Tag Archives: artists

What is an Artist?

What is art? Answer: something that an artist calls art. This raises the next question: what is an artist? The obvious and almost circular answer to this question is someone who makes art. This can lead on to discussions about how to make art (including by an artist calling it art) but for this blog post I will stay with the question of what is an artist.

Debs painting in Croft Alley, 2009

Debs painting in Croft Alley, 2009

After many years of paying attention to the institutional theory of art I want to look more closely at the artist rather than gallery. I am becoming aware of some of the inadequacies of the theory. Is the institutional theory of art basically Marxist in declaring that the material reality makes art? In that case so much for Duchamp’s cerebral approach and the individual psychology of artists.

There is the idea of the artistic temperament; that artists are born and not trained. There was also the idea that artists were inspired by the spirits; hence the word ‘inspiration’. But we can’t have faith in the ghosts of words. Are artists really different from the statistical norm in any measurable way? Considering that Asbergers syndrome and ADHD are no longer clinically assessed, it is time to point out that an artistic personality or temperament has never been clinically assessed.

Rather than an artistic personality perhaps artistic work is the product of a scholarly temperament? Describing the very first modern artists in Korea Youngna Kim

“Rather than thinking of themselves as artists trying to make a living, they seemed to regard themselves they seemed to consider themselves the literati from the Joseon dynasty. They considered painting a hobby and did not produce much work.” [Youngna Kim Modern And Contemporary Art in Korea (Hollym, 2005, New Jersey) p.11-12]

Gallery La Mer in Seoul

Gallery La Mer in Seoul

Youngna Kim’s history of Korean modern art drew my attention to this traditional where scholars produces ink paintings, poetry and music because of their temperament and the contrary idea of professional modern artist. This tradition exists in Europe but because of Korea’s compressed art history it is more clearly expressed. These two contrary ideas about why a person makes art influences subsequent interpretations of the art produced. What we expect an artist to be; these two ideas about who is an artist helps makes sense of a great deal of debate about what is art and what is good art.

The modern artist produces art as a professional, educated and trained in how to make and sell art. The professional artist is trained in techniques and is an insider in the art world. Professional artist is exploiting a market for their talents and produce the bulk of the art in circulation; Salvator Rosi became the first artists to paint speculatively rather than for commissions. As professionals they have a degree of reliability and consistency in the art they produce.

Contrasted to the person with a scholarly temperament may turn their attention to art from time to time as part of variety of interests. They are not so narrowly focused and generally work in an unrelated occupation; Desmond Morris painting, Brian Cox played in a 80s band, or Lenny Lipton, the man who wrote Puff the Magic Dragon and programmed the 3D navigation on the Mars Rover. Although the quality of the individual works of art can be as good as the professionals the quantity of the work is not sufficient to satisfy the market.

What kind of artist do you aspire to be?


Now let us talk of minor artists

I’ve heard about an AI program that worked with some basic logic routines and lots of facts. The AI program would make conclusions based on the facts that it was given and the programmers would try to add more facts so that it would arrive at correct conclusions. One of the incorrect conclusions that the program made was that most people are famous. So the programmers had to give it telephone directories of people who were not famous until it didn’t come to that conclusion. It is not just an AI program that makes this error, so I’m writing about the artists who aren’t famous, who aren’t the great artists – the minor artists.

What do I mean by a minor artist? This is not a reflection on the quality of their work. We all know who the major artists are – their names are so familiar, but aren’t we over the great man theory of history. There are major artists of a particular country, century, decade, style etc. Then there are the secondary artists who for reasons of fate rather than talent, or vice versa, never became as famous as the major artists. And then there are the artists who are neither as prodigiously talented nor as fortunate as the first two groups but who still produce good art, sometimes even, important art. They are the minor artists.

These artists may not be familiar names but they do the bulk of the work in the art world, not just creating the most of the art but working in art supply shops, teaching art, hanging exhibitions, etc. These are the artists who make up the numbers, who drink all the wine at the exhibition openings.

Fate, or luck plays a major part in part in the lives of all artists. The major artists were lucky to be born at the right time in the right place to the right people. The fortunate few great major artists are not good samples as they are the exceptions. Consequently they are poor examples to teach or expect other artists to follow.

Dada is an interesting art movement to learn about minor artists. Even with two major artists, like Marcel Duchamp and Man Ray, and a few secondary artists, there are enough minor artists are necessary to the story of the landmark movement for a balanced picture to appear. Johannes Baader, Richard Huelsenbeck, Hannah Höch and Beatrice Wood all spring to mind.

What can we learn from minor artists that we can’t learn from major artists? That making art is not necessarily a career, that it may not be your primary profession, that making art can be a hobby, or something that you do for a few years or return to in retirement. We can learn what it is like to be an ordinary artist and what an ordinary artists does.

I went to a talk recently on how to be a critic given by Claire Armitstead, The Guardian’s literary editor and one of the many things that she commented on was the difficulty of writing 3 star reviews. It is necessary to have 3 star reviews because the majority of anything will be average. The average review is a similar problem to writing about all the minor artists necessary to balance the story of art. So I am writing this blog post about all the artists who are not famous and their significance in the story of art.


Top Arts Top Artists 2012

Every artist is influenced by proceeding generations of artists – who are the artists that influence local young artists?

I’m at the annual Top Arts exhibition of final year high school student art on the 3rd floor of the National Gallery of Victoria Ian Potter Centre (Federation Square). I’m trying to think of what I will write in this blog – I’ve written about the exhibition in previous years, it is worth paying attention to young artists but it is always so hard to write about group exhibitions. Praising the exhibition for its youth and talent is obvious, mentioning a couple of artists that catch my attention would not improve it and vague statements like “the drawing and photography were strong” wouldn’t help either. So, I looked at who are influences on these young artists.

I looked at the artists named in their artist’s statements. Not all the young artists named artists in their artist’s statements but at least a third did. Some artists mentioned two artists. (This may not be a complete list of all the artists named.)

Ansel Adams was the only artist named twice. The following photographers are also named as influences: Henri Cartier-Bresson, Larry Clark, Bill Henson, Annie Leibovitz, Duane Michals, and Edward Weston.

The local artists named as influences are: Abdul Abdullah, Howard Arkley, Del Kathryn Barton, Bill Henson, Carlo Golin, Jeffery Smart, Stelarc, Justin Lee Williams (fashion designer), Brett Whitley and Ah Xian.

Young video makers in the exhibition named film directors, Tim Burton and James Cameron as influences.

The other artist’s named as influences are: Audrey Kawasaki, Käthe Kollwitz, Rene Magritte, Nam June Paik, Paula Rego, Genndy Tartakovsky, and Gaun Wei.

As would be expected, this generation of young artists are not influenced by any old masters; many of the artists are still alive, all are 20th or 21st century artists but still not that many women artists make the list. It is good to see so many local artists named as influences. Americans photographers dominate photographic influences but the rest of the international artists named come from around the world.


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