Defining an Artist

Honorific vs. Generic

By: - Aug 30, 2014

While working at transcribing a lengthy interview with the Berkshire based Benno Friedman, whom I have known since undergraduate days from Brandeis, this fragment emerged. The entire text will be posted when finished.
For now I thought it reflected my own feelings about how loosely the term "artist" is inappropriately applied. Recently, in an interview with the playwright Mark Saint Germain, (Dr. Ruth, Freud's Last Sessions, Best of Enemies, Dancing Lessons)  he had misgivings about regarding himself as an artist.

It is an issue that comes up with serious practitioners across the arts.
Perhaps it is better to say "I make art" or "I write" than "I'm an artist" or "I'm a writer."
Some time ago someone asked what I am.
Glibly I answered "I'm a critic."
Logically the man asked "What makes you a critic?"
To which I answered "I don't like your tie."
This is how Benno answered my question.
"Many artists. Actually I’m not going to use that term. Many people working in non commercial arts supported themselves by driving a cab, waiting on tables, teaching, doing construction, being an assistant to somebody else. Those are the primary ways for an artist. Shit. It’s hard to avoid that word.

"The reason why I have a thing about it is that people say 'Are you an artist?' Not just me that’s a question asked of anyone who has an exhibition. Work that they shot of their cat or baby. Then manage to get it up in a coffee shop. When asked the usual answer is 'Yeah I like to think of myself as an artist.'

"To me the term artist is an honorific. It’s something I try as hard as I can not to call myself. It’s not to be used in a casual fashion. Without doing verbal gymnastics I am finding it hard to use another word. To use a term that can replace the word artist. I think artist is an elevation of craft and technique and perception into something much larger. An artist provides access into a place that others can’t casually wander into.
"It implies a profound revelation of soul and individuality or revelation of place. They are profound enough to put themselves into a place that can’t be easily traveled to. The challenge is to extract interesting work from that. That event evolves over time into a series of places that are explored. Those places are either literal or metaphorical. At that point I start to think of someone as being an artist. Someone who has really contributed to the body of knowledge that we have about ourselves. Our world. And the world we imagine.
"But to talk about people who have spent six months with a set of watercolors and give them that title is not easy for me to do. So I apologize for hedging."