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Defining an Artist

Honorific vs. Generic

By: Charles Giuliano - 08/30/2014

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."
Reader Comments
From "Patricia Hills"
09-01-2014, 11:28 am
Let's get away from nouns and focus on the verbs. MAKING art is more interesting than BEING an artist. It is the process that is important, not the identity politics. Making art has a context.
From "Rafael Sinclair Mahdavi"
09-01-2014, 09:42 am
Ask a writer what she does and she'll say she's a writer, a film director will say she's a film director , a dancer will say she's a dancer, an actress an actress, and so on until you ask a painter/sculptor/intstallationist/conceptualist/videast etc and she'll say she's an artist. You make things, which may one day be considered art.You don't make art, like Zeus producing producing Athena fully formed and divine from his head. Sadly most so-called artistes (make sure now you pronounce this word with a Gallic sneer) think they're godly. If you're lucky the stuff you've made will end up in some garage sale in Topeka Kansas, and if you are extremely lucky your stuff will end up in a museum for a short while–until the favor of the season changes–and for the wrong reasons usually.
From "Julian Grey"
08-31-2014, 06:54 pm
I define an artist as someone who is compelled to create art. Period.
From "Cary"
08-31-2014, 05:32 pm
Besides his actual work, that next-to-last paragraph makes it clear that Benno's bar for the term is much higher than most, as certainly your criteria for being a "critic" is more complicated than a "like/don't like" even if it is funny. I think photographers get stuck with the problem more than other artists, especially if, say, they specialize and have to describe without visual aids (how about cats and dogs - Chandoa and Wegman, for two). Hence, yes, the need for verbal gymnastics. But I can also imagine a painter who might welcome the house gig without having to advertise.
From "Arthur Yanoff"
08-31-2014, 08:00 am
very good essay dealing with a complicated question that is personal,professional,cultural,social ,even political. with the spread of the internet everyone is an artist,critic,author, journalist,doctor ,lawyer, sociologist, chef,detective. i usually tell people that i am a painter,then they try to hire me to paint their house,so i have to say artist. i like your comment about the tie.
From "J Kiley-Thomas"
08-30-2014, 08:03 pm
He sounds like a big bla-bla artist.It's not what we say but we do.
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