Elizabeth Kilmer, Exhibitions Content Manager
Over the last couple years we’ve introduced artistic definitions to cultivate an understanding of what art is. We haven’t, however, talked about the most important factor in the creation of art: the artist. What is an artist? Such a simple, unassuming question; yet, a clear answer is often elusive. What comes to mind when you think of an artist? Is it an old, grizzled sculptor? Someone dressed in a black turtleneck with a beret? Or maybe, is it you?
Unfortunately, the good ol’ dictionary definition doesn’t help us in our quest to define artist either, as it has three different definitions:
- a person who produces paintings or drawings as a profession or hobby;
- a person who practices any of the various creative arts, such as a sculptor, novelist, poet, or filmmaker;
- a person skilled at a particular task or occupation.
There is a consensus that it has to do with someone who works creatively, in whatever form they choose, visual or literary. There’s clearly a discrepancy, however, between defining an artist as a professional, or someone who makes a living off of selling their artwork, and someone who is simply skilled at a creative task and enjoys it as a hobby. But, if we get right down to it, creativity is what truly makes an artist.
An artist is, simply, someone who creates. Anyone who makes art is an artist. Yes, there are individuals from history who are almost always thought of as “capital-A” Artists: Leonardo da Vinci, Michelangelo, Peter Paul Rubens, and Pablo Picasso. They are not, however, the be-all-end-all of what an artist is. Think back to when you were a child who brought home an art project from school. Remember how proud you were when it was hung on the fridge? You were an artist! Someone who paints in their free time to relax and express themselves? They’re an artist, too. In fact, it’s rare for artists to make their living purely off of their art. Therefore, having the stipulation of an artist being a professional who makes a living from their artwork, is a moot point.
How did we arrive at today’s more inclusive definition of what an artist is? As you can likely surmise via our convoluted dictionary definitions, the artist designation has changed over time.
Let’s go all the way back to the Lascaux cave paintings, which are widely regarded as some of the first pieces of art in history. We don’t know who created these, but it’s one of the first instances of humans creating something purely for pleasure, as it’s in no way functional (like a mask worn in a religious festival or ceremony is). As humanity progressed and individuals became more skilled in creating their wares, anyone who created was considered an artist. During Antiquity, potters, painters, and builders were heralded for their skill in creating beautiful objects. At this point in history, artists and craftsmen were one in the same. While there were individuals who created what we’d call purely decorative art, such as murals and mosaics, they were regarded as equals with potters, weavers, and glass blowers.
It was not until the Renaissance when we began to see a hierarchy come into the arts. It’s at this point that the differentiation between “fine” art and “functional” art commences, and fine art was mostly limited to painting (itself then broken down into various levels of importance determined by subject matter) and sculpture. You may be surprised that I haven’t mentioned drawing, and that’s because drawing, or drafting, was mostly viewed as a preparatory step. All the other artistic endeavors, such as pottery, weaving, construction, and glass blowing, were seen as lesser due to their utilitarian nature – they were a craft. This meant that individuals who created these objects were no longer considered artists – they were purely craftsmen, no matter their skill.
This school of thought would continue into the 18th and 19th centuries, during which time official schools, or academies, of art were established throughout Europe. These schools naturally pushed the high-brow fine arts of painting and sculpture, and these creators were deemed artists. Anyone else, no matter how skilled they needed to be or how beautiful their wares were, were considered mere craftsmen. However, by the mid to late 19th century, this began to change. William Morris, an English businessman and artist, was a vocal advocate for the growing Arts and Crafts movement, which championed the artistic skills that had been underappreciated for 400 years. The movement argued that even if an object had a utilitarian use, it could also be a beautiful, aesthetic work of art.
This line between craft and art continues to blur to this day, as artists blend the two “schools.” This also led to the increase of women being identified as artists – for hundreds of years it was deemed improper for women to be artists. Yes, there were a few who managed to break through the barrier from time to time, such as Artemisia Gentileschi and Berthe Morisot, but they had to fight for their talent to be recognized. And, it should be mentioned, they were both from wealthy families who were already connected to painters – Gentileschi’s father was a painter and Morisot’s eventual brother-in-law was Édouard Manet. This gave them an “in” that other female artists didn’t have, as Gentileschi and Morisot had prominent artists advocating for them. Essentially, critics and buyers couldn’t ignore their talent when they themselves had renowned male artists with financial clout vouching for them. Another reason why we don’t see many female artists in art history is because their work was also traditionally viewed as less-than – home projects like weaving, sewing, and, when they did paint, it was often scenes of children and flowers. These quiet, domestic scenes were the only subjects that women had easy access too, as they were tied to running the household and caring for children, and they were traditionally viewed as simple and quaint, not up to par with sweeping history paintings, for example. Additionally, women weren’t traditionally allowed to attend art classes, as it was deemed improper for them to draw from live, nude models. This is not to say, however, that women were without skill throughout history; they were, they just weren’t given the same opportunities to become known artists as their male contemporaries.
At this point you may be thinking, ok, so this is how we can determine whether or not someone is an artist: they make something creative with a degree of skill, even if they only do it as a hobby. However, there’s one major question people like to ask when they learn the name of a new artist, and that’s, “Oh so-and-so? Are they in a museum?” Museums. The be-all end-all for determining someone’s status as an artist, right? Well, not exactly.
While today we think of museums as age-old institutions, they actually haven’t been around for that long. Museums as we know them came to be in the latter half of the 19th century as a result of the higher economic classes feeling like it was their duty to educate the working class in the finer things in life. It was only after the working class began to grow exponentially in the wake of industrialism, flocking to cities and living in squalor, that the bourgeois felt it was their moral obligation to “help” the plight of the poor by establishing places where the common public could see beautiful, fine art for the first time; and, thus, feel inspired to strive for a better life. Additionally, monarchies were beginning to lose a little of their influence or, like in France, they were crumbling entirely. As a result, this opened up collections that were formerly off limits to the public, allowing them to see artistic masterpieces for the first time. The 18th and 19th centuries also mark the height of imperialism, and countries such as England and France were bringing back artifacts from their new territories, and they needed somewhere to display them. The prime example of this would be the Louvre in France which, until the French Revolution and rise of Napoleon Bonaparte, was the king’s palatial home in Paris. So, this means that museums, often considered the peak of defining an artist’s talent, weren’t traditionally where art was displayed. So, where did we find art before museums?
Before museums, art was placed in churches, palaces, and country houses. Royalty and aristocracy were early patrons of the arts, commissioning some of the most famous paintings and sculptures in history. The Catholic Church also practiced art patronage, and some of the greatest artists we think of today, such as Michelangelo and Raphael, created their masterpieces for the church. Does knowing that works by Michelangelo, Velasquez, and Caravaggio never saw the inside of a museum, until at least 300 years after their deaths, diminish their classification as artists?
As we can see, the definition of an artist is, essentially, a moving target that changes over time. It’s truly up to you to determine what you think makes an artist, be it their skill or their place on a museum wall. I know I’ll count anyone as an artist who creates a work of art with skill and pride, even if it’s only displayed on my refrigerator.
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