The Label of Art & Artists

In his book Orbiting the Giant Hairball, Gordon MacKenzie tells the following story when he goes around to schools to teach and what happens when he asks the children “Are you an artist?”

When asked to the 1st grade class, they would all enthusiastically raise their hands, proud to be artists. In 2nd grade, only about half the class would raise their hands, with less enthusiasm; the 3rd graders maybe 10 out of 30 would raise their hands. By the time asking a 6th grade class, maybe one or two would sheepishly raise their hands.

It’s a pretty observant story, which I see in my own family. I have two young daughters, the oldest just starting kindergarten; and we have no problem saying that they create art. We hang their art on the refrigerator, it doesn’t matter that its not realistic, jaw dropping, and full of meaning exploring the connectivity of humanity and the world.

No, it’s just art. It’s a creation that my kids did and that alone is great enough. It doesn’t have to be more.

However, like in Gordon MacKenzie’s story, by the time you start getting older, if you want to call yourself an artist you better start producing great stuff. You better have talent, only show amazing work. Plus you better have a deep meaning behind your work.

This pressure is all pointless. You can be 60 years old and just starting to paint for the first time since kindergarten; you’re an artist creating art. It is ok if it’s not realistic, or is drawn poorly, or you use bad technique, or just flowers, or whatever, it is still your art. You are creating something, hopefully enjoying it, and that is enough.

Listening to the Creative Bar podcast by Jon Wilkening, in episode #5 he has a great discussion with Mike Sakasegawa about this same topic of art, artists, and photography. Mike comments how something being labeled as art, or a person as an artist carries with it the baggage of being important and meaningful, a heavy title for someone who might just be starting out.

One of the points that Jon and Mike bring up is that calling yourself an artist, is using the same title that the revered masters such as Picasso or Van Gogh. They are Artists and they produce serious Art, extra big capital A’s. Who am I to call my little photos the same thing.

In my last couple posts I’ve referred to myself as a photo enthusiast, or my friends who shoot simply call themselves photographers. I doubt many think of themselves as artists. It seems to be a way of taming the weight of the Art label. What I’m doing isn’t that important high art stuff, I’m just taking some photos.

We need to relax the burden of the label, and like a child starting out, its ok to call something art and not have it be amazing every time. This is especially true for people trying something new, how can they learn or grow if they are embarrassed to show their work because it’s not good enough.

You can work on your art as your hobby and not feel obligated to be trying to produce work that will go in museums, win prizes, and make you rich and famous. Just enjoy the act of creating from your imagination, that’s all art is.

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