t Apple’s problem. Their job, without apology, is to move units. But I fear living in a culture where there’s no distinction between the artists that work tirelessly to perfect their techniques, and the everyday Jane bumbling around with a sophisticated piece of technology. The less we value the work of artists, the faster they’ll disappear, and the sooner we’ll be living in a society with the emotional capacity of an algorithm.

This problem might seem petty, a futile rant by someone that self-identifies (perhaps wrongly) as an artist. It could be that everyone is an artist, irrespective of their job title. Of course, there’s an aspect of artistry in all vocations. Yes, even those that fall outside the traditional parameters of “creativity.” A cabbie can find a clever route to their destination, carve smoothly around corners, intuit the appropriate level of small-talk. A lawyer can use a clever interpretation of tort law to exonerate a client, sway the jury with a beautiful display of rhetoric, or tactfully convince a perp to accept a plea bargain.

The internet has undoubtedly leveled the playing field. No barriers to entry. Choose your own avatar. The cream will rise to the top. Perhaps a true artist, then, familiarizes themselves with the internet economy, and finds a way to rise above the deluge of other crap. In late 2019, the ability to sell yourself online is intertwined with artistry. Just maybe.

But I can’t accept that answer. As someone whose been trying to “make it” as a writer for the past few years, there must be something about my commitment and efforts that distinguish me from my friends in more traditional fields who choose to express themselves on Instagram. That’s why I’ve come up with a checklist. Yes, I acknowledge my lack of authority on the matter. It would be irresponsible, however, to outline a problem without proposing a solution.

Below is a list. One must satisfy at least half of the criteria in order to be properly considered an artist. There’s some wiggle room, of course, and I’ve obviously missed some elements. I don’t doubt your ability to remind me in the comment section, likely with a few added insults. At least this will give you something concrete to consult before calling bullshit on your old college roommate that now claims to be an “immaterial sculptor” on his portfolio.

  1. You get paid for your work.

Chances are, if someone is willing to give you money for your work – which includes grants, commissions, gig money, among other monetary rewards – you qualify as an artist.

  1. You’ve been doing it for three to four years.

If you started painting last week, it’ll be difficult to convince others that you’re an artist. Try doing it for a few years. Committing to something consistently for at least three – roughly the same duration as an undergraduate degree – seems like a fair proposition.

  1. You’re disciplined in the craft.

It’s important to actually care about your craft. You work consistently, practice the techniques essential to your art form, and perhaps think about it even when you’re not working.

  1. You produce quality work.

Now, this is always going to be subjective, but if you’re a writer and you can’t properly string together a sentence, or you’re a magician that constantly bungles his tricks, or you’re an abstract expressionist whose work is often mistaken for a child’s finger painting, then you’re probably not an artist. Either practice more or quit before it’s too late.

  1. When asked, you identify yourself as an artist.

To be an artist, you should probably tell people as much. It’s difficult to be anything in life if you aren’t willing to tell people. This is something that gets more comfortable with time, as you gain confidence and produce more work.

  1. You’ve earned public recognition.

Everybody else seems to think you’re an artist. That’s a good start.

  1. You’ve earned the respect of other people in your industry.

If other people in your industry – whether it’s curators, editors, designers – think you’re legit, then there’s a really good chance that you’re an artist. Congrats.

  1. You’ve studied the craft, either on your own or at an accredited institution.

This alone doesn’t make you an artist. There are plenty of teachers and experts that can’t produce anything of substance. However, understanding the history of your craft gives you a good foundation for your work, and lends you a smidge of credibility.

2 thoughts on “Who Gets To Be An Artist?

Add yours

  1. Fantastic read.

    But I believe that the true talents and hardest workers will rise to the top of their craft for the long-run, while the “imposters” can only have a brief moment of success before being forgotten.


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