What’s an artist, really?
A week ago I threw a question out in the open, a question that has been asked for as long as art has existed: what is an artist? I expressed how the concept of artist was tied with the technical skills required to create objects, without a distinction between artist and artisan until classism entered the scene in order to separate the type of art created for the rich ―the Catholic Church, the royalty, and the bourgeoisie― from those everyday objects anyone could afford, this separation becoming the norm since Kant’s definition of the artistic genius and his innate technical, artistic, and aesthetic abilities we still use today. I argued that these “innate” skills or essence are problematic and reductive, excluding personal experience in art creation.
In relation to essence, I mentioned in Part I Walter Benjamin’s concept of “aura” and how he believed that to be the most important aspect of an artwork. Benjamin considered this aura ―or soul if it’s easier to understand― to be the essence of the artist, transmitted aesthetically from them to their art, becoming intrinsically connected and impossible to separate and reproduce through means of mechanical or technological replication. I strongly agree with that connection, and this is not the problem I have with essentialism as I think we all have an essence that is the product of our sociocultural, sociopolitical, and socioeconomic relations and experiences with the world. But that essence is unique to each and everyone of us, not something that can be used to define a whole collective in the way it has been used to describe what an artist is and what isn’t. Or even what human existence means.
As I already said, I believe essentialism is reductive, something feminist philosophers have also criticized and brought into the study of traditional art and aesthetics, the critique being focused on the biased and male-centric definition of art and artist¹. Since Kant, the idea of the essence of an artist was standardized to fit a certain type of human being, a white, rich man. Art was whatever came from that type of artist that art institutions considered to be the creators of artistic expressions. Even though art has always been thought of as a subjective experience that is situated in a certain place and time, and particular to every individual, the definition of art ―and therefore artist― has been universalized and rationalized so art institutions could categorize it¹, something feminist scholars considered to be contradictory in favor of perpetuating white male privilege as an artist, invalidating its definition and the conceptualization of art.
Furthermore, we also have this romantic idea of the artist as a tortured, starving, misunderstood genius, especially thanks to the overexposure of Vincent Van Gogh. But at the same time, we also think of artists as wealthy through selling their work for ridiculous amounts of money, at least those who are alive during auctions. It seems there is no in-between, you are either poor and miserable or rich and famous. Because the idea of art we have today is that of a product, and artist as producer ―which is, but the way, the title of another great essay by Walter Benjamin. Marxists criticized this idea of artists producing art under capitalist modes of production as the ultimate goal of art is not that of a disinterested contemplation for aesthetic experience but rather a product of capitalism to create an illusionary idea of wealth¹. As I said in another essay, art is no longer art under capitalism, it becomes a commodity, an instrument to achieve status and climb the social class. And art institutions are responsible for what James Voorhies called “neoliberalist market mentality”² (p. 9) in its operations to create consumers of art instead of spectators, alongside establishing what contemporary art is under capitalist conditions².
So, in today’s world, what makes an artist an artist? Is an artist just whoever declares themself an artist, just as Marcel Duchamp claimed? Is an artist whoever goes to get educated in the arts? Or does an artist have to actively produce work to be sold and traded in the art market to be an artist? If an artist doesn’t sell, doesn’t get involved in the capitalist game, can we call them an artist? Is the key a combination of everything and nothing at the same time, because the elite that decides has rules the rest of us shouldn’t know?
Contemporary art is complex, as it is a reflection of our current society. Because art is a mirror and, as Bertolt Brecht said, the artist is the hammer to break it. The artist’s role is to change us through artistic expression. And this idea is best reflected through the performative turn in the arts that started in the XX Century. Artists, like Brecht with his theatre, Dadaist with their happenings, or the Fluxus group, realized the audience had been passively interpreting art, and that was the reason why we as a society were numb and could not reach our full potential. They decided that artists needed to wake the public up, turning them into active participants. This was firstly done with theatre and public performance but found its way into other art forms like painting or sculpture. Some artists even developed this idea of the audience as author, considering them the final and essential piece of the artwork, and without an audience to interpret and experience it, art was not art. So if the audience, through active and performative participation, is co-creator of the work, where does authorship lay?
Some would argue that it’s the concept and intentionality of the artist what makes them an artist. And I agree. But is the conception of the idea more important than its execution to be considered an artist? Or does this apply to just some artists? Let’s take a very recent example: Christo and Jeanne-Claude’s covering of l’Arc de Triomphe in Paris. Why is this relevant to the question I just posed? Because, unfortunately, both artists are deceased, so obviously they did not physically execute the piece. They conceptualized it and developed it for years ―since 1961 to be precise― but the work was actually installed by other people. The credit still goes to Christo and Jeanne-Claude and not to the hand that made the work “real”. Just FYI, I love Christo’s work, this is not a critique ―it’s a discussion.
It is well-known that artists have studios full of people who work there, the artist being the director of the orchestra in a sense. This has happened forever, even Leonardo DaVinci had employees. It’s no secret that contemporary artists surround themselves with younger artists who work to develop other people’s artistic ideas in order to, one day, become full, autonomous artists recognized by the industry. The problem lays in recognition and authorship in the same way it is discussed in participatory artworks that rely on an active audience, and also in who the industry is and why they feel entitled to apply the label artist to some and not to others. Because if conceptualization is more important than execution, why is technique still such an essential aspect for an artwork to be an artwork? Is technique not important in Christo and Jeanne-Claude’s posthumous piece? Or is it just not required when an artist gets a certain status within the artworld?
So, once again, I don’t have an answer. I basically got more questions, but this is what I love to do. As I said, society is complex and there are no easy answers in the same way that there aren’t easy questions, even when asked as simply as what an artist is. There are so many implications compiled in just that simple formulation and the answer will differ so much depending on cultural backgrounds, politics, ideology, life experiences, and so many other factors. That’s why I feel kind of suspicious when people act as if they have the right answer at hand. Because that makes me think that there hasn’t been a lot of thought put behind it. And I believe this is part of the role of an artist, to question everything while being able to express it artistically to an audience and, somehow, shattering reality with a hammer.
²Source: Voorhies, J. (2017). Beyond objecthood. The exhibition as a critical form since 1968