Sunday, March 19, 2017

The Misunderstood Art Of Artistry

The term “artist” gets thrown around quite a lot.  Nowadays, every creator seems to be a self-proclaimed artist, or is otherwise referred to as such by others.  Well, appearances to the contrary, everyone is not an artist.  Some are.  Many aren’t.  Moreover, a sizable portion of us don’t even seem to have an accurate conception of what artistry entails.

The dictionary would have you believe that an artist is one who creates or performs art, or is habitually engaged or skilled in a creative practice.  This is complete nonsense.  I don’t know any genuine artist that would agree with this definition.  While there is a logical simplicity to concluding that anyone who makes art is an artist, in actuality, the term “artist" is reserved for a specific type of individual that creates art.  They are not simply writers, musicians, painters, dancers, etc…they are something that goes beyond the underlying mechanics involved, and beyond mere entertainment.

One of my pet peeves is when a judge on a show like American Idol asks a contestant, "What kind of artist do you want to be?”  To ask this question, and to answer it, is to fundamentally misunderstand the term in question.  You cannot choose what kind of artist you want to be.  You simply are an artist, or you're not.  This is to say, to be an artist is to have a specific mindset and psychology.  The real question being asked here is “what kind of entertainer do you want to be?”  This is an intelligible question, and one that can be answered.

The misunderstanding of what an artist is, and the routine conflation between an artist and an entertainer, is now ubiquitous throughout the music industry and the general public.  From a listener’s perspective, the distinction may be inconsequential, and using the terms synonymously provides a convenience within casual conversation.  However, there is a danger in allowing the boundary between these classes to remain blurred, for in so doing we risk forgetting that they actually are two separate things, the substance of which matters.  This is more than just semantics - because the motivation for why someone creates art influences the resulting art.  As a creator, it is important to know who you are, and why you’re doing what you’re doing.

An artist creates that which they are compelled to create.  Their creation may or may not resonate with you.  You may or may not enjoy it.  It may or may not be what you would like to hear or see.  But such is of no creative consequence to the artist.  They are seeking to capture a vision; to express something that demands expression; to translate feelings or ideas in a way that is inherently self-satisfying.

An entertainer, on the other hand, creates that which they think you will like.  They are creatively concerned with the opinions of others, and seek to mold their creation in accordance with outside expectations and/or predicted reactions.  This type of individual is often popularly referred to as a "commercial artist”, though this is an inadequate characterization, as will become clear.

Artists are human beings of course, and few enjoy having their work (or themselves) criticized or ridiculed.  But while an artist may hope their work resonates with you, and be intensely disappointed if it doesn’t, ultimately outside praise or lack thereof has no impact on the merits of their efforts.  The opposite holds true with entertainers, as their legitimacy lives or dies based on outside opinion - if the audience is not engaged, their efforts have been in vain.

One might be tempted to conclude from these descriptions that I am insinuating artists are superior to entertainers.  This is not so!  The world needs both artists and entertainers, as they serve different but equally important functions.  

One might also confuse a discussion about creators with that of their resulting creations.  To be clear, we’re discussing the former, not the latter.  So we don’t need to debate whether the byproduct of a creator is or isn’t art, or if it’s good or bad, etc.  Those are subjective determinations that will vary from person to person.  But whether the creator is an artist is not subjective.  That is a fact.  It may be a fact we are not privy to, or one that we suspect but can’t be certain of, but there is no debating that every creator has a set of intentions and motivations, whatever they may be.  And I contend there is merit to unpacking these, both as consumers and creators - for it fosters clearer conceptions of what artistry entails, which ultimately serves to enhance both the creation of art and our appreciation for it.

With all of that said, there is some additional nuance and confusion to the artist / entertainer analysis, which I will now address.

Let’s start with money.  Both artists and entertainers can seek to make money from their art.  However, money will not factor into the artistic process of the artist - if it is considered at all, it will be an afterthought, with no actual creative influence.  In contrast, the entertainer can be (and often is) motivated to create art specifically in order to make money, wherein creative decisions are designed to ensure and/or maximize appeal and profitability.  So the monetization of art in and of itself is not sufficiently revealing - it’s whether monetization plays a causal role within the art’s creation.  There is nothing wrong with creating art for the purpose of financial gain, but such a person is not an artist.

With respect to a “commercial artist”, this is an acceptable and coherent designation only if a genuine artist is making a living off of their art.  Culturally, it often involves a pejorative connotation, in which a commercial artist is not seen as a true artist, or one that has sold out, etc.  But this connotation is really a misplaced reaction to the common merging of artists and entertainers as being one and the same - once you parse out that confusion, there is a perfectly respectable place for a commercial artist to exist.  On the flip-side, it makes absolutely no sense to ever refer to an entertainer as a commercial artist - they are certainly commercial, but certainly not artists.

Next up, fans.  Artists and entertainers can both perform their music for fans, and take sincere pleasure, fulfillment, and inspiration from the impact their music has on other people.  However, if you’re making music for your fans, then you are not an artist…you’re an entertainer.  The same applies if you make creative decisions based on what your fans want to hear (or what you think they want to hear).  There is nothing wrong with catering one's art to meet with outside expectations…but such disqualifies you as being an artist.

Sometimes performers or musicians get referred to as artists (e.g. “he is a true artist with that violin”), but this is a different usage of the term.  While there certainly is an awe-inspiring mastery involved in compelling musicianship and performing, this is not the same thing as being an artist.  As breathtakingly skilled and uniquely expressive as they may be, performers and musicians are interpreting art; not creating it.  The world needs these people, without question - it’s simply inaccurate to label them artists.

Being an artist doesn’t mean you can’t be influenced by the art of others.  We live in an interconnected world, and nothing (including you) exists in pure isolation.  But an artist does not attempt to be or sound like anything other than who they are.  Artists take inspiration from others; entertainers imitate others.  While some say imitation is the greatest from of flattery, to an artist, such is a wasted opportunity for authentic self-expression.  Celebrate and revere your idols and influences…but if you’re trying to become them, you are not an artist.

Being an artist also doesn’t prevent you from taking the advice of others, or implementing outside suggestions…so long as you genuinely find such suggestions artistically compelling.  Of course, many an artist work in isolation, but plenty have sought input from others which they have taken into creative consideration.  Now, if you make changes based on the opinions of others, despite not artistically agreeing with them, well then you have quite obviously compromised your artistry.  This doesn’t make you a bad person, it’s just the fact of the matter.

Furthermore, being an artist doesn’t prevent you from enlisting the assistance of others (e.g. utilizing skilled experts, such as musicians, mixing or mastering engineers, etc)…so long as you remain in creative control and tied to the process.  That being said, if you’re outsourcing all of the composing and songwriting, there’s obviously nothing left in which your artistry can subsist - in that case, you are a performer, or possibly even an entertainment brand.  You might be popularly referred to as a “recording artist”, but as with “commercial artist” discussed above, such a designation can only be applied to an actual artist that records their own music - if you’re recording the music of others, you’re clearly not an artist.

Is being a true artist mutually exclusive with collaboration?  The answer depends on what the motivation is for collaborating.  If you’re doing it to gain new fans via cross-promotion, maintain relevancy, etc, then you’re functioning as a promoter and entertainer.  If you share a creative vision with someone, or are compelled to explore where a collaboration will lead, then you are functioning as an artist (despite potentially having to compromise on various creative decisions / executions therein).

In addition, an artist can experiment with methods, styles, instrumentation, collaboration, etc that might not deeply appeal to them, for the purposes of learning and discovery; but an artist would never release anything that was not truly representative of them.  So exploration in and of itself is not a disqualification of artistry.  I might be curious about jazz music and begin experimenting with the genre.  It might prove interesting in various ways; I might learn a lot; I might be creative in how I navigate the tonal landscape; but if my efforts to make a jazz album are not based on an authentic connection to the music, then I am not being an artist.  Having said that, I might ultimately stumble upon something that keeps me glued to the process; some aspect of jazz that surprisingly won’t let go, and which compels me to go further - in that case, such will have become an artistic endeavor.  

Then there is the matter of work-for-hire composers and writers.  Are these individuals artists?  If you are creating, modifying, or tempering your work in order to satisfy someone else (e.g. director, producer, etc), or for the benefit of your resume, or to expand your network, or for the paycheck, etc, then obviously you are not an artist (you’re essentially a craftsman).  However, to the extent that a work-for-hire creator is genuinely collaborating with their employer(s), or is given free reign to do as they see fit, and the nature of the content truly resonates with them, then they are absolutely functioning as an artist.  Even though many work-for-hire endeavors are in response to someone else’s vision (e.g. a brief, film, screenplay, etc), such doesn’t automatically negate legitimate artistry, for it is really no different than responding to any other outside stimulus, event, or experience in one’s life, and it doesn’t matter where artistic inspiration originates.  That being said, if you’re working on something that you honestly don’t give a shit about, then regardless of how creative you may be, your efforts have nothing to do with artistry.

Lastly, there is the question of whether it’s possible to be both an artist and an entertainer.  With respect to the creation of art, the answer is NO!  Having said that, an artist can certainly parallel the behavior of an entertainer after the creative process concludes (e.g. touring / performing for fans and money, engaging in promotion, etc).  An artist might also consciously step into the role of an entertainer or craftsman, in order to make ends meet financially.  Similarly, an entertainer might stumble upon a song that really speaks to them, and which they pursue artistically, in contrast to their normal affairs.  In other words, a person might travel back and forth between both domains, but at any given creative point, you can only exist in one or the other.  There is no artist-entertainer continuum, and there are no degrees of artistry - you’re all in, or all out.

In summary, one’s identity as an artist fundamentally turns on the nature of their creative process - what are they seeking to accomplish, and why?  If you are creating art as a means to an end, you are not an artist.  If you are creating art because you are compelled to do so, solely as an end unto itself, then you are.  This principle can be broadly applied to any activity or enterprise.  It is what separates a chef from a cook; a martial artist from a prizefighter; etc.  It’s also worth reiterating that every facet of the arts has its place.  Artists, entertainers, craftsman, musicians, performers - they all play a role in enriching the human experience.  Being an artist doesn’t make you more important - but the importance of artistry cannot be overstated.  So if you happen to be among those infused with artistic spirit, I implore you to stay true to that spirit.  You can’t choose to be an artist - artistry chooses you - but you can choose whether or not to honor it.  For those in the position to do so, I sincerely hope you will.

2 comments:

  1. Can you be a true artist in multiple passions; such as a sport, music, etc.? Or is true artistry attained when you have become solely entwined as one with a single passion?

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    1. You can most certainly be an artist in multiple domains - it has nothing to do with a narrow scope, but rather, the nature of the relationship with one’s passion(s). But don’t confuse artistry with mastery. One could argue that true mastery requires a singleminded dedication to refining and improving a single skill at the expense of all others. This might be valid in the context of being the greatest of all time in a specific respect. But one could also argue that a multidisciplinary approach more broadly informs how to apply any given skill, or that refining a variety of skills ultimately interacts with and reinforces each other, to the benefit and enhancement of one’s overall mastery. Regardless, being a true artist in no way guarantees mastery…but some degree of mastery is certainly entailed in compelling artistry.

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