Bleg: What Makes Someone an Artist?

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45 Responses

  1. Avatar Will Truman says:

    I think you’re looking at it wrong.

    You’re an artist if you create (or perform) art. Period. It doesn’t matter whether it’s your career or your hobby.

    Whether you’re a professional artist or not depends on whether you make your income doing it. Even if it’s not a majority of your income (in which case, you may be a professional artist secondarily to your main source of income, but a professional artist all the same).

    There’s nothing wrong with artists being paid. Or wanting to be paid. I think a lot of the pushback comes from the sense of entitlement among some that because they are artists, they should be paid for their art. It’s up to the artist to create something that people want to pay for, if they want to be paid. That’s the same standard that engineers are held to, as best as I can tell.Report

    • Avatar Saul Degraw in reply to Will Truman says:

      How much of that sense of perception is real vs. perceived?

      I admit that I might not be the best judge because I am a former artist and have a lot of friends who are artists and I get defensive for them. I also have lots of friends who are academics and going through adjunct hell and I get defensive for my academic friends.

      It does sort of make me think if we are dealing with radically different worldviews or at least views on how the world works. Dhex once said that he thinks the adjunct debate is the most tone deaf if he ever heard and the way it plays in non-academic America is something like this: “Yeah man, I wanted to be a rock star/mega-athlete. Didn’t happen. Now I have a mediocre job and a medium chill attitude. Grab a Bud like the rest of us.” I also meet people who think it is absolutely nuts that I am still trying for a legal career even after 2.5 years of freelancing.

      It seems that these people think the legal market has changed forever and those jobs are not coming back and I should do as many of my law school associates did and just find some kind of medium-chill mediocre job and never hope for a serious or substantial career.

      Now there probably does come a point where continuing to try for a career as a lawyer or a full-time professorship becomes a form of insanity but I also think giving up right away is also a really hard and potentially very stupid choice.

      If my lifestyle and life as a contract lawyer continued the way it is now for the rest of my life (assuming costs of living adjustments to meet inflation and the like), that would not be objectively bad in any sense of the word. It would be a very good life. One that many people would kill for.

      Yet it also seems exceedingly never to grow and just give up any hope of having a career with growth potential. But the medium chill proponents would say I am simply in thrall of marketing and propaganda and I should just be a hippie with the rest of them.Report

      • Avatar dhex in reply to Saul Degraw says:

        you misunderstand the core of what i’m getting at with adjuncts or local community theatre groups or other folk looking for public sympathy, and by extension, public monies.

        the issue isn’t “we didn’t get our dreams either, so come be mediocre with us.” that encapsulation is in and of itself part of the problem. it’s how “you people” see “those people”.

        at my most negative moments there is no sweeter sound of an adjunct or permanent vap wailing “but i went to brown*!”, only to answered by the deafening silence of an entire world that cannot, will not, and shall never care.

        *[insert prestigious school here]Report

      • Avatar Chris in reply to Saul Degraw says:

        But the medium chill proponents would say I am simply in thrall of marketing and propaganda and I should just be a hippie with the rest of them.

        Hehe… [snipped to avoid being banned.]Report

    • Avatar Burt Likko in reply to Will Truman says:

      What @will-truman said. I do a lot of things. Some of them are professional and I expect to be paid for them. Some of them are hobbies and I do them for the enjoyment of doing them. Some of the things I do as hobbies, others do professionally. Were I to sculpt or paint or act or otherwise do something within the arts (oh, wait, I write) as a hobby, I would still consider myself an “artist.”Report

    • Avatar Mike Dwyer in reply to Will Truman says:



      If you make art, you’re an artist. Period. Being able to legitimately be throw the word professional in front of it is just a bonus.Report

  2. Avatar Jaybird says:

    Watch “I Hope I Get It” from A Chorus Line again.

    It’s all right there.

    That play pretty much explains everything, actually. I’m a “Dance 10, Looks 3” guy, unfortunately. Thank goodness for cosmetic surgery!Report

  3. Avatar LeeEsq says:

    I’d say an artist is somebody who adopts art as his or her vocation regardless of economic or artistic success. The actor who pays the bill as a bartender is an artist because what that person really wants to do for a living is act. If asked what he or she does for a living, that person would probably refer to themselves as an actor and not a bartender. Your scientist-classically trained singer friend has adopted scientist as her vocation and is therefore, not an artist.Report

  4. Why does art look like playing compared to other work? It is very hard to do art well, I say this a MFA holding former theatre director so I have a bit of experience. Producing art can be fun but there are also days when it is a drag, nothing goes right, and you just want to go home and collapse, just like every other job.

    I’m not sure a lot of people necessarily say art looks “like playing” or deny that it can be hard to do well. I’m sure such people exist, but that doesn’t seem to me to be the real objection. But everyone’s mileage varies, I guess.

    I agree with Will Truman. A good working rule for who is an artist, for me, is someone who does or performs art. I guess then we have to go into a discussion of what is art and what isn’t, and I’m poorly qualified to have that discussion. But in general, I’d say someone is an artist if they do/perform it.

    Almost every theatre person is a professional amateur and needs to take a normal job between projects but many always have a bill-paying job to go to, the lucky ones find an employer that gives them a lot of flex time or start their own businesses. The unlucky ones just rely on temping or having a 9-5 without much career advancement but steady pay.

    Some people really do consider themselves lucky to have a bill-paying job to go to, or to have a 9-5 without much career advancement but steady pay. Whether or not one is an artist or aspiring artist, that’s an important thing for a lot of people. Maybe it’s still settling, and maybe it’s better to have a fulfilling with a ladder that one can climb until reaching VP or whatever, but having the basic security is huge for a lot of people. (Of course, I skipped over your reference to temping, and that can indeed be a drag.)

    I don’t think there is anything wrong with getting paid for doing what you love. There are plenty of people who love their STEM jobs and they get paid well. We would never tell a STEM person “If you love math so much, why do you want to get paid for doing it.” Yet many people feel perfectly cool saying this to artists and pointing to the example of the professional amateur without realizing that the TV they are watching could not be produced by unpaid amateurs, it probably required a lot of money.

    There’s a heckuva lot of truth to the second, third, and first half of the fourth sentence.

    The first sentence is also true (in my opinion). But I’m not sure very many people actually think there’s much wrong with getting paid to do what one loves. There is, I suspect, a sense of jealousy, along the lines of “why should that person get to do what s/he loves and I can’t?” There’s also a sense that “I don’t think there’s anything wrong with getting paid for doing what you love” morphs to easily into “I deserve to get paid for doing what I love.” That sense might be unfair, but I think that’s part of what’s going on.

    As for the last part of the fourth sentence, it’s probably correct to say those programs, etc., could not be produced by amateurs and could not be produced without a lot of money. But I suspect producing those things requires the work of business professionals, lesser paid persons like janitors and caterers, and the former business majors and salespersons who seek commercial funding. It’s not only the artists who make those things happen, although without them those things probably wouldn’t happen at all.Report

    • Avatar Jaybird in reply to Gabriel Conroy says:

      Along with the whole “getting paid to do what one loves” thing, there is the hidden issue of “who’s the guy doing the paying?”

      When it comes to, say, writing code that turns these numbers into other numbers, it’s fairly easy to imagine the person willing to pay $100,000 a year for someone who is very good at writing, maintaining, and patching such code (or, at least, the corporation willing to do that).

      It’s somewhat less easy for me to imagine someone willing to pay $100,000 a year (or $50,000, for that matter) for someone else to sing the songs from the Jim Henson Muppets Catalog. Even if those songs are very, very good.Report

  5. Avatar Johanna says:

    I think @will-truman has it right. What is perceived by others does not make or break whether someone is or isn’t an artist. How much time? How much money? I honestly don’t think it matters. Most standards of classification are pretty subjective. I am doing graphic design daily in my job, I have work out there that has been seen by who knows how many people, but nowhere in my job title does graphic design appear yet I am making considerably more work, am having my work seen by far more people regularly than my friend who calls himself a graphic designer and hasn’t had a real design job in 2 years. Most people would still consider him to be an artist albeit a non-successful one and I am the administrative person.

    I have spent a good deal of time recently on stage, when I am on stage performing, what am I? Well once again looking at it purely by monetary definitions I would not be an artist. If I was paid to be on stage to do exactly the same theatre work I would become an artist. I find it silly and not worth worrying about. I love art, I make art. I am making art in venues which are both paid and unpaid, but in terms of how the general public might classify me, I am not an artist. Meh. My designer friend, regardless of whether he can actually make a living on his talent does not mean he is no longer an artist, @saul-degraw, even though you are not currently doing theatre doesn’t mean you quit being a theatrical artist. Just because you aren’t paid for your talent, doesn’t mean it just becomes a hobby. Of course if you want to dismiss Van Gogh as an artist because he only sold one painting while alive, by all means.Report

    • Avatar Gabriel Conroy in reply to Johanna says:


      How would you respond to what I take to be Lee’s definition? Do you identify yourself first and foremost as an artist? Does it compete with the other hats you wear? Do you think these questions I’ve just posed are even important enough to answer? (I ask these questions sincerely…..and I do think Lee’s definition can get a little more play on the issue.)Report

      • Avatar Johanna in reply to Gabriel Conroy says:

        When I am making art, I would consider myself an artist but it is merely one of the many terms I would use to describe myself. It doesn’t matter whether it is the main focus, where I make my money, or what I am most passionate about. I don’t think it matters. The idea that one can’t levitamately be considered an artist if they have other passions or priorities doesn’t strike me as particularly meaningful.Report

  6. Avatar j r says:

    We would never tell a STEM person “If you love math so much, why do you want to get paid for doing it.” Yet many people feel perfectly cool saying this to artists…

    I have to call you out on this. Who are these “many people?”

    There are lots of people who build model rockets or kit cars on the weekends. And we understand the difference between that and working a job as a paid engineer. Likewise, most people understand the difference between having an artistic hobby and trying to make it as a professional artist. If anything, people tend to be overly deferential to people with artistic aspirations, because there is a certain cache to being a full-time artist.

    There are lots of examples of people expecting artists to work professional gigs for low pay or in kind payment (ie exposure), but this is always justified as a way to increase exposure and earn more money in the future. I have yet to see example of anyone who claims that artists ought to continue to produce professional-quality work for no pay in perpetuity.Report

    • Avatar Kazzy in reply to j r says:


      I will say that there are certain professions — among them my own, teaching — where people assume that a love of the work makes it unbecoming to also try to maximize earnings. The weird thing is that there is a perverse feedback loop at play. Why do I do what I do for $60K a year when I probably have the skills to do something else and make twice that? Because I really, really enjoy what I do. Does that mean I should turn down a salary two times my current? Heck no! Of course, one of the main groups of people who promote this narrative are the people signing my checks and, obviously, they have their own incentives to try to discourage me from negotiating for higher pay.

      But the idea is out there that if I push to make the most money possible, it must somehow mean that I love my work less.Report

      • Avatar j r in reply to Kazzy says:

        But the idea is out there that if I push to make the most money possible, it must somehow mean that I love my work less.

        This is the idea that I am pushing back against. I just don’t see it. I cannot think of any real world examples of people being shamed for wanting more money.

        You mention teachers, but i continually see teachers advocating for better money. And I see quite a lot of support for the idea that teachers ought to make more money.

        I would be curious to see some examples of the phenomena that you and @saul-degraw are referring.Report

      • Avatar Kazzy in reply to Kazzy says:


        I only have anecdotes, unfortunately. The idea is there. I won’t say that it is pervasive but it certainly exists, even if only as a source of leverage for “management”.Report

      • Avatar j r in reply to Kazzy says:


        As a source of leverage, I agree. When I was negotiating the salary for my present job, my now-boss made a point about looking for someone who really wanted to be here and was not just looking to use an offer or the job as a short-term stepping stone to more money. I took that statement for what it was: his desire to not have to recruit someone else for the same position a few months later and a negotiation tactic.

        In the larger context, however, I am still not seeing the sort of thing that @saul-degraw referenced in the post.Report

      • Avatar Tod Kelly in reply to Kazzy says:

        @j-r I agreed with your main point. I too have never heard anyone make the argument that artists who love their work should be expected to work for free.

        But I’ll push back a wee bit with this:

        “I cannot think of any real world examples of people being shamed for wanting more money.”

        Remember that statement the next time one of the major sports players unions talks about going on strike. Because shaming players for wanting more to play a game we’d all love to play for a living is pretty much 24/7 sports talk radio when that happens.Report

      • Avatar Kazzy in reply to Kazzy says:


        While negotiating a new contract (in independent schools, teachers typically work on a year-to-year basis and sign a new contract each spring), I mentioned wanting a raise and cited why I thought I deserved one. My boss hemmed and hawed on a few different points, one of which was, “I’m a little surprised, to be honest. I really thought you had a passion for this.”

        I was really put off but ultimately opted not to fire back, “Yes, I do have a passion for this. But passion doesn’t put food on the table.”Report

  7. Avatar Michael Cain says:

    There are plenty of people who love their STEM jobs and they get paid well. We would never tell a STEM person “If you love math so much, why do you want to get paid for doing it.” Yet many people feel perfectly cool saying this to artists…

    Multiple thoughts here…

    I would never ask an artist that particular question. I might be tempted to ask “Why do you want to be paid more than the market-clearing price?” just to see how they respond.

    There are also people who despise their STEM jobs, but have to pay the bills. Granted, there’s a difference between someone who wants to write complex real-time control systems having to take a job as a traveling support engineer for such systems, and an actor waiting tables. But it’s a complicated comparison.

    The other post had at least one subthread on universal basic income (with a hint of “reserved for artists”). I don’t necessarily oppose UBI, but would want to be sure that a programmer writing the next great app is just as eligible as a writer working on the Great American Novel. I admit that I’m more inclined to guaranteed employment than guaranteed income, but that’s a function of my own career experiences — I can walk into any department in any state government and in a week, find millions of dollars worth (at current billing rates) of needed programming that is going undone due to lack of funding.Report

    • Avatar Kim in reply to Michael Cain says:

      I do know someone who does TONS of charity work in programming.Report

      • Avatar Michael Cain in reply to Kim says:

        My own interest in this is less about having employed programmers donate their time, and more about matching needed programming work with unemployed programmers/analysts. Many of the state systems that I’m thinking about will need ongoing time-critical support service as well as the original coding. In some cases, just figuring out all of the requirements for the system (eg, which HIPAA requirements must it meet) will need months-long full-time work.Report

    • As a follow-on to myself, another point where Saul is over-simplifying is between mathematics and STEM more generally. There are plenty of amateur mathematicians who spend large amounts of time on various math problems just for the joy of it. Mostly you don’t hear about the people who go home from work, have dinner with the spouse, put the kids to bed, then spend two hours working on a proof of the Four Color Theorem. While there is now a generally-accepted proof of the theorem, many people consider it inelegant because it depends on computer programs, and there are still amateurs working on a “human” proof. I have a conjecture in 3D geometry that I work on from time to time.Report

    • Avatar Saul DeGraw in reply to Michael Cain says:


      My view of Universal Basic Income is that it would go to all citizens once they turned 18 or 21. Anything else that people wanted to earn above basic income would be fine but they had to work for it and that extra income would be taxed.

      However, I think you are more likely to see people decide “Woo Hoo, I can just audition or write or paint or direct” instead of “I need to be a bartender and go out on auditions all day….” Maybe there are STEM people who would just live of their UBI and do interesting projects or startups but I think plenty would go for well-paying big jobs too.

      I also think UBI is basically a pipe dream but maybe I will be proven wrong on that one.Report

    • Avatar Michael Drew in reply to Michael Cain says:

      I meant to give off a decidedly not-reserved-for-artists vibe to my UBI plaint in that thread, FWIW. I meant to express disdain for any thoughts among artists that as artists they somehow uniquely among people deserve an income even if their work doesn’t currently bring them one, or deserve more income than the person who isn’t an artist and is having a hard the finding something productive to do. They do deserve a basic income – the one that everyone deserves. If they earn more, great.

      That being said, it might be the case that other structural or modal (legal, tech, etc.) changes in our exchange economy would be justified that would put some artists in a better position in terms of selling than they are now in. I’m a bit skeptical that any are going to promise fundamental change for the position of the independent artist over the short or long runs (maybe the medium though!). But if they’re justified, they’re justified.Report

  8. Avatar Kazzy says:

    Am I any less of a runner because I don’t get paid to run? Am I any less of a reader because I don’t get paid to read? Am I any less of a blogger because I don’t get paid to blog (all y’all are not getting paid too, right???)?

    I am a big believer in the importance of self-identification. I’m hard pressed to deny someone taking on an identifier provided they can make a reasonable claim to it. So if someone creates art in any form or fashion and wants to identify him/herself as an artist, far be it from me to insist otherwise.Report

  9. Avatar Burt Likko says:

    As to the basic question of the OP, at the risk of repeating myself, I repeat myself: “art” is some kind of communication, necessarily through some sort of medium, that is intended to and actually does communicate a concept from artist to audience. Whether it has economic value or aesthetic appeal are questions of economics and aesthetics. But the essence of art is communication through some kind of medium.Report

    • Allow me to attempt to muddy the waters… Consider the following list of things: (1) The mathematical proof of a revolutionary new algorithm that makes it trivial to break all contemporary encryption schemes; (2) A patent application for a decryption box built around the algorithm; (3) The design for an integrated circuit that implements that algorithm; (4) The integrated circuit itself; (5) A screenplay for a thrilling movie about the mathematician’s attempt to escape from the black-helicopter arm of the US government which wants the algorithm for itself alone; and (6) The movie made from the screenplay. Which are art?

      My sense is that you would classify (5) and (6) as art, but not the others. I would add (1) because of the intuitive creativity involved in such work. (2) and (3) are craftsmanship but not art, even though (2) is required by law to be communicative. (4) is an interesting case. Pictures of integrated circuits taken under polarized light have been billed as art for decades now. Are they?Report

      • Avatar Dan Miller in reply to Michael Cain says:

        Maybe we should include some notion of intent? A person who builds an integrated circuit for purposes of cracking codes doesn’t intend to communicate a message; they’re just trying to accomplish some other task (namely, codebreaking). On the other hand, if someone manufactures an integrated circuit and then puts it on a pedestal in a gallery and calls it a sculpture, they clearly intend for it to be seen in that context, making it art, and themselves artists.Report

      • @dan-miller I did incorporate an element of intent: “…some kind of communication, necessarily through some sort of medium, that is intended to and actually does communicate a concept from artist to audience”.

        @michael-cain a patent application includes something called “artwork,” which is intended to represent what the actual device, the chip in this case, looks like. In addition, the words and phrases supporting that application leave substantial room for the patent attorney to work her craft, explaining why a patent ought to be granted. I can only imagine that similar things are true about the documents setting forth the design of the chip. So there’s art in the patent application at least and almost certainly in the design documents. The algorithm itself is a mental concept; it is the message, not the medium. The chip isn’t intended to communicate the algorithm; it’s intended to apply it. So the algorithm and the chip aren’t art. Everything else is.

        IMO, no patent should be applied for in this case for a whole lot of reasons. The attorney should rather have strongly advised that the design of so sensitive a device be kept as a trade secret and the use of the device then leased out to The Customer (that is, the government) with the manufacturer retaining physical custody of the device to prevent reverse-engineering.Report

      • @burt-likko
        I am disinclined to include patent “artwork” in the same category that would include, say, a movie. Patent drawings provide clarification of what is essentially an engineering description, and are often as simple as box-and-arrow flow charts (indeed, I am listed as the inventor on multiple patents whose only “artwork” is box-and-arrow charts).

        I would accept a slightly different version of your definition: intent to communicate emotional content using some medium. Jackson Browne’s “The Load-Out,” yes; the mood-setting lighting for his concert rendition of the song, yes; the wiring diagram for the system to produce that lighting or the audio amplification, no. That definition does create a different problem for me: what to call the intuitive creative process involved in a new mathematical proof. My own experience suggests (to me, at least) that there are similarities in the creative efforts involved in that type of math and capital-A Art.Report

      • Well, let’s short-circuit that. Must art convey some sort of emotion? Or can it convey an intellectual concept only? Seems to me that a lot of art is intended to document things for posterity or historians rather than to convey an emotion.

        Consider, for instance, this famous photograph. You and I may attach emotion to that artwork upon reviewing it and being reminded or educated about the history, but the photographer’s principal intent is to record what was happening when he took the photo.

        Is the photo any less “art” because the photographer’s intent was to convey information rather than to convey emotion?Report

      • Avatar Saul Degraw in reply to Michael Cain says:

        One of the lessons I received over and over again during my theatre education is that theatre had to be about people and emotions and not intellectual abstract concepts. You can do a play about scientists and academics (Proof, Galileo, Arcadia) but you can’t do an effective play about Science. Aristotle was the first who made this distinction in his Poetics. You can do a play about racists and their victims but you can’t do a play about racism.

        There are people who disagree with Aristotle’s theories on Drama. Brecht is probably the most notable anti-Aristotlean.

        I lean closer to Aristotle. Art needs to convey or provoke some kind of emotional response. This does not mean it has to be narrative or representational. I think that Robert Motherwell’s Elegy to the Spanish Republic gives me an emotional experience as does the work of Richard Serra.Report

      • I lean closer to Aristotle.

        I try to follow a middle path: not overdose on Aristotle, but not go to the other extreme of defying him altogether.Report

  10. Avatar Chris says:

    God I hope it’s not the “getting paid to” part that makes someone an artist.Report

    • Avatar Slade the Leveller in reply to Chris says:

      The dichotomy lies between artist and professional artist. I play bass guitar, for which I have never received recompense. Paul McCartney plays bass guitar and is worth a billion dollars. I am an artist and he is a paid artist. Nonetheless, when he and I pick up our guitars we are both artists.Report

  11. Avatar Rufus F. says:

    I agree that there’s a difference between a hobbyist and someone who makes art to survive. But I don’t know that I’d call one an artist and the other not.

    I do think there’s a level of commitment that has to be pretty high before someone actually creates worthwhile art. I think of Jean Michel Basquiat in anguish telling his girlfriend that he just could not work anymore and had to stay in the apartment and paint. On one hand, I can’t imagine telling that to a partner. On the other hand, he was right.Report

    • Avatar Rufus F. in reply to Rufus F. says:

      And Basquiat the housecleaner would never have mattered.Report

    • Avatar Kim in reply to Rufus F. says:

      I hate Wagner. His whole philosophy on art really steams my hide.Report

    • Avatar Chris in reply to Rufus F. says:

      Bruno Schultz wrote all of his published work while working as a drawing teacher; he only published it when excerpts from his stories he used in letters were passed to a novelist (Na?kowska), who recognized their brilliance (and his is one of the truly unique voices of the last century), and encouraged to publish them accompanied by his own drawings. So he produced the art while getting paid to teach, and only got paid for it later (and not very much). Was he not an artist until the stories were published? What did Na?kowska recognize when she read his letters? Proto-art? A potential artist who’d already created his art?

      Seriously, even a moment’s reflection shows that the getting paid part is irrelevant, and even considering it creates all sorts of absurdities.Report

  12. Avatar Chris says:

    Speaking seriously, “artist” is obviously just someone who produces art. That is, it’s a role-governed category. We have all sorts of markes and modifiers for indicating what sort of artist someone is, from the definite article indicating that a person is the artist if this piece, and perhaps nothing else, to “famous,” which denotes that being an artist it central to the person’s social identity and the reason he or she is known. There are “professional” and “amateur” and “part-time” and many other species in between, with different levels of implied essentialism.

    The real work is of course being done by the concept of ART, which is the subject of a couple thousand years of literature, none of which, to my knowledge, requires that an artifact be exchanged for money in order for it to qualify as art.Report

  13. Avatar Tod Kelly says:

    I think Will gets it right up top, and I have to confess I’m puzzled not so much by the pushback as I am by *who* is pushing back.

    Using the degree to which you’re paid for something as the rubric of who is and isn’t an artist — and therefor by definition what is and isn’t art — gets you to a place where Harper Lee is either barely or not at all an artist, and John Grisham, Nora Roberts and Dan Brown are part of the Great Canon.Report