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What is an Artist?

What is art? Answer: something that an artist calls art. This raises the next question: what is an artist? The obvious and almost circular answer to this question is someone who makes art. This can lead on to discussions about how to make art (including by an artist calling it art) but for this blog post I will stay with the question of what is an artist.

Debs painting in Croft Alley, 2009

Debs painting in Croft Alley, 2009

After many years of paying attention to the institutional theory of art I want to look more closely at the artist rather than gallery. I am becoming aware of some of the inadequacies of the theory. Is the institutional theory of art basically Marxist in declaring that the material reality makes art? In that case so much for Duchamp’s cerebral approach and the individual psychology of artists.

There is the idea of the artistic temperament; that artists are born and not trained. There was also the idea that artists were inspired by the spirits; hence the word ‘inspiration’. But we can’t have faith in the ghosts of words. Are artists really different from the statistical norm in any measurable way? Considering that Asbergers syndrome and ADHD are no longer clinically assessed, it is time to point out that an artistic personality or temperament has never been clinically assessed.

Rather than an artistic personality perhaps artistic work is the product of a scholarly temperament? Describing the very first modern artists in Korea Youngna Kim

“Rather than thinking of themselves as artists trying to make a living, they seemed to regard themselves they seemed to consider themselves the literati from the Joseon dynasty. They considered painting a hobby and did not produce much work.” [Youngna Kim Modern And Contemporary Art in Korea (Hollym, 2005, New Jersey) p.11-12]

Gallery La Mer in Seoul

Gallery La Mer in Seoul

Youngna Kim’s history of Korean modern art drew my attention to this traditional where scholars produces ink paintings, poetry and music because of their temperament and the contrary idea of professional modern artist. This tradition exists in Europe but because of Korea’s compressed art history it is more clearly expressed. These two contrary ideas about why a person makes art influences subsequent interpretations of the art produced. What we expect an artist to be; these two ideas about who is an artist helps makes sense of a great deal of debate about what is art and what is good art.

The modern artist produces art as a professional, educated and trained in how to make and sell art. The professional artist is trained in techniques and is an insider in the art world. Professional artist is exploiting a market for their talents and produce the bulk of the art in circulation; Salvator Rosi became the first artists to paint speculatively rather than for commissions. As professionals they have a degree of reliability and consistency in the art they produce.

Contrasted to the person with a scholarly temperament may turn their attention to art from time to time as part of variety of interests. They are not so narrowly focused and generally work in an unrelated occupation; Desmond Morris painting, Brian Cox played in a 80s band, or Lenny Lipton, the man who wrote Puff the Magic Dragon and programmed the 3D navigation on the Mars Rover. Although the quality of the individual works of art can be as good as the professionals the quantity of the work is not sufficient to satisfy the market.

What kind of artist do you aspire to be?

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About Mark Holsworth

Writer, independent researcher and artist, Mark Holsworth is the author of the book Sculptures of Melbourne. View all posts by Mark Holsworth

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