Wednesday, May 5, 2010

Can Anyone Be an Artist?


Sent to you by bodyartist via Google Reader:


via Lateral Action by Mark on 4/26/10

Sculpture of Daedalus

Bronze sculpture of Daedalus

Seth Godin says anyone can be an artist. Without even becoming an artist:

Art isn't only a painting. Art is anything that's creative, passionate, and personal. And great art resonates with the viewer, not only with the creator.

What makes someone an artist? I don't think it has anything to do with a paintbrush. There are painters who follow the numbers, or paint billboards, or work in a small village in China, painting reproductions. These folks, while swell people, aren't artists. On the other hand, Charlie Chaplin was an artist, beyond a doubt. So is Jonathan Ive, who designed the iPod. You can be an artist who works with oil paint or marble, sure. But there are artists who worked with numbers, business models, and customer conversations. Art is about intent and communication, not substances.

(Linchpin, Seth Godin)

He argues that the Industrial Revolution, which has shaped our culture and attitude to work for so long, has now run its course, and is in fact an aberration:

Imagine a stack of 400 quarters. Each quarter represents 250 years of human culture, and the entire stack signifies the 100,000 years we've had organised human tribes. Take the top quarter of the stack. This one quarter represents how many years our society has revolved around factories and jobs and the world as we see it. The other 399 coins stand for a very different view of commerce, economy, and culture. Our current view might be the new normal, but the old normal was around for a very long time.

(Linchpin, Seth Godin)

Because of the emergence of the creative economy, the factory has " fallen apart" – creativity is now the number one economic priority and "success means being an artist". Bad news for Lou. Great news for Jack and Marla.

Inevitably, Linchpin has provoked protests from those who believe there is something sacred about art and artists, and that calling businesspeople 'artists' flatters them and demeans the term:

Art is a special and élite area. So is being a NASA astronaut, a Math Professor or a wedding cake maker but that does not make these people artists. And a formally trained and educated artist can do and think about things that the vast, majority of people out there cannot do – no matter how hard you make a power-point presentation or plan a product launch.

Think about it this way – I believe that any artist can get into a business or arts program, or even an engineering program if they try hard enough. Isn't that what those motivational posters tell us? Conversely, there are only a few people who are able to get into a Fine Arts studio program. The difference? They have a talent, and not because they are good at listening to a client and trying really hard.

('Uh Oh, Seth Godin Is Flatter Marketing with the Word "Art"', The ArtListPro blog)

Actually, the 'artist' bit isn't even the most outrageous claim Godin makes in Linchpin:

You Are a Genius

No one is a genius all the time. Einstein had trouble finding his house when he walked home from work every day. But all of us are geniuses sometimes.

(Linchpin, Seth Godin)

At this point, you might expect to hear squawks of protest from Lateral Action, given that I've already said you don't need to be a genius to be a creative success. But semantics aside, Seth and I are really saying the same thing: don't put others on a lofty pedestal and label them 'geniuses' whom you could never hope to emulate. It may feel like modesty, but it's actually an excuse. Michelangelo's story shows us that the biggest differences between geniuses and the rest of us are not God-given talent and supernatural intelligence, but things like work, passion, critical thinking, courage and persistence – which are within the reach of all of us, once we commit.

Reading Linchpin reminded me of one of my favourite books about the creative process, The Art of Work by Roger Coleman, which was the inspiration for my piece about Michelangelo. Coleman is an 'artist turned craftsman' and Professor of Design who challenges our received assumptions about the nature of art:

The history of art is really the history of skilled work – no more, no less – and when we marvel at the products of other periods and cultures, we marvel at the achievements of a tradition of skilled work, not 'art'.

(The Art of Work, Roger Coleman)

Earlier cultures, he argues, would not have distinguished between the artist and the craftsman — they were one and the same, no matter how accomplished or refined the work. The word 'art' simply meant 'skill' or 'work'. Shakespeare used the word in this sense when he wrote "There's no art / To find the mind's construction in the face". And according to my Oxford English Dictionary the primary meaning of the word is still "human creative skill or its application".

For Roger Coleman, this original artistic tradition is personified in the figure of Daedalus, the fabled artisan and inventor of Greek mythology:

Daedalus is the archetypal craftsman: inventor and engineer; architect and builder; artist and sculptor; designer of labyrinths; maker of wings; problem solver and toymaker. In short, the virtuoso exponent of all that is skilful, inventive, constructive and creative.

(The Art of Work, Roger Coleman)

In other words he didn't confine his creative energies to paint or marble. He also got his hands dirty solving problems in the real world. His work was breathtaking but not perfect – as his son Icarus found to his cost.

Like Godin, Coleman blames the Industrial Revolution for stifling this tradition of art-as-skilled-work:

It was the Industrial Revolution that finally distorted our understanding of the daedalic tradition by demanding an absolute distinction between work – labour that could be exploited in the factories and fields of the nineteenth century – and an art that was to be revered and idolised as close to genius. In its original use the word art meant skill and the exercise of skill – we still use the word in this sense – but it was only in the late nineteenth century that the words art and artist developed their modern meanings. At the same time another word – artisan – was co-opted to distinguish the skilled manual worker from the intellectual, imaginative or creative artist, and artists emerged as a very special category of cultural workers, producing a rare and marginal commodity – works of art.

(The Art of Work, Roger Coleman)

So if you feel nostalgic for the good old days, when pure artists pursued their noble calling unsullied by the world of commerce and practical problems, I hate to break it to you but that's actually a manufactured modern myth. Not only that, the myth has served a pretty basic purpose: marketing. What better way to avoid the daily grind of the factory and get sky-high prices for your work than to persuade the world that the productions of your pen/paintbrush/chisel are the effusions of artistic genius? Nice work if you can get it.

I'm not saying individual artists are this cynical, or even this aware of what's been happening. But I am saying that true artists can work in any medium, and that artistic types (who include me) have no right to look down their noses at those who are outstandingly "skilful, inventive, constructive and creative" in other fields of work.

What Do You Think?

Should we reserve the term 'artist' for those who work in the arts?

Is it possible to be an artist in business, education, childcare, construction – or other non-artistic professions?

What difference would it make to your work if you decided to approach it as an artist?

About the Author: Mark McGuinness is a poet, creative coach and co-founder of Lateral Action. Subscribe today to get free updates by email or RSS.


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