What is an artist? (MCV6)
On the face of it, it’s an odd question. After all, we know what a baker, a dentist or a banker is and, more to the point, it’s not difficult to say whether a person is, or is not, a baker, a dentist or a banker. In the past, the same was probably true of artists, because they were more commonly described in functional terms such as painter, actor, musician and so on.
But the term ‘artist’ is not functional. There is no verb ‘to art’ that one can set alongside ‘to paint’ or ‘to play’. (‘To create’ goes some way towards it, but the act of creation is not exclusive to artists.) In our present concept, artists are: they do only incidentally. So Sibelius remains a composer through the last, silent 30 years of his life. Rimbaud is a poet though he wrote no poetry after the age of 21.
Today, we speak of being an artist, as if it were an existential condition. Many artists talk about themselves in ways that reinforce the idea that their art practice fulfils an essential quality of their being. Stories of precocious achievement or, less verifiably, of an early sense of mission, are common in interviews with artists. Indeed, the use of terms like mission, calling or vocation, are an instance among others of the transference of religious metaphors to the artist’s identity. There is an interesting study to be made of the similarities in the discourse of contemporary arts biography and medieval hagiography….