You have no right to go around thinking you’re not already an artist.
Yes, you. The person reading this now.
When you were little, you probably learned, like I did, that an artist is someone who paints pretty pictures.
Or maybe your definition was more expansive. People who write novels or make sculptures are artists, too.
And that’s pretty much it. But it’s not the truth.
The Connotations of “Artist”
What do you associate with the word “artist?”
The word comes with tons of crappy baggage, meant to distance you. You know about the “starving artists,” who have to eat their paintings because they can’t sell enough to buy any food. Not appealing.
But the successful artist is highfalutin, turning up their nose at the common folk, deigning to mingle with them only at the special shows held at fancy places. (They call these “galleries.” How grandiloquent!) (“Grandiloquent? Sounds like something an artist would say.”)
Or an artist is a hippie, walking around barefoot in clothes made exclusively of hemp, talking about flower power and being a free spirit.
Remember art class in school? It was always the fun diversion from the “real” work of memorizing numbers and rules of English and learning about the ancient Egyptians.
It’s almost as if they wanted to make artists seem strange and foreign. Maybe they never wanted you to be an artist. (Spoiler alert: they didn’t.) Nope, they wanted you to be a clerk, a factory worker.
Becoming an “Artist”
If you’re still reading this, I’m guessing that, despite all the negative programming, at some point you decided you did want to be an “artist.” (If so, applaud yourself for your discerning ability to see through bullshit.)
You are creative. You are curious. You like trying new things.
Maybe you wrote short stories in college, or you took poetry classes, or you learned how to fire clay, or blow glass, or make beaded bracelets or collages, or you got way into Cubism.
But for most of us, it didn’t work. We got rejected one too many times, or someone told us to get a “real” degree, or we made the sensible choice to start a career that could actually pay off those obscene student loans.
But here’s the key point: they, the system, the Man, want you to think you failed at being an artist. That you weren’t good enough. That all that’s left is for you to become a cog in the industrial machine, cranking out briefs or deals or code, doing whatever the boss tells you.
False. You are an artist.
They just don’t want you to think you’re an artist. Because they don’t want you to think at all.
It’s all a conspiracy—a conspiracy of language. (The best kind of conspiracy!)
The word art is very old. It descends from a PIE root called *ar-, meaning “fit together” or “join.” In Latin this became ars, meaning “work of art,” “practical skill,” “business,” or “craft.” In early English, it meant “skill as a result of learning or practice.”
Odd—that’s a much broader definition than what we have now. Skills and crafts—those sound suspiciously like things we all practice, every day.
You probably think of the first artists as those cave painters in France and Germany. And they definitely were artists. But they weren’t the first.
By the original definition, anyone who created something was an artist, and their creation was the art. And “fit together” or “join” means combining things to make something new. No coincidence: this is how creating, the essence of art, is accomplished.
That means stone tools. That means languages and words. That means clothing and ceremonies and marriages.
The shaman was an artist, the spiritual traditions his art. The breeders of dogs and horses were artists, the new species their art. The seamstresses were artists, and the farmers, and the astronomers. In short, everybody was.
Nothing has changed. We’re all still artists.
The energetic barista who creates a joyful mood and improves your day? Artist. The accountant who notices a tax deduction you could be claiming? Artist. The scientist who conceives a clever experiment and discovers hidden knowledge? Artist.
What do you create during your day? What do you put together? That’s your art.
What Happened to the Artists? (A Brief Linguistic Tour)
Over time, someone has restricted our language. They’ve hemmed us in, by changing what the word “artist” means.
During antiquity, the effort to restrict art to a specific set of crafts was well underway. The Greeks had the Muses, each overseeing for a different “art.” The Muses weren’t a negative idea—they helped a lot of people achieve great things—but they also narrowed the playing field. If your work didn’t have a Muse, it wasn’t art.
In the Middle Ages, the “liberal arts” were defined as a specific set of seven sciences, a term we proudly carry on today (and one that’s also often a diminutive).
Finally, sometime in the 16th and 17th century, art came to be associated exclusively with the “creative arts.” Particularly painting, but also sculpture and other visual techniques.
Instead of everyone being an artist, we were down to a very select, precisely-defined few.
Luckily, that wasn’t the end of the story. We, the artists, fought back.
In the early 1800s the French coined a new word: artiste. The word was a hit. It made its way to English within a couple decades.
An artiste was everything an artist once was. An entertainer. An exhibitor. And not just of painting and sculpture, but dancing, speaking, writing, throwing parties, anything done with a flair or with passion.
The 1913 Webster’s dictionary has it like this:
One peculiarly dexterous and tasteful in almost any employment, as an opera dancer, a hairdresser, a cook.
Almost any employment. That seems clear enough.
“Applied With Nice Discrimination”
Artiste: an admirable word (albeit somewhat Frenchified) of late applied, with nice discrimination, to every species of exhibitor, from a rope-dancer down to a mere painter or sculptor…
I find we have already the word artist; but with stupid English perversity, we have hitherto used that in a much more restricted sense than its newly-imported rival, which it is becoming the excellent fashion to adopt.
Perverse, indeed. We’ve continued down this road of marginalizing the word “artist,” in the name of industrialism and technology and conformity. Because if you’re not an artist, what are you? A piece of the machine.
As a society, we need to wake up to the fact that everyone is an artist. We need you to be an artist.
Everyone is capable of bringing art and creativity to their daily work and play. Whether you’re a server, or an executive, or a janitor, or an author, or a pilot, or a bank teller, you have an innately human ability to give us your art.
Now that you know your true identity, think about the ways you can use it.
Do something you’ve never done before. Question established patterns. Make someone’s day better. Smile. Laugh. Sing.
Find new ways to do art that nobody’s thought of yet. Only you can do it.