What we mean when we talk about art

For a long time, I considered fiction my art. My essays, articles, interviews, book reviews and blog posts were something else. Writing, but not art.

Then I read a post by Tara Mohr. It was a great post that, unfortunately, I can’t find now, but it talked about how she left the corporate world to pursue “her art,” and it was clear that she was talking about everything she does now, all the writing, speaking and teaching women to play big and believe in themselves.

I remember being struck by the phrase. Tara’s book is called 10 Rules for Brilliant Women and while I think any book that attempts to teach women how to own (and wield) their brilliance is important and worthy… is it art?

Not long after reading Tara’s piece, I read this from Stephen Elliott in the Daily Rumpus. “We were talking yesterday about how there are artists in every medium,” he said. “You can be an artist and a cook, an artist and a small business owner.” He mused that the definition may lie in what you’re trying to do and why, whether you’re out for a paycheck or genuinely trying to create something good, something meaningful.

And then I read this from Seth Godin:

Art is a uniquely human endeavor, and act of genius. Art is what we do when we do something for the first time, do it uniquely, and do it to touch someone else. The generosity is built into the act. Painting might be art, pottery might be art, customer service might be art–but none of them are art if all you’re doing is commerce, or phoning it in, or following a manual or a map.

Art is where we expose ourselves, because in addition to being human, we really have no choice but to accept failure. And it’s failure (or the potential for failure) that creates art. When we talk about emulating the bodhisattva, we accept the risk that maybe we won’t touch anyone, won’t shed any light, won’t make a difference.

The only way to do art, real art, is to embrace that risk. To do less is to hide.

That is beautiful and rings true to me. In her most recent column, Sugar at the Rumpus said, “I’ve written [the Dear Sugar column] as a body of work in a way more akin to a novel or memoir than a years-long Q & A. There’s a beginning, middle and end.” I agree completely , and there is no doubt in my mind that what Sugar has created is art.

As my notion of what constitutes art changes and expands, I find myself contemplating other questions. Is everyone who blogs “a writer,” everyone who paints “an artist,” everyone who takes pictures “a photographer”? Do the titles mean anything objective? Should they?

I’m drawn to the idea of art being about more than the finished product. I like definitions that include intent and meaning. Is my reluctance to call everyone who writes poetry “a poet” reflexive, or do we owe it to the poets who have studied and read and honed their craft not to place just anyone in their ranks?

What do you think? What constitutes art to you?


  1. Lance on January 19, 2012 at 11:39 am

    I only watched the first couple of seasons of “Friends”. I wasn’t a huge fan. But i remember when the Ross character would refer to his “music”, which was his playing around on a casio keyboard, and my then Girlfriend, now ex wife, would say “awww that’s you and your writing”. Yeah, I know, why did I put up with that…anyway

    Our expressions of our soul, whether you call it art or someone else calls it a hobby or our “thing”, as long as it’s honest, it’s beautiful.

    I don;t know if my writing is art. The rejection letters and harsh critiques tell me maybe not, but I do know I’ve never been happier than since i started writing every day and putting it up for the internets to see.

  2. j on January 19, 2012 at 11:59 am

    You bring up a good point. Does it matter what we call it? I hated when I first started writing (I was a late bloomer), and people called it a hobby. I felt it was more than that, though I couldn’t articulate what I felt. I took a long time to call myself “writer,” even after I’d started being published. The labels confuse and frustrate me.

    I love this: “Our expressions of our soul, whether you call it art or someone else calls it a hobby or our “thing”, as long as it’s honest, it’s beautiful.”

    And, for what it’s worth, I’m quite familiar with the pain of rejection. It’s unavoidable. And, according to Seth, the risk of rejection is part of what makes it art. See, look how wonderful that definition is!

  3. Pam on January 19, 2012 at 11:59 am

    Once on a hike, a friend told me that Viggo Mortensen said he thought our usual definition of art was too narrow; that a person could be an artist of life, without making any sculptures or paintings or poems.

    I like that open-heartedness about art. I’m not really there myself: my own usage of the terms art and artist is not that inclusive, but I admire the mindset.

    • j on January 19, 2012 at 12:01 pm

      Me too! I feel a little inner dissonance over this. I’m glad we’re talking about it.

  4. Annie Neugebauer on January 19, 2012 at 12:16 pm

    This is an interesting topic, and one that I struggle with. My knee-jerk reaction is that no, not everyone should claim the label “artist” just because they’re trying. In one way, that seems to me like the old platitude, “Everyone is special.” By definition, that can’t be true. If everyone is special, no one is special. (Although, of course, I do realize that what they likely actually mean is that everyone has something to offer – that everyone is valuable – which is true.) In the same way, saying that “living” is art makes me a little irritated, because it seems clear to me that living with intent is not at all the same thing as creating art in the way I think of the word. Sort of how the expression “the art of ___ (fill in mundane activity)” has taken some meaning out of the word. Perhaps the problem is in the versatility of words. “Art” can mean all of these things, and it can mean them all simultaneously to different people, in spite of their contradictions with each other. Obviously, you’ve gotten me thinking. Great post, love this discussion.

    • j on January 19, 2012 at 4:24 pm

      On the one hand, I agree with you, but I find it almost impossible to define “art” as I think of it, or to offer up some objective criteria by which we might make a judgement. I thought maybe it should be the result of study and honed skills, but then I realized that if someone told me Cheryl Strayed (whose book I’m reading now) had no formal training as a writer and this was her first book, it wouldn’t make it any less a work of art to me. I’ve also looked at paintings in prestigious galleries and thought, “Really? That’s art?”

      Maybe it’s my own ambivalence that draws me to the idea of there being “artists in every medium” as Stephen Elliott says. I like the idea of passion, risk and meaning being part of the definition of art, and I definitely like the idea of more people living vibrantly creative lives.

      Maybe “creatives” instead of artists, “creative works” instead of art?

  5. Clare Flourish on January 19, 2012 at 2:03 pm

    I have not been paid for my writing. However, people read what I write. Fifty people get what I write on my blog emailed to them. So there is an objective measure of the value of what I write. I read that people who say at parties that they are a writer get asked, have I heard of anything you wrote? They get challenged on the value or popularity of their writing. So I am a little uneasy saying I am a “writer”, it is a claim to doing something others have valued. So what? I am doing something which I enjoy. Call it whatever you want to call it.

    • j on January 19, 2012 at 4:29 pm

      I definitely don’t think “being paid” is part of the definition, that’s just the definition of “professional.” Writers do get challenged, though I don’t think it’s always malicious. People really want to know if they may have read you, but it can be awkward.

      Your “so what?” is similar to Lance’s point. It doesn’t matter what we call it, and that’s probably true, though I find the discussion interesting, and the conflicted feelings that rise up in me, as they do with Annie.

      I like these thorny topics. 😉

  6. NM (@echo90803) on January 19, 2012 at 2:46 pm

    J, this is a fascinating topic. I don’t think I can ever conceive of calling myself an artist. I think of myself as being far too prosaic for that. I agree with Annie’s comments above, and yet I think we long to think of ourselves as artists, even if we don’t have conventionally defined “artistic” skills. For myself, I think I’ve tried to live “artfully,” to see prosaic tasks as an opportunity for creativity and beauty. Some times I see a photograph I take as art, or something I wrote as evocative. Perhaps I see the quest for beauty in all it’s forms as a way of living artfully because I don’t see myself as an artist? This is half-baked but I’m leaving it as is. Perhaps if I were an artist, I’d hone and polish this comment more. Since I don’t call myself an artist, however, I don’t feel compelled to polish. Now I’m laughing at myself and at the voice of my fifth grade teacher, Miss Maston, “If you would apply yourself, you could do so much more!”

    • j on January 19, 2012 at 4:34 pm

      Oh, Nancy. How I adore you!

      I think it’s fascinating too – my own resistance to the attraction I feel toward Seth Godin’s definition of art. Clearly, I don’t have my own feelings all sorted out.

      That said, I love the term “living artfully.” I felt the same way the first time I heard someone use the word “creative” as a noun. I liked the openness of it, the possibility inherent to its lack of definition .

      As for your comment, you’re just a damn prodigy. No honing or training necessary, baby.

  7. NM (@echo90803) on January 19, 2012 at 7:16 pm

    Beaming here….your comment makes up for my having a head cold and having to wait an hour and a half for a mammogram today, in a waiting room I was sure was awash with germs. Ack!

    I’m thinking cheesecake around my spring break time. Think you’ll be free then?

    • j on January 19, 2012 at 11:00 pm

      Absolutely. 🙂

  8. (whoa) Mary on January 19, 2012 at 9:50 pm

    I have been thinking about this all day and I still don’t really know what to say. I agree with what you said about labels. I hate labels. It took me a long time to consider myself a writer. About the only label I willingly accepted was photographer. Technically I suck, but I know I have a good eye. When I was very young I wanted to be an artist. But, I don’t think I knew back then what that entailed. Considering the conversation, I still don’t.

    Any type of creative endeavor is highly subjective. What some consider to be great art others just shake their heads and say “really?” In the long run it really doesn’t matter. If creating something gives you joy, then do it. It doesn’t matter what anyone else thinks about it. It doesn’t matter if anyone else likes it. If you consider it art, then it is. I am mostly creative when I need to be. For me it is personal. It is not something I can force. Sometimes it is like a purge. And sometimes I can and do consider it art.

    If you have taken something, an idea or vision, entirely from your head and created something substantial from it, yeah, I think you can claim the label artist. You might be considered by some to be a shitty artist, but who cares if you like it. Like I said, it is all subjective.

    • j on January 19, 2012 at 11:10 pm

      I absolutely agree with doing what makes us happy. My point isn’t that we shouldn’t do it if it isn’t art, but that I’m not sure everything we do to be happy or to follow our passion is art. That said, I think Seth Godin’s definition of what constitutes art is much broader (and more sort of beautiful) than mine has been, and I’m drawn to it.

      Your point about the subjectivity is valid, and maybe that’s the answer. Nothing about art is objective, really. Someone with no training at all can create a masterpiece that impacts the world, and someone with training and experience can create schlock that ultimately only serves to bring him a paycheck.

      Perhaps defining art is as subjective as the creations themselves.

  9. (whoa) Mary on January 20, 2012 at 12:16 am

    I think you have to bring perspective into it too. From the perspective of someone who has had training, they would be more likely to consider themselves as artists than someone with no training, but instead has natural ability. Also those who have studied art might be able to tell you exactly why something should be considered art, Whereas someone with no training might simply think of it as pretty. The perspective of a mom viewing work done by her child would be different than someone unrelated. I never really trusted my talent until someone totally unrelated to me read something and liked it. I always thought my family and friends just didn’t want to hurt my feelings.

    • j on January 20, 2012 at 8:53 am

      True. It took a few editors accepting my work before I ventured into calling myself a writer. I’m actually mildly fascinated by my own push-pull on the subject of what constitutes art. How I agree with Annie’s thoughts that it’s about more than passion and declaration, but then I want us all to, as Nancy so beautifully put it, “live more artful lives.”

      I’m less concerned with what I call my own stuff. I’m only framing that in my head. But I do like the idea of broadening my mind to include a lot of things under the umbrella of “art” that I haven’t before. That there may be artists in every medium is sort of an awesome thought, right? Artist garbage guys, artist dog groomers, artist teachers, artist IT support people. (Now THOSE, I want to meet!)

    • Travis B. Hartwell on January 21, 2012 at 10:06 am

      I can’t help but think of a fascinating and entertaining documentary, “Exit through the Gift Shop” http://www.imdb.com/title/tt1587707/. The movie was put together by Banksy, a man in his anonymity, has proven what some have called mere graffiti can be beautiful art. It chronicles the story of Theirry. who became fascinated by people he considered artists, street artists like Banksy. Theirry had this quirk though. He was always taking video. Everywhere he went. And he amassed hours and hours of raw footage of Banksy and other artists doing their thing.

      Banksy finally convinced him to put it together to make a documentary. When it came together, frankly, Banksy said, “it was shit.” Thierry went on to do big pieces of art, even having his own show, selling millions of dollars of art. To me, I was almost as an episode of The Simpsons. The guy had passion. He loved what he was doing. But it also seemed like parody. But was he an artist?

      At the end of the documentary, in retrospect, Banksy himself said, “I used to tell everyone I met to be an artist….. I don’t do that any more.”

      Now, I would not have paid money for most all of Thierry’s works. But, I would pay for Banksy’s. But Thierry was consumed by these things. Whether it be taking the video, or doing the street art, or doing his show. His excitement got him in over his head. But he certainly was enthused.

      Now, I’m not sure if I agree or disagree. Your question of “What is art” or “What is our art” or “What is your art”, is a lot different than are you an artist? That’s why I, like j, like the noun “Creative”. It doesn’t take this grand responsibility of some standard you have to measure up to. It’s about why you do it, and how you do it. Not what you do or how the world judges it.

      One of the most important practices I’ve adopted in my life are morning pages, introduced by Julia Cameron in “The Artist’s Way”. For her, they were a means to keep the writing going, to find inspiration and insight for her creative works of the day, for what we would call unquestionably art. But the reason Morning Pages mean so much to me I think hits a key point. In doing these things, what do I become? And what do others become because of it? In the Morning Pages I have found my most pristine view of who I call Travis. It leads me to understand myself, to love more, to be more grateful. it leads me to write and do what I consider to be more properly art.

      So if it is what brings beauty into your life, it’s art. I’d didn’t say that by itself it was beautiful. But I don’t think art has to equal beautiful.

    • j on January 22, 2012 at 12:02 am

      It’s an interesting word, “beautiful.” It’s what keeps hanging me up… or a version of it, anyway. Ultimately, there is beauty in the act of creation, beauty in the work Michael described at a construction site, or Seth Godin’s customer service example. But not a work at the end that we can point to and say, “That’s beautiful.”

      And even if there was such a work… beauty is, definitely, always in the eye of the beholder. I love this discussion of what constitutes art. Even though (and this makes me laugh), I feel absolutely no closer to a definition. 🙂

  10. c on January 20, 2012 at 12:18 am

    I know the old saying “art is in the eye of the beholder”, but that isn’t the point of your post I think. If I fix the drain pipe under my sink, add a new CB to my electrical panel, rebuild a VW engine, paint a picture, create and write posts on an eco-blog (all things I have done), I don’t consider myself to be a plumber, electrician, mechanic, artist or writer…

    I did run a carpentry business and worked in engineering for 23 years, so I do consider myself a journeyman carpenter and an engineer. Skill and experience matter.

    • j on January 20, 2012 at 8:57 am

      I think so too. And I sort of like your plumber example because I don’t think many people who can fix a sink would call themselves a plumber. But if you could fix all the things a plumber could fix, it wouldn’t matter how you came to know it, there you’d be. A plumber.

      The real question… Are there artist plumbers?

    • Travis B. Hartwell on January 21, 2012 at 3:46 pm

      To answer j’s question, I would have to emphatically say, yes, there are artist plumbers. In the PG essay I referenced elsewhere, or any number of people that write about makers, it is about what I call a hacker.

      My peers I call hackers are those that have a standard for elegance in what they do and who are fascinated by the process of getting to that elegance. What they do isn’t merely how they get a paycheck or an intellectual curiosity (though it fills both of those quite well). It is something that appeals to their sense of beauty. And, for most of them, it was always just a sense. Even when they may not have had a technical knowledge, they knew what felt elegant to them. And that “feeling elegant” was important.

      I explain this because I had this grand realization this past Thanksgiving. On the surface, I couldn’t be more different from my father or the way my grandfather was. My father is a truck driver and has been so most of his adult life. My brother, too, is a truck driver. When my Grandfather was alive, he was probably one of the best cattlemen around. There are people in this area that still will stop and talk to me about him, and he passed away almost 20 years ago.

      What I realized, as my Dad and I were talking about some of the other drivers who use the same dispatcher as him, was what I had grown up thinking was “normal” wasn’t. My Dad always had a sense of how to do things. Even down to the way he kept his records for invoicing, for tax purposes, and other things. Naturally, my brother has learned from him and gone on to be much the same.

      But, there are so many of their peers that aren’t even close. They don’t understand things that seem like they should be second nature to me, if that’s what they’ve been doing for years. I realized these men were much like coworkers in the past that have baffled me. They were there for a paycheck. They never even thought about software, software development, or any of those things outside of work. They didn’t have a sense for things I have always done — and I basically taught myself programming in isolation, away from any professionals.

      But my grandfather was the same way. My father and I were comparing how successful Papa was to others that had the same opportunity. It was staggering. It was even apparent to me, who knows oh so little about cattle, that Papa knew what he was doing.

      I came to realize that as I am a hacker. of code, of words, of great technology — it’s who I’ve always been. My father has been like that with cars and truck driving his whole life. And my Grandfather was with Cattle and trading. Dad is a truck driving hacker. My Papa was a hacker of cattle.

      So why can’t there be a hacker of plumbing? Why can’t what they do be artistry? I don’t know many plumbers, but I wouldn’t be surprised.

  11. kaleighsomers on January 20, 2012 at 7:46 am

    In a problematic sense, I don’t know how to write without my heart leaking onto the page anymore. Which is only really a problem in academia, I think, and even then, maybe not. I have a feeling some people might get upset at the notion that what they’re doing is, at its most basic level, art. They might have this negative association with the concept of art and feel like its devaluing them to say “I’m an artist because I carve out time to make each conversation over the phone to open a new credit card as meaningful and personal as I can.” I would disagree, saying it’s an honor to call myself an artist, but could see someone getting upset.

    • j on January 20, 2012 at 9:04 am

      I actually think most people would love to be considered an artist at what they do, but is what they do “art”? Can you be an artist at your profession because you infuse your work with meaning and compassion, but not have the end result be art? In your example, it’s hard to consider a new credit card account a work of art.

      So maybe there’s the problem with the way I’ve framed my question. I’m joining two concepts that aren’t necessarily linked in the way we’ve traditionally linked them. What makes an “artist” and what constitutes “art” might be two different things.

  12. lunajune on January 20, 2012 at 8:45 am

    Art.. it is so subjective….when we stand at the sidelines and judge “is this art…or not ?”
    for me I pull back… wayyyyyyyy back to kindergarten , here is some ‘stuff’ go create… then we’ll do show and tell…. that is art to me….the paper.. the paint…the macaroni..the felt…the things you found and put just so… and you showed and talked about it.
    they we grew up… well some of us… not me LOL and were given a box of labels … used to judge
    as for me.. all I know is when I like something… am moved by something.. am inspired by someone or something I like to share it , comment on it
    and if I don’t… I just simply walk away.

    I have listened to heated conversations about people arguing over others calling themselves an ‘artist’ and the flow of angry emotions really shocked me that these people could be soooo up in arms because one person chose to use a label for themselves and stand proud enough to say….
    ” I’m an artist, come look at me ” I laughed so hard at them.. which annoyed them more :~)
    didn’t a huge Art Gallery buy ‘White on White” ? a white canvas for close to a million dollars !!!! is that art… think not… but then again who am I to judge… I like sparkly things I find on the ground…and the moment I spoke to the world that I was a Sparkle Magnet you should see the sparkle that is drawn to me… ( go look in the mirror ) ♥

    anyway… there are artists who study so hard, hone their craft, dedicate their life, like I do to my work… and you can surely tell by looking, by watching, by just being with these people that what they do comes from their soul…..they shine….they sparkle…

    Life is like show and tell….and there will always be the smartypants in the room who will look down… but thankfully I learned very early in life…

    have an amazing Friday…. I loved the video :~) you sparkled and it is art

    • Travis B. Hartwell on January 21, 2012 at 10:09 am

      I love what lunajune reminded us of. I look at my five year old nephew and what he puts into drawing and coloring and making things. I look at the joy he gets and how it wants to share it with everyone. He’s not afraid or embarrassed by how “good” it is. It is for its own sake.

      And that is a true artist.

  13. j on January 20, 2012 at 9:09 am

    Ha! Thank you for the Mamas and Papas… listening now.

    Love this definition of an artist: “there are artists who study so hard, hone their craft, dedicate their life, like I do to my work… and you can surely tell by looking, by watching, by just being with these people that what they do comes from their soul.”

    That works for me! I would say that anyone who makes you feel that – the soul of what they do – meets my criteria for the title “artist.”

    And I’m beginning to think what is “art” is an impossible question. “I know what I like” may be the only answer there is. 🙂

    (And thank you for the mirror comment. HUGE smile.)

  14. C. Fassett on January 20, 2012 at 10:26 am

    Speaking of noodles…I got a “C” once for a project in grade school, (“make something for mommy”), made in “art.” Even at such a young age, I remember looking at that C and wondering how I could possibly be graded on something I made, expressed from the love I held in my heart for my mother. I saved the result of that project for a long time, because the question nagged at me. As the years went by in school, and with every drawing, painting, or music class I took, even in college, I was always given a C for anything I turned in to be “graded.” (I always received A’s in writing, so that didn’t matter,lol. Yeah, I took that one for granted!)

    It wasn’t until I’d given it all up, after too many C’s given by folks I figured knew what they were talking about, “the experts”, that I finally discovered why I received all those average grades. My daughter found some drawings I’d done for a class in college, stored away for years in the dark. When I looked at them, I finally saw what my teachers had seen, and understanding dawned.

    What I finally realized was something that can be applied toward every endeavor, every decision, every creative act. My teachers saw potential, and saw that I was holding back mine. Looking at those drawings with my daughter, I could plainly see I held back a huge part of MYSELF in the act of expressing. Why? The answer to that question has touched every aspect of my life. Ever since that day, I’ve been working on expressing myself more fully, in everything I do, which is being fully present in every endeavor, releasing myself in it.

    Art, for me, is about expressing fully, in the most beautiful way I can. Splashing myself on an empty page, giving everything I’ve got inside me to a project, or a decision. Nothing that I’ve added to the world, created, would exist without me. I’m the one driving it. So, I figure, I may as well put my whole self in what I’m creating, whatever that might be.

    • j on January 20, 2012 at 10:49 am


      I’ve judged quite a few literary contests. I always struggle with how to judge short stories, especially the ones written by children or young adults. How do I weight my observations. Does a great idea trump a clumsy execution? Does potential matter more than gifted story-telling? I’ve dropped out of judging all but one of those competitions now because I find these questions really hard to answer (though worthy of asking).

      You’ve stepped out of the question of what makes an artist or constitutes art, I think, but you’ve tapped into what Seth Godin is expressing. Putting your whole self in requires risk – that you won’t be understood, that you wont touch anyone. Full expression of yourself is an inherently vulnerable endeavor. Maybe what you produce won’t be art… but the only chance it has is in your willingness to be “all in.” (And then… maybe it’s always its own kind of art, as so many here have implied.)

      LOVING this discussion.

  15. C. Fassett on January 20, 2012 at 12:12 pm

    I don’t see a separation between the artist and the art, the creator and the created. It’s impossible to have one without the other. And just as beauty is in the eye of the beholder, the definition of art is in the mind of the viewer, which makes it highly subjective. I look around this beautiful, amazing earth, and I am in awe with the one who created it. I look at a sunset and see “art” splashed across the sky, and make sure and tell the creator, “wow, that’s good.” ( Not like my opinion matters :). No other sunset like it, ever! I may not like what is created on canvas, ( I look at some parts of the desert, and really just don’t get it ), but I greatly admire, and respect the one who created it, put him/herself out there, in some form of expression. It is my feeling, in the end, it doesn’t do us any good, individually, and in our efforts, to try to please, or categorize all those subjective views. We create. How we create, and what we create is up to us. We have no control over how it will be viewed. In fact, when we worry about how it will be viewed, or whether it will even be defined as art, that is the moment, I’ve found, that we begin to hold back our expression. I think the important thing is to just do it. Bring it forth, make it seen, that idea, that delicious cookie in our head. Then share it when it’s done.

    Like you do, j. What you do is art.

    • j on January 20, 2012 at 12:36 pm

      I think there is value in thinking about how we think about art, how we define it, what our terms mean, and there might (in my opinion) be a separation between artist and art. We can agree to disagree; I’m good with that.

      What you’re talking about – separating the act of creation (doing the work) from the results (a book deal, a ginormous clamoring audience, a sold-out show) – is critical to getting beyond fear. That is one of the fundamental messages in THE WAR OF ART, which I think every writer should read.

      Oh, and… thanks, sweet talker.

  16. Marcie on January 20, 2012 at 2:26 pm

    So much to think about here in this post. So much rings absolutely true. As I’m in the midst of an intensive yoga teacher training..and exploring the connections between the asana practice…and that of breath..and that of creativity and art – I find myself asking these same sorts of questions. Is ‘teaching’ art? Is encouraging and supporting and inspiring others – art? I don’t know what defines ‘art’ exactly..but it definitely falls into the category of ‘creative’.
    Thank-you for making me think…

    • j on January 20, 2012 at 5:52 pm

      I do like “creative,” because it’s so open and has very little baggage. (For what it’s worth, your description of what you’re doing… it feels like art to me.)

  17. Michael on January 20, 2012 at 5:08 pm

    So much of this is semantics, yeah? And semantics can be so fun. We could try to differentiate between artistry and artisanship, artist and artisan and hobbyist, art and excellent craftsmanship, but I think that’s the most subjective part of the conversation.

    I believe that what we do, the labels we apply, how we feel about what we do, is and should remain an intensely personal thing. I hope to publish my story, but I write for me, because it’s the only thing that makes me feel like I’m truly chasing my own “personal legend” as Paul Coehlo would put it. If I feel that what I do is my best attempt at full, uncompromising artistic expression, then I’m making art. Period.

    What other people think about it should be as secondary as possible. Labels are, essentially, things that others should apply and that artists should ignore. I remember an interview on Q, on CBC radio, in which Jion was talking to the Canadian band The Sloans about critics and commercial success. He asked if the great reviews were fun and the band responded unanimously that they didn’t pay attention to them. They said that if they paid attention to the good reviews then, to be fair, they’d have to pay attention to the bad ones. And who wants to do that? So they made music that they’d want to hear, and that fulfilled them. That’s art, and it can apply to any damned thing. And it’s all about the intent.

    I’ve worked on construction sites where the sub-trades were absolutely artistic in the way they applied their skills. They found creative solutions to unique applications and completed their work with an attention to detail that was astounding. I’m not just talking finish carpenters here – I’m talking plumbers and electricians. It transcended artisanship and at least brushed up against artistry. And then there was the laborer with Down’s Syndrome; he just cleaned up and swept and tidied, but did it with such intent and pride and focus that it was a bit of magic, artistic magic, to watch him work and to watch the pride he took in the work he did.

    I don’t know how to not call that kind of purity of intent art, nor do I care to.

    Our society, perhaps because of the overwhelming commercial bias of the way we live, measures almost everything based on commercial success. In traditionally artistic fields, we add critical opinion to that mix, and even downgrade art if the critics deem that a work is somehow too commercial. But really, there’s stuff we like and stuff we don’t. To the creator of said stuff, there’s only their intent, and I’d suggest that (for me anyway) the more that notoriety, commercial success, or critical acclaim form the impetus of the creative process, the less “art” it is.

    Art, the quality of it, may be judged by the world at large, but the only person that can honestly tell us whether we are an artist or not is the person in the mirror (and maybe a few really close and trusted friends on a lesser level). That means that what the world thinks of the art I create is a distant second to what I think of it and the effort I put into it. That’s true whether I publish or not, whether Isell lots or not, whether I win awards or not, whether I even make a living solely from it or not. The commercial industry can’t tell me anything about my art. They can only tell me about commerce. Potential future readers (may there be many) can’t tell me anything about my art, only whether it resonates with them.

    I am, and should be, the only arbiter of my creative, artistic happiness. The labels, praise, criticisms, accolades, money, or lack thereof don’t mean shit. This gives me great comfort.

    As always, j, you start the best arguments… 😉

  18. j on January 20, 2012 at 6:32 pm

    Michael, Michael, Michael. It was supposed to be a question, not an argument, but I love your response. I hit a nerve.

    I want to be clear that I never meant to imply that people shouldn’t delve wholly into their creative pursuits, no matter what anyone thinks and no matter what we call it – art, hobby, calling, life’s work. I only meant to ask the question, “what is art?” which you answered (but since the other stuff was mixed in, I thought I better be clear).

    Your answer jives with Seth Godin’s I think, especially in that art can happen anywhere and the impetus for creation matters. I like your construction worker example because, like Kaleigh’s credit services representative and C’s plumber, the product of the work isn’t something most of us would look at and think, “Yep. Art.” It implies that the “art” in question may sometimes lie more in the process than in the outcome. I agree, and by that definition, I can certainly see how Stephen Elliott’s observation that artists exist in every medium is true.

    This: “Art, the quality of it, may be judged by the world at large, but the only person that can honestly tell us whether we are an artist or not is the person in the mirror…” is golden.

    If you put your work out there, the world will judge. That’s what they’re supposed to do. In fact, as discerning consumers, it’s what they should do. And I think Seth Godin is right. Being willing to take the risk that the world won’t like or understand or be touched by what you create is part of what it means to be an artist.

    Excellent response, M. Thank you for that.

    • Michael on January 20, 2012 at 6:59 pm

      It absolutely was a question, and I meant “argument” in the ancient Greek sense of the word. Which is to say, you make we smrtr.

      I often don’t agree with Seth, so this will be a nice moment for us, all huggy and stuff. He’ll be oblivious, but my heart will be warmed for both of us.

      And no, you didn’t imply anything at all about whether artistic pursuits were worthwhile. At all. Quite the contrary – you enforce the pursuit of passion in every thing you do and say, without judgement. But this is a hot button topic for me, and when I get a head of steam up, well, my nickname wasn’t “the bloviator” for nuttin’.

  19. gena* on January 20, 2012 at 9:58 pm

    Judy, thank you, for filling my head with fireworks and small pixies of incredible passion that have my heart racing and my ears tingling and are making me race out into the snow to eat snowflakes and shout poems and think about how to say what i want to say about all of this. I so appreciate all the comments here. and part of my art is etremely tactile so i will write it all, on small pages, with frantic script, sometimes wildly messy, soemtimes miniscule, then squint my way through to retype (my love affair with electricity) and so interact with all of this other montage of art (if one can see words, language, verbiage as art…) so thanks to all and i hope to have Something to say soon too

    • j on January 20, 2012 at 10:16 pm

      Yikes! That comment was so awesome, I might short circuit when you have “something to say.” 🙂

      Which, of course, means… I can’t wait. Thank you for (pre) weighing in!

  20. Travis B. Hartwell on January 21, 2012 at 8:09 am

    I’ve still gotta digest this and read through the comments. I apologize if someone has already shared (but I’m guessing likely not) this with you:


    It’s a famous essay called “Hackers and Painters”. The true sense of the word hacker. The kind of denotation da Vinci would be proud of. Paul Graham writes in this essay and others about makers. I think that is part of how you define what an artist is.

    Interestingly, Paul Graham made his millions by writing one of the first e-commerce systems that he later sold to Yahoo. He wrote it in what is generally an obscure language (Common Lisp) that many, such as myself, find elegant and beautiful in its own right.

    • j on January 21, 2012 at 10:42 am

      The essay is fascinating, Travis, thank you for sharing. If I never thought of hacking (which I couldn’t have defined before at all) as an art form before reading Graham’s essay, I do now. I found the section on empathy particularly interesting. I believe that empathy lies at the heart of love and art (and relationship, and connection, and community).

  21. jillsalahub on January 21, 2012 at 8:39 am

    I like the idea of “creatives,” if me calling myself an artist makes people uncomfortable. I work in an academic setting, where calling yourself a writer prompts two questions almost immediately, the correct answer supposedly being proof of your claim: “What have you published?” and “Are you in a writer’s group? (and who is in it with you, what have they published?).” Your pedigree is also considered in other ways: who do you read, what’s your degree, who have you studied with, blah, blah, blah. This kept me from claiming my artist self for a really long time, and it also kept my art somewhat blocked–who was I to “pretend” to be a real artist, a writer?

    But then I realized (my apologies to the person who is irritated by the statement life is art) that I embody my art. My art takes on many forms, incorporates many mediums, but being a writer is central to me, my calling, my blood and bones and breath. Yes, I haven’t been “successful” in the way others measure that, but I live and breathe being a writer. I love it with all my heart, the reading of text, the creation of text, the contemplation and dreaming and wishing of text.

    My dad is a mechanic. He earned that title, through education and certification. It’s a skilled profession. What similar way do we have to measure art? A realtor has to pass certain tests, a lawyer has to pass the Bar, doctors have to do internships. I suppose if we see “artist” as a profession, there are certain criteria that must be met to be one. I’m not sure what, though and somehow it seems like art doesn’t fit in that kind of category.

    I read an essay this morning on MagpieGirl that said “The choice to love, to really love, is incredibly, ridiculously brave.” (http://www.magpie-girl.com/20080918/choosing-the-beast/). I really love making art, embodying it. I can’t care if you love it or hate it, love or hate me. In the end, I can’t care what you call it, or me. I will continue to make meaningful things and share them. It’s just what I do, what I love. I can’t change that, whatever you call it.

    • j on January 21, 2012 at 10:10 am

      I love that people feel strongly on this. My own feelings have been complicated, clearer when I started, before they got muddled with the questions everyone asked and then the ones I started asking myself. (Magpiegirl’s piece is beautiful.)

      Although I have struggled to define this thing I do – the everywhere-writing, the leaning into fear, the loving more, the headlong racing onto unfamiliar and unclear paths; and I’ve stumbled over my answers to questions like, “Do you get paid for writing that column?” “Is there a book I can buy?” “What exactly is it that you write, again?” I’ve never stopped doing it.

      Like you, I write because I can’t stop writing, because it is part of choosing love and in spite of all the times that rejection, criticism and belittlement have taken the wind out of me (a phrase which doesn’t even begin to get at the devastation to my confidence and sense of self)… NOT writing hurts more.

      I didn’t realize how my question – “what is art?” – which I meant to ask in a sort of impersonal more cerebral way, exploring my own biases and how drawn I was to a definition as open and inclusive as Seth Godin’s would stir such emotional and impassioned responses. Honestly, it’s made me nervous and I keep telling everyone that I was in no way questioning anyone’s decision to write (or paint or photograph or blog). After all, I do all those things.

      Reading your response though, I think maybe it’s a good thing when talented, soulful people get riled up and defend not only their own work but the work of every creative. Maybe that’s exactly the world I want to live in. The rest, as Michael says, is just semantics.

  22. Estrella Azul on January 21, 2012 at 10:09 am

    I think the term of a “writer”, a “photographer” or an “artist” should be looked at objectively. They’re subjective enough for each and every single individual however…

    For me, art is something more than the finished product, it’s when I pour all of my heart and soul into a piece of craft, flash fiction, travel article, poem or photograph.

    And I’m at a loss for words to explain just how much you got me thinking about this one! 🙂

    • j on January 21, 2012 at 10:50 am

      And so “art” by your definition cannot be objectively determined, since I can’t necessarily look at a piece and know the heart and soul that went into its creation. I don’t disagree with you. What drew me to Seth Godin’s definition is the inclusion of motivation, and the non-requirement of anything at the end that resembles “art,” as in the case of an artful customer service transaction.

      And yet, I do think there is something in the outcome that matters, an esthetic, a demonstrable expertise… It could be that we are simply claiming more than one definition of the word “art,” which makes it no different than most of our English words!

      I believe I know just how much I got you thinking. I’ve been mulling this one over for a while. I just finally decided to have you all join me in the mulling! 😉

  23. Karen L Hogan on January 22, 2012 at 12:53 pm

    I’ve been meaning to comment on this post and kept getting distracted.
    In my view, art is when we bring our heart and soul, informed by our life experience, to whatever it is we do. For me, art is the striving to learn what it means to be human.
    I want a physician who practices the art of medicine, because she/he will see me, not just my illness or injury. I want a politician to bring the art of politics to the stage, because that banishes cynicism to the world of lost souls.
    Art is at the heart and soul of what we do when we bring ourselves to our work. Then we use the craft, the expertise we have gained through practicing the craft (be it medicine or writing) to bring what we have created into the light.

  24. j on January 23, 2012 at 5:43 pm

    I’ve been meaning to comment on your comment and keep getting distracted so we’re even!

    Your definition seems to coincide with most of the people who’ve responded. I think it’s interesting how few people believe that “art” is defined by anything that can be measured objectively. I’m not sure I’m completely in alignment with the prevailing wisdom here on ZS, but I do love the inclusivity, the idea of art lying as much (or more) in the process as in the result.

  25. gena* on February 3, 2012 at 1:29 am

    Judy, my initial response, after reading both your great post and then the many comments were these, (not completely thought through, but like the dove in the flood myth, sent forth, perchance that they return with an olive branch, or a few hairs from a unicorns tail, testimony to the powers of creation, the inevitable nature of art…)
    Could art maybe be about intention, what we think about yes, but also about movement, about flow? How our thoughts, love, inner process flows through us into expression, how we take something intangible like soul and give it presence, take spirit beyond just recognizable and make it palpable in some way, a turning of inside out (quite literally). Perhaps art is a throwing out (as in out there, into the space beyond our only selves) of gratitude/announcement/recognition from the we within to the rest of what is because we are moved SO greatly we need to express – give it wings, movement from containment inside to its own glorious life. Which makes me also ask, is art ever brought forth fully formed? Does our investment in it end once we bring it forth, or is it an evolutionary process, another vital aspect of that art being the energetic interaction it provokes, the awakening, inspirative influence it has on the formation & appreciation of reality, for others to germinate their own creative seeds from (like a song can create visions, colours provoke a dance or poem…a reciprocal creative glory). We write a line, sketch a form, to release what is demanding life, then start a thousand thousand resonant expressions,like so many other trees born of imagination. Maybe that is part of the “life as art” idea. It may just be a bowl of soup to someone, or a well made wall. But to another it is all the colors of a heart rending sunset, or the start of time travel novel through the lobotomized minds of captured aliens…
    Maybe art is the impulse acted upon, that bridge that takes the feeling (need, fire, desperation, glorious joy) and turns it into something directionable, with limits. Limits because what we make is made finite by its revelation, then becomes a platform for greater inspiration…art begets more art just by its nature, cause we need to try again, to express it a little better, a little more wildly, and once we open the expression gates, everything else starts welling up clamouring for expression too.
    On the pretentiousness (sorry if i offend) of the need to label it….do we really need to think “this is art. I am an artist.”? Maybe we should be a bit afraid of what we produce, awed and in conversation with it rather than thinking in terms of encapsulation and ownership/definition of. Like surprising ones self by sharing an epiphany with someone you barely know – but just might be your next lover. A shaky reverence, and action-able curiosity with what we make & the impetus that causes its creation, which seems to be so much bigger and unpredictable and unknowable than a pat definitive that says this riotous creation is art or artist. Do the titles mean anything objective? I think no. Not unless someone needs it for themselves to give affirmation or to create empowerment. Maybe anyone who makes the choice to courageously reveal the things inside them selves, make of them an offering, to “fearlessly” take their hearts and minds and put them on display, can be seen as an artist.
    Even Stephen Elliot’s idea about what you’re trying to do, the why, and if it’s good and meaningful, seems too limiting. Does art need to be good or meaningful? Or does it just need to act like a scope, a looking glass into our perspective, showing a version of our “world” which when created then experienced by others forges that sympathetic link, we “see” through another’s eyes. And maybe if lucky or really receptive the bridge is empathetic because we actually Get what the artist felt and recreated. (maybe it’s also a way for us to interface, for us to actually connect with our own personal world, to form links of communication, act on & be reciprocally acted upon in our own private space) i don’t think art needs to be created with the intentional reaching of somebody, i think it just needs to reach out. It gets made because the experience/idea/feeling/vision seeks to be externalized. It can’t sit inside us and leave us whole or sane!

    Despite intention, interpretation is subjective and people will resonate with what we make how they choose. Primarily acts of art must be for you and from you, ones own expression due to one’s own desire. If/when others love it, value & appreciate it, it is a bonus and allows for some energetic exchange & reciprocation, but it’s not necessary. It is an expression of ones heart, soul, inner perspective. It fulfills or assuages some need we have within. It doesn’t matter how it appears to anyone else as long as it is what you want to create the way you want to create it. Then trust, that it is good, that you gave as best you could, that somewhere a similar soul is giving gratitude that you had the guts & heart to try.
    with all my heart i celebrate & thank all of you who do!*

    • C. Fassett on February 3, 2012 at 7:50 am

      Nailed it. Thank you.

    • j on February 3, 2012 at 9:44 am

      A lovely response. I’m not sure you and I are in agreement on all points, but that very fact gets at something that, to me, is as valuable as art itself, and that’s our ability to have this conversation. I understand the perspective that says it’s pretentious to label art, I would only put forth my own dove – that the question “what is art?” has value, if only to further ideas like the ones expressed in this comment thread.

      I think what we tell ourselves about the creative work we do is important, and should consist of only the words that keep us doing it. My question was never intended to make anyone defend themselves. As a writer, though, questions of language, of what we mean when we talk about art (love, poetry, spirit, compassion, forgiveness) are ALWAYS interesting, always worth talking about.

      It’s lovely to think of a world without labels but the truth is that language – and its function of labeling the world – is absolutely critical to our being able to understand and share our experience of it. I LOVE conversations like this. I am better for having them and enormously grateful to people like you, who force me to look hard at my opinions. We couldn’t do this if there was no certainty in the terms we use.

      And, all that being said, I love this: “art begets more art just by its nature, cause we need to try again, to express it a little better, a little more wildly, and once we open the expression gates, everything else starts welling up clamouring for expression too.” THAT is poetry to me. 😉

  26. gena* on February 7, 2012 at 2:44 am

    Again Judy, i love the grace, the calm presence of your words – i love when the intention, the energy behind the words is as clear as the print they are rendered in. So thank you.
    Ideally we would live in such a way that openness is not threatening, & vulnerability always a gift – where labels wouldn’t be so necessary to orientation of self and others. Instead of saying “what do you do for work?” when people first meet it might be “what do you do for fun?” or “How do you feed your heart?” or “Tell me about why life is worth living..” which seem contrived, but partially because they are so not the usual way adults approach each other (at least ones i know). With the smalls i teach (children ‘tween 4-6) i often say “tell me something about your day” and oh the hilarious, interesting, simple yet intriguing noticings they mention, ones that show me the way they think, & make sense of, & value things much more than a label could. Or if we could be more open we might use the labels as what they simply are, a bit of infrastructure to make a person more accessible until we can find sincere connection – after that i find labels fall away ( and i still think they tend to handicap more than help because there is something of assessment, the potential for judging, the narrowness of trying to sum up a brilliant being in a couple words that Still rely on personal interpretation for their comprehension ie: a mother, a writer, a sword swallower. Are the people i mean & see the same ones you did? After which my hope would be that this would be the springboard to a fantastic conversation so we WOULD understand each others perceptions….thus the fabulous nature of your blog, and this discussion it stimulates; people respond, explain, examine, connect to re-explain…)
    I also cherish the aspects of art shared. Although i think the nascence of it is personal (even if it is because you love some one so especially that you want to write them a poem or draw them a picture – it’s still your feeling moved by choice into action) it increases in power & strength as it touches others. When we bring forth our art, it creates an upward spiral of growth, multiplies chances for awakenings and epiphanies, & enhances our world as a whole by way of expanding influence ripples. Does it need to be shared to be art? nope. Does it grace the lives touched by it on many levels? Yes! Do i celebrate & strew flowers of gratitude daily for all the art that touches my life? without fail!
    And your words, all your readers’s words, fall into that category. Gifts for which i fill the spaces of head & heart (mine own & friends) with flowers & thanks*

    • j on February 7, 2012 at 9:01 am

      I agree! 🙂

      Also, I think I need to make a point of having more conversations with 4-6 year olds!

Leave a Reply Cancel Reply