What is an Artist?
Professional vs Amateur
[ V E N I C E / V E R O N A W o r k s h o p ]
Venice is known for its market
called “Il Mercato” locally. After
a morning exploring the fish
mongers and farmers we stopped
for a coffee and stumbled upon
the important question. What
is the difference between an
artist and an amateur?
Just a few steps from Venice’s market, Eric, myself and the group of photographers stopped into a local caffe to reflect on the morning. Each participant had their own assignment for the morning. The results were a mixed, but afterwards we regrouped and discussed our thoughts, findings, and hopes for the future shots. We would love to roll out of the house everyday and take brilliant images, but most of us know that photography and perfection rarely meet in the same room. The frustrations caused by a few hundred people rushing about brought us to an interesting question.
One of the photographers with us, Fabio, lives along Lake Garda, a quick drive from Venice. As our cafe discussion expanded, he asked me how I made a distinction between an artist, a photographer or an enthusiast? Sometimes these seemingly basic questions are harder to answer because we take the definitions for granted. I really appreciate that he put me on the spot. It forced me to collect my thoughts and see if I could put words to the idea of how I divide the artists from the Sunday painters.
Language is Key
As with any opinion piece, I must start by saying that the follow ideas are not set in stone. They are my current feelings about the term artist and will certainly evolve over the years. But to the best of my ability, this is how I see the distinction between an artist and an enthusiast.
art•ist |ˈӓrtist |
An artist is someone who works within the visual language, expressing a knowledge and dexterity with its forms and symbols that is not in any way reliant on the text based languages. There are no limitations to its form of expression, but an artist must be conversant in the visual language and not simply use its devices in arbitrary means and methods.
I tried to explain to Fabio that the dividing factor for me between an artist and the rest of the world is that the artist speaks the visual language. They don’t just use its components, but they understand a visual DNA. They are committed to developing a visual fluency beyond the limits of a verbal language.
To use myself as an example, for the last two years I have studied Italian. I take classes once a week and at this point, I speak like a mildly educated five year old. It is clear to me that the Italian language exists and that there are a few structures that I have at my disposal, but I do not speak Italian. If I just started throwing out words, a native speaker, like Fabio, would say…”This guy is speaking non-sense.” Its clear to someone who is fluent in Italian that I am learning, but I do not speak the language.
To an artist, it is just as clear whether someone speaks the visual language. They might hold a paint brush or a camera, but that does not mean they use the visual language. And just as there are deviations and dialects in the verbal language, so too are there in the visual language. But underneath the slang, regional differences, and endlessly evolved words lies a grammar which is recognizable.
Most societies are not keen on teaching the visual language. Art is considered a craft or hobby or worse yet a cute activity for those too inept to deal with the world. We are taught grammar and math instead. The visual language awaits those who study art specifically at later points in life.
Professionals need not apply
One thing I wanted to reassure Fabio was that being an artist was not a matter of graduating from a certain program or working as a “professional.” Most artists happen to have an education or apprenticeship and usually receive some type of professional work, but it is not a defining aspect of being an artist. Speaking the visual language is something that escapes professional artists, editors, photographers and critics on a daily basis. Working in the arts or being an artist are two completely different things.
Its like the argument against Brooklyn Hipsters. You will often catch a certain breed of hipster saying they are “from Brooklyn.” In reality, they happen to live in Brooklyn, they are not FROM Brooklyn. There is a big difference. Proximity to an idea does not guarantee mastery, nor does any college degree. There are plenty of visual illiterates running around with art degrees or worse yet MFA degrees. We need to study, but more importantly we need to achieve a fluency in the visual language. The amateur or enthusiast should not be intimidated by the college degrees of so called professionals.
The visual language is truly accessible to anyone, but it needs to be passed from one person to the next. There is no single text or even a canon of books that will make you entirely fluent in the visual language. Again I will use myself as an example. I liked to draw as a child. We could say I had an inclination towards art. But I was not an artist. Only working for years in studios, classes, workshops (the kind of workshops where you build things), and through personal mentoring did I become fluent in the visual language. And even still, my career (for lack of a better term) is far from flawless. Professional development and marketability is another skill set.
What’s an Amateur
An amateur is someone who is not interested in learning the visual language. In photography terms they are obsessed with gear, specifications, new releases and often post production. Is it a problem? Certainly not. If it is just a hobby and it is fun, have at it. But it seems to me, that the amateur approach is almost willfully shallow. There are so many outlets for enhancing our understanding of a visual language and the amateur stops short. This may be due to a number of factors, one of which is not their fault. The current selection of photography magazines at most bookshops are gear/technique porn magazines. Artist need to make a better effort to open their studios to the curious amateur, because I believe MANY people are interested in the mechanisms of art. In fact, its probably easier than learning Italian, but it has to be learned. My suspicion is that Fabio’s questions and seeking put him more on the side of the artist than the amateur.
Anyone who has studied a touch of art history knows that some of the most successful artists:
Received little to no money during their careers
Garnered few, if any actual commissions
May not have been understood for decades to come
Spent the bulk of their life working on self assigned projects
And did all of their learning outside of the spot light
Unlike photography, art has a greater tolerance for obscurity and has never weighed “getting work” or being a “working professional” as a measure of anything. In most cases, the art world actually looks down on people who work in commercial art fields. Being an artist is not about having a resume, its not about the school you went to and it does not matter what gallery you show at or who publishes your pictures. Chances are if you are really good at the visual language, you will have commercial opportunities…but it is not a defining factor.
The most important aspect of being an artist is understanding the language which is at your disposal. This is the visual language. Its basic grammar is composed of (5) marks.
horizontal line –
vertical line |
diagonal line /
curve or arc ( or S
These are the real tools of the artist. Its expression is simply a matter of taste.
Welcome Fabio, you are not alone
I could see in Fabio’s words that he was searching, for some reconciliation about this dilemma. These are the types of questions that keep developing artists up at night. The excitement is often overwhelming. In the moments of questioning/frustration, we can find solace in the secrets left to us by other artists. I believe they truly wanted to share their understanding with posterity.
Otherwise they would not have left so many masterpieces, notebooks, and notes behind for us to examine. The visual language is the oldest continuous language on the planet. And while I do not want everyone to abandon their camera for a pencil, I would like to keep things in perspective. The tools for art making are important. Without a means for mark making, there can be no artistic tradition. But the principles of design govern our tools. American artist Kenyon Cox said, “Without design, there be representation, but there can be no art.” We would only be left with mental exercises.
If you would like to leave the realm of the Sunday painter and engage the artistic realm, the good news is the admission is free. It is a commitment to learning and understanding that is more accessible than you might think. Leave a comment of encouragement to Fabio, because as we set out along this path, we know it may be difficult. In the moments of discontent, its helpful to hear from a community of like minded artists to say, “yes keep going…it is worth it.”