People love mystery, and that is why they love my paintings. – Salvador Dalí
An artist is a person engaged in one or more of any of a broad spectrum of activities related to creating art, practicing the arts or demonstrating an art. The common usage in both everyday speech and academic discourse is a practitioner in the visual arts only. The term is often used in the entertainment business, especially in a business context, for musicians and other performers (less often for actors). “Artiste” (the French for artist) is a variant used in English only in this context. Use of the term to describe writers, for example, is valid, but less common, and mostly restricted to contexts like criticism.
Wiktionary defines the noun ‘artist’ (Singular: artist; Plural: artists) as follows:
- A person who creates art.
- A person who makes and creates art as an occupation.
- A person who is skilled at some activity.
- A person whose trade or profession requires a knowledge of design, drawing, painting, etc.
The Oxford English Dictionary defines the older broad meanings of the term “artist”:
- A learned person or Master of Arts
- One who pursues a practical science, traditionally medicine, astrology, alchemy, chemistry
- A follower of a pursuit in which skill comes by study or practice
- A follower of a manual art, such as a mechanic
- One who makes their craft a fine art
- One who cultivates one of the fine arts – traditionally the arts presided over by the muses
History of the term
The Greek word “techně”, often translated as “art,” implies mastery of any sort of craft. The adjectival Latin form of the word, “technicus”, became the source of the English words technique, technology, technical.
In Greek culture each of the nine Muses oversaw a different field of human creation:
- Calliope (the ‘beautiful of speech’): chief of the muses and muse of epic or heroic poetry
- Clio (the ‘glorious one’): muse of history
- Erato (the ‘amorous one’): muse of love or erotic poetry, lyrics, and marriage songs
- Euterpe (the ‘well-pleasing’): muse of music and lyric poetry
- Melpomene (the ‘chanting one’): muse of tragedy
- Polyhymnia or Polymnia (the ‘[singer] of many hymns‘): muse of sacred song, oratory, lyric, singing, and rhetoric
- Terpsichore (the ‘[one who] delights in dance’): muse of choral song and dance
- Thalia (the ‘blossoming one’): muse of comedy and bucolic poetry
- Urania (the ‘celestial one’): muse of astronomy
No muse was identified with the visual arts of painting and sculpture. In ancient Greece sculptors and painters were held in low regard, somewhere between freemen and slaves, their work regarded as mere manual labour.
The word art derives from the Latin “ars” (stem art-), which, although literally defined, means “skill method” or “technique”, and conveys a connotation of beauty.
During the Middle Ages the word artist already existed in some countries such as Italy, but the meaning was something resembling craftsman, while the word artesan was still unknown. An artist was someone able to do a work better than others, so the skilled excellency was underlined, rather than the activity field. In this period some “artisanal” products (such as textiles) were much more precious and expensive than paintings or sculptures.
The first division into major and minor arts dates back at least to the works of Leon Battista Alberti (1404–1472): De re aedificatoria, De statua, De pictura, which focused on the importance of the intellectual skills of the artist rather than the manual skills (even if in other forms of art there was a project behind).
With the Academies in Europe (second half of 16th century) the gap between fine and applied arts was definitely set.
Many contemporary definitions of “artist” and “art” are highly contingent on culture, resisting aesthetic prescription, in much the same way that the features constituting beauty and the beautiful cannot be standardized easily without corruption into kitsch.
The present day concept of an ‘artist’
Artist is a descriptive term applied to a person who engages in an activity deemed to be an art. An artist also may be defined unofficially as “a person who expresses him- or herself through a medium”. The word is also used in a qualitative sense of, a person creative in, innovative in, or adept at, an artistic practice.
Most often, the term describes those who create within a context of the fine arts or ‘high culture‘, activities such as drawing, painting, sculpture, acting, dancing, writing, filmmaking, new media, photography, and music—people who use imagination, talent, or skill to create works that may be judged to have an aesthetic value. Art historians and critics define artists as those who produce art within a recognized or recognizable discipline. Contrasting terms for highly skilled workers in media in the applied arts or decorative arts include artisan, craftsman, and specialized terms such as potter, goldsmith or glassblower. Fine arts artists such as painters succeeded in the Renaissance in raising their status, formerly similar to these workers, to a decisively higher level, but in the 20th century the distinction became rather less relevant.
The term may also be used loosely or metaphorically to denote highly skilled people in any non-“art” activities, as well— law, medicine, mechanics, or mathematics, for example.
Often, discussions on the subject focus on the differences among “artist” and “technician“, “entertainer” and “artisan“, “fine art” and “applied art“, or what constitutes art and what does not. The French word artiste (which in French, simply means “artist”) has been imported into the English language where it means a performer (frequently in Music Hall or Vaudeville). Use of the word “artiste” can also be a pejorative term.
The English word ‘artiste’ has thus a narrower range of meaning than the word ‘artiste’ in French.
In Living with Art, Mark Getlein proposes six activities, services or functions of contemporary artists:
- Create places for some human purpose.
- Create extraordinary versions of ordinary objects.
- Record and commemorate.
- Give tangible form to the unknown.
- Give tangible form to feelings.
- Refresh our vision and help see the world in new ways.
After looking at years of data on arts school graduates as well as policies & program outcomes regarding artists, arts, & culture, Elizabeth Lingo and Steven Tepper propose the divide between “arts for art’s sake” artists and commercially successful artists is not as wide as may be perceived, and that “this bifurcation between the commercial and the noncommercial, the excellent and the base, the elite and the popular, is increasingly breaking down” (Eikhof & Haunschild, 2007). Lingo and Tepper point out:
- arts consumers don’t restrict themselves to either “high” or “common” arts; instead, they demonstrate “omnivorous tastes, liking both reggae and Rachmaninoff” (Peterson & Kern, 1996; Walker & Scott-Melnyk, 2002)
- data indicates “artists are willing to move across sectors and no longer see working outside the commercial sector as a badge of distinction or authenticity” (Bridgstock, 2013; Ellmeier, 2003)
- academic, policy, and government leaders are adapting—widening—programs & opportunities in recognition of “the role of artists as drivers of economic growth and innovation” (Bohm & Land, 2009; DCMS, 2006, 2008; Florida, 2012; Hesmondhalgh & Baker, 2010; Lloyd, 2010; Iyengar, 2013).
- arts graduates name “business and management skills” as the “number one area [they] wish they had been more exposed to in college” (Strategic National Arts Alumni Project [SNAAP], 2011; Tepper & Kuh, 2010).