"And the beat goes on...................."
We talk a lot about artists. Artists are, after all, at least one of the client groups we serve in the nonprofit arts - the other being the public.
But there is a dearth of any clear definition of what we mean by the term artist. Philosophers and theorists have long considered and debated the question without any definitive answer. And maybe that's both the logic and implausibility of attempting to deal with the question. Maybe toiling over a definition is a perfidy of the purity of the concept. Or maybe it's best left to the practitioner. to define.
When we use the term, do we mean, exclusively, or even principally, artists who work in the fine arts fields of music, visual art, dance, theater and more contemporary art forms such as film or media? Do we include craftspeople? Do we include amateurs? Do we mean to imply that the term artist somehow embodies professionals, or those who make their living from their artistry? Or do we include within the term anyone who creates any kind of art on any level, including both those who self-define as artists and those who, for whatever reasons, do not? Does the term refer to aspiration, success, occupation or otherwise? Is excellence in execution a prerequisite to claim the title?
Are rock stars (or rock wannabes) and hip hop rappers artists? And if they are, are they then included in our work, or, by default, do we limit our efforts to classical musicians, ballet dancers, and opera divas -- only certain artists? Do some of us do that, and others of us not, thereby giving evidence to our multiple definitions of artist, at least as th same relates to our professional charge?
Is it the case that we have lots of definitions of what constitutes an artist, and is that because we haven't made any attempt to actually narrow down any definition of the term. Is it somehow exclusive or is it purposefully all inclusive?
Does it make any difference? Do we even care what the definition is? Do we develop policies based on some unspoken consensus definition of the term "artist", or is the very idea of any consensus on such a definition merely a convenient, but inaccurate, refusal to address the question? Would a definition make any difference in how we did our jobs, what we funded, how we marketed, what programs we favored, or the more meaty issues of equity, public value and beyond? Is the very term "artist" connected to the equity question?
What does the public believe an artist is, and does their definition (if there is one) matter? Why or why not?
Is the very definition of an artist so elusive a concept as to be impossible to categorize, or is it so pedestrian that its unnecessary to define it? Is it, like pornography, of which Supreme Court Justice, Potter Stewart, famously declared that he couldn't define it, but "I know it when I see it"? Do each of us understand what is meant by the term artist as individuals? And if so, do those understandings and definitions vary greatly by and between each of us? And do we, for whatever reasons, pretend that we all agree?
Is artist defined by talent and skill, by length of practice or legacy? Are there common characteristics of all artists beyond the attempt to create? Do we include those only within our sphere or all of those beyond our recognition? If creation alone does not constitute conferring the appellation of artist, can one grow into the post? If art is a process, are you an artist only when you have practiced your "art" for a term?
Or is the definition of an artist and art best left to each of us to ponder for ourselves? Would that conclusion make our work in the nonprofit arts easier, or axiomatically more difficult?
There are a thousand questions about how to possibly define the term "artist', why do it, why not, and what it might mean. Where to start? Where to stop?
I don't know, but increasingly I think it at least has bearing, even if unintended and unrecognized, on what we do and how we do it, and we thus ought to examine the question.
Have a good day.