Who is an artist?

I am catching up on some reading related to my field.  This morning I started working through two books, The Arts in Higher Education, a report by the American Association of Higher Education done in 1968.  Yup 1968.  More on that later perhaps.  The other is Howard Singerman’s Art Subjects – Making Artists in the American University, published in 1999.  I was struck by a line early in Singerman’s book, page four to be exact.  Singerman is reviewing the training he received during his MFA in sculpture program.  He notes that he did not get some of the traditional training in carving, casting, or modeling, but that for him “The problem of being an artist occupied the center.  The question I posed to my teachers” he writes, “and that they posed to me again and again was not how to sculpt or paint, but what to do as an artist, and as ‘my work’.” Sadly he continues, “Perhaps this is where my program failed me – after all, I am not an artist;”  What!? I confess, I haven’t yet read the rest of the book.  Perhaps he explains himself more, but from the looks of it, he continues by launching into an exploration of “what constitutes training as an artist now”.  I hope he explores his own identity as an artist later in the book.  I would look forward to reading that.  But that comment, “I am not an artist” made me think about how our students identify themselves when they enter college, and when they leave, and where “artist” might fit into that identity.

Pablo Picasso is quoted as saying “Every child is an artist. The problem is how to remain an artist once we grow up.”  I am particularly interested in the part of growing up that includes higher education.  What happens or can happen during post secondary education that leads one to believe or state that they are or are not an artist?  Art is defined by a great many things by different people: skill, technique, passion, the ability to speak to society (or parts of it), to express the human condition, and more.  If you read my blog, or make note of certain trends in higher education, you know that more and more colleges and universities are recognizing the role of the arts and creativity in the basic education of their students, understanding that participation and engagement in the arts supports the academic, social, and emotional development of each student.  Investments are being made in staff, programs, courses, and facilities.  Are these investments meant to help people “remain artists” as Picasso notes?  Perhaps.  Perhaps part of the intent is to redefine who is an artist.

For decades I have enjoyed pushing the boundaries on issues of identity, in personal conversations and in academic work.  I am particularly curious about how one defines themselves upon entering, during, and leaving college.  Higher education professionals often talk about educating and supporting the whole student; so why not work to help them develop the capacity to consciously think of themselves as greater than their selected major or intended future career.  Even I find myself searching for the appropriate word to describe myself to people I meet. I usually default to something about my vocation, so I say “administrator”.  But the fact is, I am an artist.  However, as adults we seem to have this need to define ourselves as simply as possible, by the thing that pays our bills; by what we do.  I would suggest that trend starts in college.  Prior to that, how often did we get those kinds of questions.  It was assumed, I was, for the most part, simply a high school student*.  In part, because I hadn’t “done” anything yet.  Rarely did anyone expect me to define myself in any particular way beyond that, aside from perhaps familial relationships.  I was in fact an actor, a singer, and a musician by the time I was 18.  As far as the visual arts, the best I could do was decent copies of those cartoons in the back of TV Guide.  Remember those?  None of that of course paid my bills.  But neither did my job at the grocery store.

It shouldn’t be that difficult to encourage students, regardless of their major, to not just occasionally indulge the artist within them, but to embrace and nourish that artist.  I want people to keep doing their art, whatever that is, during college, so that when they are asked what they “do” at any point in their life, art can be a part of their answer.  Interestingly, I think am posing virtually the same question that Singerman had posed to him, “what does it mean to be an artist?”.  But, if someone like Singerman who has an advanced degree in art, won’t describe himself as an artist, is there any chance that I can help convince the engineering major, the student studying physical therapy, or the one in business management to identify in any way as an artist? I intend to find out!


* In the interest of brevity, I chose not to delve into the deeper issues of identity including gender, sexuality, race, ethnicity, and socioeconomic status.  I in no way intend to belittle the relevance of these layers of identity and their discovery throughout ones life.  My focus in this piece is on identity based on things we have trained in, studied, and do.

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