What is an artist? What is art? How is an artist defined and who exactly gets to set the definition? Is everyone an artist like Picasso said or is it that creative genius is reserved for those fortunate enough to be blessed with talent at birth as the ancient Greeks and Romans believed? Some ideas of what constitutes art, and as a consequence, the artist, are narrow and elitist. Some, such as this manifesto, are open and all-inclusive, suggesting that everyone is an artist albeit perhaps lying in wait. In this opening chapter, we will explore the possible answers to these questions and the nature of what it means to be an artist. We will look at what recent history says about art and seek to dispel some of the popular conventions we have established relating to art and work.
The Artist’s Manifesto
- Short Form Version
- Chapter 1: What Is An Artist?
- Chapter 2: The Creative Work
- Chapter 3: Purposeful Accident
- Chapter 4: Embracing Solitude
- Chapter 5: Why Create
- Chapter 6: Creative Integrity
- Chapter 7: Time
- Chapter 8: The Creative Self
- Chapter 9: Mastery
- Chapter 10: Happiness
- Chapter 11: The Exchange
- Reader Bonuses
- Go to the Home Page
What Is An Artist?
The use of term artist dates back to the 13th century and is derived from the French word artiste, the Italian word artista, and from the Latin ars. Initially used to refer to someone who exercised their skills in the areas of the arts such as history, poetry, comedy, tragedy, music, dancing, and astronomy, it later in the 15th century came to apply to those who were skilled in any of the visual arts or craftsmanship. In scholarly endeavours, the term, Bachelor of Arts was used to describe one who excelled at “human workmanship”, or systems of rules and traditions for performing specific actions in fields such as the sciences or liberal arts. The scholarly term is still employed today although many college graduates may not see themselves as artists unless of course, they have studied in areas of the creative arts such as writing, music or performance.
In contemporary culture, creativity in domains of the arts, science and crafts still possess somewhat of a mystical quality. Given that most religions refer to the creation of the world as the work of one or more divine beings and the degree of influence religious ideology has had on conventional thinking, that’s not surprising. From the earliest study of the design and structure of the universe, including human beings, there was never much doubt regarding the existence and influence of these supernatural forces. Greek mythology spoke of the Muses, nine daughters of Zeus and Mnemosyne named, Calliope, Clio, Erato, Euterpe, Melpomene, Polyhymnia, Thalia, Terpsichore, and Urania. Each of the Muses was believed to be the guiding spirit and source of creative inspiration to artists, philosophers and scientists of the time.
Despite the considerable interval since the days of Plato’s ancient Greece, the term muse survives. Today, when I suggest that “I have lost my muse”, I refer to my lack of creative inspiration, my control over it, and perhaps its ultimate indeterminate nature. The ancient Romans too had their links between the divine and artistic expression through the term genius. The term initially stood for the noble spirit who guided a person through life and afforded them distinct individuality. Later, during the Renaissance period in Europe, the word became a reference to someone with supernatural gifts, intelligence or talent. In the last one hundred or so years or so
These days, there exists the widespread notion that creativity, and the artist by association, is something as banal as a binary system. To some investigators, our creative expertise is no longer mysterious. It is merely the result of practice and repetition, resembling that which is programmed into a machine. Psychologists such as Anders Ericsson mostly believe that your creative exploits are no more than the results of dedication to your craft. Maybe this is so, but if it was, how then would any domain of work ever develop something previously undiscovered? How would we ever see beauty in anything ever made if it were merely the product of ones and zeros? Through the reductionist ideas of science which have come prominence, we have reduced the wonder and marvel of art to a stale and soulless process of a dumb and random universe. Perhaps in this
“It is necessary to insist upon this extraordinary but undeniable fact: experimental science has progressed thanks in great part to the work of men astoundingly mediocre, and even less than mediocre.”Ortega Y Gasset | Philosopher
The Artist Stereotype
Today, when we refer to art and those who practice it, we are generally referring to someone we consider creative, someone who makes original bespoke things, writes, paints, draws or performs in some way. We see craftspeople as artists or at least capable of being artists. Artists are slightly off centre, they live somewhat of a bohemian lifestyle, maybe a little crazy or challenged socially in some way. Artists indeed are not wealthy, in large part we see them as the complete opposite. Perhaps they are a little bit scatty, disorganised and undependable. But in all of these stereotypes, we never really get to the hub of what an artist is. We inherit these ideas and apply them unquestionably. The term artist is really quite broad and can include people from all walks of life, engaged in all areas of expertise, within all personality types and may or may not be doing their work for a living. In many respects, the concept we hold in mind of what an artist is, dictates how we pursue our careers.
There are many stereotypes we use to group ourselves and other creative people. Holding ourselves and others to a stereotype is fine, as long as we accept that stereotypical views are not necessarily correct and may inhibit us. As far as The Artist’s Manifesto is concerned, an artist is whatever you decide it is. It’s an open book. It’s good to remember, however, that putting art in a box with a label limits our creative expression and slows our development. Ideas are powerful, they encourage thought and behaviour in you and me, and if these thoughts of who we are don’t support and promote, then they restrict. We’ve got to create the work for the sake of creating the work, let it flow, and allow it to be whatever it will be. In the process, we should be who we need to
The limited ideas of individual creative potential are widespread in western industrialised cultures. Not least because of conclusions arrived at in early scientific study which filtered down through to popular culture. Take Francis Galton’s work on Genius for example. Galton was a nineteenth-century explorer, anthropologist and psychologist most famous for his development of statistical methods of scientific investigation. One of his most renowned works titled Hereditary Genius added to an already growing belief at the time, made fashionable by Darwin’s Origin of The Species that artistic prowess was the product of Genetic inheritance. In other words, if your parents were gifted then you were likely to have the gifted gene too. If they weren’t, then you were out of luck.
So considering the dichotomy of thought and history’s legacy on where creativity comes from, it seems we are a little confused. Is artistic ability innate or is it something that we can develop? For the reductionist theorist, creative genius is not very remarkable. Anyone can be that with hard work. From my anecdotal experience, I don’t believe artistic ability is necessarily genetic or the result of hard work. It may be either. Or it may be both, some or most of the time. In certain respects, I’ve had to work hard at, say, writing to be moderately good just like Ericcson reported. In other respects, like with say drawing, I didn’t need to work hard at all to be good. I just picked up the charcoal, and I could draw. Now, to become what others might refer to as an expert, I’d need to put in serious dedication to the craft, but there was something there, to begin with.
Artists appear to be both the product of inherent ability and the product of deliberate practice. We define ourselves in the daily work we do, and for creative people, there is the open opportunity to redefine ourselves continually. That’s the beauty of creative work. According to Andy Warhol; “art is anything you can get away with”. So maybe you merely need to believe in what you’re doing, make any crap you feel like, find some harmless gobshite who will buy it and et voila! You just became an artist. Ok, that’s a little facetious, but there’s some truth in it too. What I get from Warhol’s statement is that beauty is in the eye of the beholder. Screw other people’s opinion, stay true to your work, keep personally integrity your highest value, and keep making for the sake of enjoyment and
“Art is anything you can get away with”Andy Warhol
Picasso said that every child is born an artist. The Artist’s Manifesto supports this idea. What it means is that every child who comes into the world has the potential to create beautiful and unique things. Look at children, how curious they are. They want to experience everything; there’s no such thing as “can’t” to a child. When my children were young, about two or three years old, they didn’t understand when I told them; “you can’t have that” or “you can’t do that.” They would look at me as if to say; “what? This fella is crazy!” Their natural state was a curious one. They wanted to explore everything and didn’t see any reason why they couldn’t. Until that is, they were conditioned to the contrary. The broader environment, familial and peer influences, TV, radio, the Internet, news outlets, all get hold of the fledgling consciousness of the child and condition it out of any creative potential it may have. Programmed like a Pavlovian dog, the child eventually loses the connection to its inner self and ultimately becomes dependant on the system and all the bells that it rings. Another pawn for the machine.
Why does this happen? Well, that’s just how it is, it’s how we’ve made things. It’s certainly better today than it was one hundred years ago but we can definitely do better. Some might argue sensationally, that there is a high-level conspiracy amongst the political, financial and corporate elite to enslave the populations of the world. And although I believe political and economic bigwigs do put their private and institutional interests before the people, it is the people in their mass subconscious consent to the rules that enable these unfavourable conditions to remain. En masse we have become soft and content in our discontent. Through our sheepish compliance, we have unwittingly become co-operative components in the system. In truth, we are the masters of our downfall.
In chapter eight we will explore in depth, the phenomena of group compliance, the nature of the self and the effects of the split in consciousness that occurs as we develop. For now, it is sufficient to say that the momentum of contemporary society draws most of us in and acts like a buffer to our creative expression. The majority inside the system refer to themselves as “normal” and are led to believe through popular media and self-supportive ideas that expressing individuality is dangerous. So we work within the boundaries of the system. The system, of course, maintains life and culture as we know it, but at the same time, it severely limits our progress toward solving our most significant social problems.
In the opaque atmosphere of our worldly social problems, consider this; imagine a society where machines provide us with every practical
“I want them to discover that they are artists; everyone is an artist, a creator, and a refiner of sensibility without knowing it.”Yves Klein
Art In Work
We have seen how society has adopted stereotypical views of what art is, and of what it means to be an artist. Historical pretence and portrayals in our favourite movies, novels and TV have all played a role. The creation of art is otherworldly and impossible for us mere ordinary people to produce, let alone build a well-paying career around it. In many respects, we assume that there is no room for art in our work. Our work is transactional, formulaic; we do as they tell us. You may be a graphic designer, a painter, a plumber, an accountant or a basket weaver and within the boundaries of your profession make useful everyday things. You make stuff, and people pay you for it, but on the whole, you feel there’s nothing remarkable about what you do. You see your work as functional with no room for such whimsical notions as art. Therefore work has become a means to an end.
Professionalism in the arts
So I call bullshit on this idea. It’s a lazy conditioned mind that accepts this notion, a mind satisfied in its dissatisfaction. We are capable of experiencing so much more if we are only brave enough to graciously present the middle finger to these established ideas and take a chance on ourselves. Art is giving a shit about the work we do, to such a degree that we become completely immersed in the doing of the thing solely for the sake of, and the gratification we obtain from it. Blinkers on, yet aware of everything – one with the work. Distractions, self-consciousness and the need to have results turn out a particular way are all removed. This is what art is, and this is what an artist does.
Amateur Or Professional
Part of our underlying problem in our relationship with work is that many of us see the part-timer, the amateur as not sufficiently dedicated to, or proficient in their work as is the professional. We confuse the amateur with the dilettante or novice. We see the professional as more qualified and capable of producing quality, but often the opposite can be the case. This false idea seems to support the commercially focused transactional concept of work mentioned earlier, and I believe it negatively affects how and where we choose to focus our creative energy. At this point, it would be an advantage to establish, for this book, exactly what I mean when I refer to a professional versus amateur artist.
The word; profession, comes from the twelfth century Old French word;
Art is Art whether it is made by a professional who exchanges their work as a source of income, or by an amateur creating art solely for its inherent enjoyment. Professional artist or part-time amateur enthusiast, it has no bearing necessarily on the quality of the work. However, it often does, but not in the way we’d expect. A professional artist may adopt a higher degree of attention to their work, investing more time and money developing their skillset, refining their process and utilising more expensive tools of their trade. They may work to sharper deadlines and client specification resulting in the more significant development of the skills and final product. Pressures to deliver, unsuccessful delegation to staff, business and financial demands, however, often impact on the quality of the professional’s work.
Many professionals take shortcuts for the sake of time. They become lost in the commerciality of their work and forget the reason they started. They sacrifice creative integrity, which we will discuss later, and often rationalise less than honourable behaviour in pursuit of arbitrary goals. I’m not only talking of traditional arts here; I’m referring to all people in all lines of work, especially those fields heavily influenced by corporate entities. Long story short, you don’t need to be making a living professionally from your creative work to be an artist, and neither do you need to be in the traditional arts to bring art to your work. Art is a state of mind; it is an approach to thought and behaviour, and it is an intent to make of something, the best we can in an ever-evolving expression of who we are.
“I think the really good mountaineer is the man with the technical ability of the professional and with the enthusiasm and freshness of approach of the amateur”.Edmund Hillary
The Sense of Duality
As a naive young apprentice, I had the benefit in my training of the wisdom of a practical man and master of his craft. “Assumption is the mother and father of all fuckups young man”, he said once to me as he stared beyond me dismissively. What he meant was; you’re a fool, but that’s ok you’re supposed to be. It was like he wanted to show me my inherent stupidity, to be aware of it because without that realisation I couldn’t learn from him. Or anyone else for that matter. He was in his late 50’s I’d say and had been in the game since he left school at 12 or 13. It was common for boys leaving primary school at the time to go to work. The lucky ones got a trade.
By his years, he had become a master craftsman. Although that wasn’t a label, he applied to himself. He was quiet and unassuming as he moved about his work. Rarely did I see him lose his composure, but when he did, he did it with ferocity and seemed to leave it behind easily. I remember once he fired a box of materials across the room in a rage. I was left brow raised and mute. He told me to get more, so I did. When I returned, he was sitting on an upturned box in the corner of the concrete shell where we were working, smoking. “Right young man, let’s get this thing finished so we can go for tea”, he said. It was like nothing happened. He is gone now. But as I remember that incident, it seems that he accepted he had a dark side. When it rose up, he let it express itself and moved on. Most of us are not that brave or accepting.
As a young man in business, I would be frequently intolerant of other people with whom I worked. I still am in no small degree. I had little time or patience for anyone who was not up to speed and as such I would come across as rude, arrogant or dismissive. For a very long time, I battled to reconcile this trait of my personality with what I felt society expected. What I didn’t realise was that this apparent trait of character was a consequence of limited attention. Psychologists understand attention to be a finite resource. That is to say, in any area of work, we must devote unwavering degrees of attention to the endeavour so to bring our imagination to life. Too much data from outside vying for that limited attention can be very disruptive, causing in us a negative emotional reaction. I don’t take this as an excuse to be rude just for the sake of it. These days, having learned from the master craftsman, I’m content to allow other people their standards. But if you’re on a project I have ownership of I expect you to come up to the mark or your out.
When other people, who feel they have a right to our attention, can’t get what they want they label us as rude, insensitive and selfish. So for the artist that craves time to work effectively, there is the inevitable misunderstanding. We live in a world you see, where many people value us on how much of ourselves we give to others. It’s probably a religious hangover. The truth of the matter is those apparent negative traits of personality so quickly assigned to artists are not inherent in them, but instead, are the result of other’s expectation. They are due to their lack of understanding of the creative process. Maybe we all crave time alone to indulge in single-minded focus, but broader society has taught us that this is wrong. I don’t know about you, but these days I rarely question myself in these matters. I have
We can be a very judgemental lot we humans, both of ourselves and other people. We look at others through the filter of our own biases, inherited concepts and (
In Chinese Zen, they speak of the yan ying principle of the universe. It suggests that for anything to exist, it must have its co-existent opposite. Both rise mutually together in complementary fashion. For one to be without the other is an impossibility. Therefore, for you to exist, there must be both the positive and negative aspects of you. These traits of personality are interwoven in constant stimulation and conflict. The physical entity that is you and the psychological construct of the surface level personality that represents it, may disappear from what we call physical reality, but the core being remains. In our daily playing out of things through these positive and negative traits, it is perhaps the artist that is best equipped to embrace both poles unapologetically in the constant creation and expression of their art.
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