As with so many day to day things that many people accept and never question I sometimes wonder why things are the way they are. It sounds like a mantra from the sixties but I was just a wee babe when the age of self-examination was in full bloom. No, I am referring to how people classify themselves. If you were given a list of occupations and asked to choose the title that would best explain your chosen task in life what would that be. If you would say “mother” no one would question this if they knew that you had raised children. If you were to choose mechanic they could tell by the grease under your fingernails that you were not just blowing smoke. To call yourself a doctor you had better have the sheepskin displayed for all to see or face charges from the state medical board. But of all the professions and titles we classify people under there is one that defies verification.
Now, to my knowledge there is no higher power to screen one’s credentials and sign your card “Artist”. Granted there are those that do have some fashion of an art degree, be it in art history, fine art, art appreciation, art restoration etc. For these we do not question their right to title. They studied and earned their degree so thus all that goes with it. But in the art world as we will call it, the vast majority of the “artists” have no degree or official certification saying that they are an artist. I think it is great! What other title can you arbitrarily bestow upon yourself. “Today is my first day of being called an artist”. You can have ten thousand business cards printed up with your name and under it “Artist” and no printer is going to ask for validation of your claim. I myself am an artist. I am a porcelain artist to be exact. Or at least that is my medium of choice. I struggled a long time before feeling comfortable in allowing myself to use that title. I think the final realization hit me when after entering several local art shows and fairs that I became know in my area as an “Artist”. This right of passage gave me a new confidence to actually use the title “porcelain artist” on my business cards. What a scary feeling the first one I gave out to someone. I expected them to hand it back to me and ask if I had any proof of what I was claiming to be. Of this I was prepared to say that the printer did not have room to insert the words “would be” before porcelain artist.
This title is very prolific anymore. If you are a student of art history you can really only name a small number of “Artists” in the past few centuries. Granted there are those of lesser notoriety that can still use the claim of artist in their epitaph but the numbers that we see today are just astounding. One nice thing about calling yourself an artist is that you do not have to prove that your livelihood is made from the sale of your artwork. Vincent Van Gogh set the benchmark on that since he sold little of his art while he was alive. The starving artist portrayal makes it all too apparent that your art is simply not appreciated in this millennium. Practically every town of any size has an art gallery. Now these galleries can contain anywhere from very good artists just waiting for their time to the paintings of barns and landscapes with “v” seagulls. An “Artist” has done every one of the paintings in these galleries. Just ask them. They’ll tell you they are artists.
Other criteria used in other professions not necessarily applicable here, that being how prolific an artist is. The body of work as it is called. For full effect you want to move your arms in a sweeping motion when you say that. Any one knows that the more you practice your craft; be it painting a portrait to removing an appendix, repetition usually promotes proficiency. Some old masters are all the more valuable because of the few number of paintings in existence. Once again the “Artist” mode is in contradiction.
We have all seen them. You know what I am talking about, those “works”. These are pieces, paintings, sculpture or any media that render you speechless. Speechless as in “I can’t find words to describe it”. Yes that collage of toilet paper and the bleached scull of a groundhog that just isn’t speaking to you as the creator had intended. And the $2,000.00 price tag causes you to regain your composure just long enough to utter a word that you would punish your 16 year old for saying. Yes, this was the vision of an “Artist”.
You ask if this artist’s vision is natural or induced by organic or chemical agents. You begin to remember the scene from “The Exorcist” and Linda Blair spewing forth what might have been a good companion piece for this $2,000.00 exercise in vanity.
The thing I like the most about calling myself an artist is that I can act weird. Yes, you know as well as I that erratic behavior is acceptable in “artistic types”. We can dress wild with hair in disarray, personal hygiene in need of attention bolstered by total lack of concern about everyday necessities like food, lodging and transportation. Oh yes, and game-full employment. Now perhaps I am not a true artist. I have one foot in reality to the extent that I have a full time job and only get the luxury of painting after the day- to -day chores of life are taken care of. I suppose if my inner soul were really artistic I would throw all these trappings of conventional existence aside and do art for art’s sake. Well I like to eat on a regular basis. I like to sleep in a warm clean bed. I like to look like I have a permanent address. So I guess I am torn between what I view society wants me to be and then what my true talent dictates. Doesn’t that sound like something you could spout off to Dr. Phil?
That brings us to “talking the talk”. You know what I mean. Artist talk. The B.S. that separates the starving artist from the one having caviar at their openings. You know the talk that no one really understands. The talk that no one has the gonads to say “What the hell are you talking about!” “Movement, rhythm, flow of the line, transition of color and value, and the fact that I am asking $2,000.00 for this piece of crap.” Here again body language and theatrics is very important. You must use exaggerated hand movements as you explain the “ musicality of the piece and the subtle textural overtones and would you like to buy a Kirby sweeper.” See you didn’t hear a word of it and you are thinking where could I hang this in my house. He’s got you to thinking it is worthy of hanging…. You are hooked. You believe he is an artist. You may even end up being his benefactor before the evenings over. Part actor, part snake oil salesman, and part house painter. The major components are sized up.
The other thing that is nice about being an artist is that you can have a fan club. Just like the rock stars. They are the ones that validate your claim of artistic title. Shoot they may have even bought some of your work or even done the one thing that can chisel your title of artist in stone for eternity. Commissioned a piece. You were paid to paint a particular work just for them, just on their specifications, just for their home. You have arrived! Forget the fact that the work was a portrait of his first car a 1970 Chevy Nova with rally stripes. You can even be so conceited as to list on your brochure that you do only commissioned work. Looks so high- brow.
Internet and cyberspace opens a whole new avenue of self -exploitation for the “Artist”. The web page opens up a world of possibilities. You can now “talk the talk” in writing about your inner muses and how they spring forth in your finished work much like channeling through a medium. You can have one of those glamorous photos of yourself, beret optional but always holding some tool of your trade…whether it be a paintbrush, stone chisel, or chainsaw. Then you have a great opportunity for merchandising. You may have prints, note cards, T-shirts and variety of sellable merchandise just short of selling your actual artwork. That would be too cheesy to sell that via the internet. Oh yes we must not forget the biography for the website. Now since there are no official qualifications for the title of artist you can even relate your experiences at summer camp as a driving force in your revelation of your true talent. Who’s to question. That craft project with the pinecones and the cardinal feathers was the stepping- stone to a grander purpose. You said so right in your bio so it must be true.
I think we are lacking in society by not giving our youth a better outlet with which to make a proclamation of title. We don’t give them enough information in pointing out to them that if you can’t cut it in college, you don’t really want to work for a living, and you want to live a truly Bohemian lifestyle you can always decide to become an artist. As a footnote I must add I have known some male artists and everyone of the female partners of their relationships (not married I might add) had to work full time to support these male “Artist” counterparts. Hello! Wake up call. I can see a pattern here. Can you say non-committal; irresponsible, self-indulgent…that is when I decided that I would declare myself as an artist!
(c) 2013 Ellen Wilson-Pruitt