Blog / 2010 / Do You Call Yourself an Artist?

July 26, 2010

Recently, I heard someone tell the story of the man who called himself an artist and then died. According to the teller, the moral is this: one can only call oneself an artist when one is whole, complete, and, in a manner of speaking, finished.

I don’t buy it. Not even in a metaphorical sense. “Artist” is just a word, and, though labels are important, they can’t kill a person all by themselves.

The term “artist” has a lot of meanings. If you call yourself an artist, some people will think that you’re starving and feckless and others will assume that you’re a dilettante. A few may even fear you for being a radical, an eccentric, or someone with self-confidence.

But “artist” can also be a good way to designate someone who makes art. It’s an easy way of identifying yourself when you’re an artist because it’s a word that communicates something about what you do.

photo of a pink rose by Gwenn Seemel
(There’s more of my photography in my Redbubble shop.)

I never really had too much of a problem over what to call myself. And I always thought it was because I was above getting mired in semantics—at least where this particular word is concerned.

But, when I think about it, I can see that it may have more to do with the fact that I work in a favored medium. As a painter, my output isn’t usually questioned. In a world where social practice and other esoteric forms of conceptual art are trying to blur the line between just having a beer with friends and having-a-beer-with-friends-as-art, almost any kind of painting qualifies as art.

Is “artist” one of those labels that someone else has to call you? Or are the people who have trouble calling themselves artists just reassigning the trouble they have calling what they make art? Can a word kill you or make you something you’re not?

“That which we call an artist by any other name would smell as sweet.” After all, does it matter what Shakespeare called himself?

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