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Stacey Cornelius
I'm a writer, jargon translator, idea junkie & creative entrepreneur with a Fine Art degree. I have years of professional experience in retail, theatre, fine craft and information technology.  Read More

Who wants to be an artist?

January 27, 2010

Here’s a question you don’t want to ask at the dinner table: what is art? If you’re brave enough to throw that one into the soup, follow it up with this: who gets to be called an artist?

Yesterday Clint Watson began that discusson on his blog Fine Art Views. Clint wrote a thoughtful article about the potential impact of marketing guru Seth Godin’s new book, Linchpin, and the way he’s used the word “artist.”

Here’s a quote from an interview with Seth Godin, from gapingvoid:

“Artist doesn’t mean painter or cartoonist or playwright. Artist means someone willing to stand up, stand out and make change.”

So far, so good. Then there’s this:

“…what do we call a customer service rep or an insurance adjuster or landscape architect that changes the game, that elevates each interaction and that takes enormous emotional and professional risk with their work? I think they need a name, so I stole one. I call them artists.”

Let’s be absolutely clear: I am not out to vilify Seth Godin. I subscribe to his blog, and I agree with most of his ideas. I think he overstepped by appropriating “artist,” I said so publicly, and I stand by that. I understand where he’s going with the concept. I just wish he’d chosen a different word.

Because it feels like another chapter in the tale of a very long siege.

You know the flaky artist stereotype. If you’re Canadian, you are well aware that during the last federal election campaign, our own Prime Minister tried to convince the electorate that artists are a bunch of freeloaders who whine about funding cuts while attending rich galas.

Would the PM pull that stunt on an ethnic or religious group? Not a chance. Artists? Sure, who cares?

(Note to politicians: never take a swipe at people who communicate for a living.)

Artists have to deal other kinds of credibility erosion—there are those who produce work that’s just not good. Some are professionals, some aren’t. They still get to call themselves artists.

On the other side of the stereotype, there’s the romantic appeal of the artistic lifestyle: total freedom, not much work—it must be so cool to be an artist.

The professional artists I know make good art. They have kids, mortgages, and work their asses off.

All things considered, it’s no surprise that stealing the name has raised objections. It’s not a new thing, having to defend your worth or your work, and that’s the problem—it keeps happening.

“What is art” is a difficult question. It’s subjective. It’s hard to know where this part of the discussion is going, but it’s important to have it.

Maybe what we’re witnessing is an evolution of language, and we need to move on.

You could argue we don’t need labels to begin with, because they’re too limiting. But labels provide a framework that helps us communicate with each other. How far should we push those boundaries? What gets lost in the process?

So with the word “artist” so widely used, abused, and watered down, do you still want to be called an artist? Or are you more specific about what you do, instead of identifying yourself as part of one big category of creativity?

Weigh in on the debate: What do call yourself? Are you tired of all the claim-jumping? Do you care one way or the other?

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Comments (31)

When I was in college I was taught that Art is anything that arouses the feeling of delight. Perhaps Seth has misinterpreted the character he had pointed above. The word artist is oftentimes associated with negative stereotype.

The truth is, all of us are artist and life is our working area. What we make out of life is our masterpiece. :-)

Stacey Cornelius Reply:

I think Seth intended to be more inclusive, rather than negative, but stereotypes will limit us any way you slice it.

Jacqueline Steudler Reply:

I agree with you Walter. Imagine everybody would really step into the creative realm of artists and treat their life like it. It could be the beginning of a holistic approach to all the problems we face today.
I like to think of life as a masterpiece.

Stacey Cornelius Reply:

“Life as a masterpiece.” I like that a lot, Jacqueline, and I really like your philosophy.

Labels uphold the economic system. Without labels such as artist, lawyer, office manager, parks attendant and so forth, we would not have any groundwork to compensate one’s work. Labels have many inherent vices, but they are a necessary evil. Of course we can expand our understanding of artist, but we cannot banish all previous meaning in the service of a shrewd marketing campaign.

We’re in an era when everyone wants to be a creative. Of course anyone can say they are an artist, but did they put in the time, labor, emotional, spiritual, and intellectual thought to be one?

If Seth can use the artist word so freely, then I propose that we rewrite the meaning of every word so that language has no significance whatsoever.

Then where would we be?

Stacey Cornelius Reply:

That’s one of the things that’s troubling me: expand and change definitions, and you can end up with a truckload of confusion. Who gets to make the change? Is it a free-for-all?

Working at an Art College, the debate about whether “craft” is in fact “art” has been sawing on wearily for the entire time I’ve been here. I get tired of it. Tired of those who use the term cliqueishly to exclude others and weary of those who claim it with neither the work ethic, imagination or talent to back them up. Neatly escaping…I like the term “artisan” which implies painstaking hand work, as well as artistic imagination.

I offer the following for (artisan: definition – subcategory Artisan jewelry)

“Artisan jewelry dates back as far as 7000 BC, when gold and copper began to be sculpted to adorn the human form, and the practice continues today. Although rarely price-competitive with machine-made items, artisan handmade jewelry is prized for its uniqueness, variety, and beauty. Reflecting the talents of the artisan onto the wearer, the broad spectrum of artisan jewelry is available to provide satisfaction to royalty, rock stars, and “everyday folk.” Thousands of jewelry artisans exist around the globe. Some fine examples of artisan jewelry can be seen at museums.[2].”

PS – I also love the term “dilettant” which stems from the Latin, “delectare” and means (not “amateur”)

I am a dilettant Artisan.

Great subject Studio Source!!

Stacey Cornelius Reply:

Way to dodge a stereotype!

Chris B Reply:

I have always identified myself as a dilettante too. And gotten flack for it from the people who think it somehow means being flakey or a hack. But Merriam-Webster defines it as “a lover of the arts” and that’s what I am, so if that’s the label I want, then that’s the label I’m going to use.
I weighed in on the earlier discussion on Clint’s blog and said that I wished Seth had thought about reviving the label “Master” from the days of the old guilds. I think it is closer to what he was striving to say that “Artist”.

Stacey Cornelius Reply:

I had a conversation last night about words that pick up baggage. Dilettante is one of them. Maybe it’s time to reclaim some words.

I like the word “revolutionary,” but that’s a dangerous moniker for a game-changer who works in a cube.

Come to think of it, “artist” is nearly as fraught with projections as the word “God.”
NSCAD used to have an Art Education department and one of the students (whose partner was a scientist), in the early days of the internet, put a questionnaire out on whether art had the same value as science. She got responses from as far away as NASA, and from many scientists.
It was unbelievable how deeply hurt many people had been by crappy art teachers or elitist artists. It was also remarkable how many scientists argued very powerfully that good science was an art and highly creative. They were offended that the exalted title “artist” and it’s adjectives like, “creative” seemed to be exclusively owned by visual or performing arts and they, as folk involved (in part) by the rational were deemed to be merely rational beings.
Labels identify but they also exclude and protect special interest groups.
I love “master” and “apprentice” and “artisan” – because at this point in history they aren’t so loaded. My associations with these words always involve the concept of humility and hard work. They suggest that effort counts for as much as that nebulous attribute “talent”.

In a recent issue, “Beadwork” ran a feature on Jan Huling, who makes amazing art with beads. At a museum talk, when she was asked about her work, she said, “I glue beads on stuff. It’s really pretty, and it makes me laugh. Any questions?”

She is my hero. Which means I either flunked Stacey’s marketing course – or I’m on my way to being able to complete lesson two.

What a GREAT discussion!

Stacey Cornelius Reply:

If she’s your hero, then she’s doing something right. So your homework is to figure out how she would have applied the course lessons.

For anyone who is interested in the “artist” who likes to laugh.

In a world where people who collect images and post them on a blogspot blog call themselves designers… it means we also live in a world where everyone is an artist. If you diy it and set up an etsy page, you too are an “artist”

This is a great post – I am so glad I found your blog (p.s. I followed the link from @thecluelesscrafter. @Lydia – you are brilliant – and always make me laugh!)

Stacey Cornelius Reply:

Thanks, ABC Dragoo. It would appear there’s no end to the variety of ways people identify themselves and their creativity.

ABC Dragoo Reply:

Well, the scary thing is thinking about whether it is a vocation or an advocation. If it’s just a hobby, they can afford to charge simply nothing for their art. Whether it is art or not, well, that is another question!

Stacey Cornelius Reply:

Hobbyist pricing isn’t an issue for the pros who sell at high prices, but for others, it can be a big problem. It’s very difficult to explain that to someone who isn’t trying to earn a living.

As for whether it is art or not, that’s a big question. I don’t think there are any qualifications in existence to answer that one properly, although I suspect there are some who claim the authority to do just that.

[...] This post was mentioned on Twitter by sarah campbell and Stacey Cornelius, Alexia. Alexia said: Who wants to be an artist? (via @thestudiosource) [...]

Thanks for weighing in on this discussion. It’s one of those questions that might never have a definitive “answer.” I understand why Seth was attracted to the word “artist” for the concepts he is explaining, but is that fair to “real” artists? As I said in my original post….I don’t know. It’s been an interesting discussion, that’s for sure…..

Stacey Cornelius Reply:

I’m glad you started the discussion. Clearly, some people don’t care how the word is used, but for some, art is a calling, and “artist” goes to the very core of who they are.

Challenging the status quo is important for a creative practice, as is an infusion of new ideas, so thanks, Clint. Looking forward to more good articles on your blog.

I like to say…”I work at art”…I have always felt a bit squeamish about claiming “I am an artist”…I feel like for some reason I have to prove it.
I had an “artist” friend(?)one time tell me that I was a “crafter” and that is not the same as artist…she added…
“but you are a crafter extraordinaire”…gee thanks!

Stacey Cornelius Reply:

Squeamish is no good. It’s always best to go with something that fits like a good pair of shoes (unless you’re just being shy, in which case you need to break in the shoes a little). If you make art, you make art. If you work at art, so be it.

Gritting my teeth in sympathy at your friend’s (insecure) comment.

“Art” has so many definitions and practitioners that it has become meaningless. I don’t use the word because I don’t know what it means. It’s often applied to me but I never ask what it means because I don’t care. It’s meant as a compliment and I take it as such.

I don’t refer to my photos as “art” because I don’t know if they are. I refer to myself as a photographer–that is demonstrably true, I take pictures with a camera. As for whether or not photos can be art, boy, is that a tedious discussion.

Here I am, the curmudgeon, again!

Stacey Cornelius Reply:

I don’t think that’s the least bit curmudgeonly, Sally. I think it’s honest and sensible.

You wouldn’t believe the number of “When can I call myself a photographer” posts on photo blogs I’m on. I’m tempted to say “When you don’t have to ask the question” but stay out of it.

Sorry, I forgot to add that craft is a vital component of art, whatever it is.

The venerable California College of Arts and Crafts, CCAC, changed its name to the CA College of Art a few years ago, to its detriment in my opinion. They thought “crafts” somehow denigrated the institution. What is ceramics without a solid foundation in the craft? Or painting? Or sculpture. photography, drawing, etc.?

Stacey Cornelius Reply:

“Craft” has more baggage than “artist,” in my opinion. Arts and Crafts was a movement began by William Morris and his colleagues (as you probably know), but since it’s also used to describe children’s playtime activities, I can see why it was problematic.

You’re right, no one can do excellent work without mastering the technique, but once again, language and its interpretation throw a monkey wrench into everything.

Social comments and analytics for this post…

This post was mentioned on Twitter by thestudiosource: New blog post: Who wants to be an artist?

[...] so, to continue a kind of slow-motion threaded conversation, I’d like to react here to Stacey Cornelius’ post on the Studio Source, which was itself a reaction to Clint Watson’s post on Fine Art Views, which was itself a [...]

Hey, I’m late to the party here, I just stumbled on this while catching up with things here after a busy spell (well, between busy spells I guess).

Interesting thoughts here all around… I started working on a comment but it got out of hand and I realized it was becoming a post unto itself – hey, I’m overdue for one anyway.

So my reaction is over at

by the way, I got a good chuckle out of this: “Note to politicians: never take a swipe at people who communicate for a living.”

tobias tinker Reply:

(looks like the trackback beat me to it! Wow, that was fast!)