Tuesday, June 26, 2012

Don't Be An Artist

Do you, or have you ever, called yourself “an artist?” This title, which I once coveted, is now anathema to me.

I remember when I was young wanting so very badly to be able to say legitimately that I was an artist because I thought it was the supreme profession. Nothing, I thought, could fill me with greater pride than to be an artist. But things started happening to me to deter my ambition early in my education.

My problem was academics. I was reasonably good at them—particularly with sciences—and so everyone around me, my teachers, family and friends, encouraged my academic advancement. A practical benefit of my academic success was scholarships that served to make my post-secondary education affordable, but they also forced me into an academic track increasingly focused on the sciences.

As an undergraduate college student, academic success seemed to create increasing limitations. The more I succeeded, the narrower my world seemed to become. I found myself in smaller classes, exposed to fewer students and my courses became more and more focused on biology. The trouble for me was that my success was unfulfilling.

Academic success seemed to me, as an undergrad, to be involved with nothing more than memorization and regurgitation. The quantification of learning into marks and the pressure of the competitive academic hierarchy created an unwelcome atmosphere; I craved the ambiguity and freedom of the creative courses that had disappeared from my life as a scholar. I wanted to be “an artist.”

My discontent was my secret. Everyone around me was so pleased with what I was doing I felt that I could not express my frustration. But at the end of my third year at college, I was forced to declare my dissatisfaction: I turned down an opportunity to be semi fast-tracked into a pre-med program. For the first time, out loud, I said I wanted to become an artist. The effect was as though I had said I wanted to become a cannibal.

Anyone can memorize, I thought. Anyone that had academic potential, it seemed to me at the time, could be a doctor or a lawyer if they were prepared to work hard, but being creative seemed to me to be about the nurturing of a “gift.” Learning could enhance creativity, I thought, but it could not be academically induced. I craved the opportunity to test myself in a creative environment instead of academics—creative success, I knew, would fulfill me.

Now, a career later, I teach business skills to artists at Emily Carr University and every term, in every class, I can be heard saying: “Do NOT be an artist.” (I love using what I call “the provocative tense” when I teach.)

So how have I come to abhor the title that once so inspired me? The answer is simple. The word “artist” has no meaning as a professional identifier. It is an insulting answer because it tells the asker nothing.

Research says the majority of sales by local contemporary artists are to people with whom the artist has a relationship, so visual artists with aspirations must make the absolute most of every single opportunity to establish or to further a relationship, and the question, “What do you do” affords visual artists with the opportunity to do just that. But if you answer, “I am an artist,” what is the listener to conclude? You are a dancer? A writer? An actor?

A person who is truly interested in you, a person who may become a customer, a fan or a word-of-mouth advertiser for you, learns nothing from the statement, “I am an artist;” the person is forced to ask, “What kind of artist?” Even the term, “visual artist” is lacking in enough specificity. The question, “What do you do?” is an opportunity that you should maximize. Your answer to this question should be a thoughtful and carefully crafted one.

The better answer is one that helps the asker learn more precisely about what you do. I am not advocating that you respond with a virtual advertisement or that you bore your interlocutor with too much information. What I advocate is that all visual artists have a thoughtful, meaningful answer. Consider, for example, these responses:
  • I am a (master) printmaker
  • I am a creative self-employed professional
  • I am a watercolour landscape artist
  • I am an artist that, according to the Leadington Star, is a “national treasure”
  • I am a wildlife photographer with a fine artist sensibility
  • I am a contemporary impressionist
  • I am a fine art painter and I teach technique

All these responses to the question, “What do you do,” are from my students after they have discussed the importance of a life-long professional identity. Every one of these examples is from a visual artist who, prior to our discussion, self-identified as simply “an artist.”

The issue here, is your professional identity; your “brand.” What you call yourself is a vital business decision worthy of thoughtful reflection. Your professional identity should help people understand exactly what you do. If you say, simply, that you are “an artist,” you are throwing away an opportunity.

Every time you introduce yourself to an individual, to a group, to a jury, a curator, a customer or a potential customer you have an opportunity to impress and to inform and you should use it. My advice is to not identify yourself as “an artist,” but instead, to think of a self-descriptor that is more meaningful and engaging. Reward the person who expresses interest in you with a thoughtful answer.


  1. Sir, this post was an absolute joy to read and very educational. Thank you so much for writing this.

    I am in the position you were in during your undergrad. I'm a post-baccalaureate student going back to school to study a pre-medical curriculum because I too am reasonably good with academics, particularly the sciences, and my family has succeeded in making me believe in their belief that I should've always stuck with the medical route. I didn't do it the first time around because I wanted to explore the world of business and fashion. But, after a few years of working, I'd become sick of the corporate world, and the superficial environment of the fashion industry.

    I so wish I could do an MFA in painting and work on exploring the breadth and depth of my creativity, but I can't do such things because of familial obligations. This post is an inspiration. I hope I can figure it out someday.

    Thanks again! Have a nice day.

  2. Awesome - too true. The problem is that I do so many different things that my answers seem to be different in every gathering.

    Cool to find your blog - I lived in BC for a couple years and I miss it terribly.


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