But are You a REAL Artist?

Posted by: on April 25, 2017

A friend and I have recently been having some pretty provocative conversations about the nature of art, and we touched on the subject of “who gets to call themselves an artist”. What makes a real artist? Can anyone just jump on the bandwagon and assume the moniker? Do you need to have some measure of success? Does it have to be good art? What about entertainment? Let’s just say she and I have polished off more than one bottle of wine on this topic (I find I do my best debating on glass number 3). Who gets to call themselves a real artist?

Real Artist Qualifications

Do you make art? Does it hold a place of primary importance in your life? Does not making art send you into a maelstrom of misery and depression? Congratulations – you’re an artist. Notice that I didn’t say you were a “successful” artist or a “good” artist – that’s another blog post (and yardstick) entirely.

Does someone occasionally pay you for your art? This is where the wicket gets a bit sticky for some of you, right? Can I call myself a plumber if no one ever pays me to plunge their potty? Can I call myself a teacher if I’m never in front of a classroom? This assumes that the designation “artist” refers solely to profession, not identity (“if nobody ever pays for my art, I am not an artist”). I feel it can be either or both – that the term Artist need not be tied to commerce or profession. If you spend the majority of your life thinking about/making/purchasing supplies for art, I think you get to call yourself an artist if you want to. Vincent van Gogh only sold one painting in his lifetime, just saying….

Disagree? Here – pass the cabernet.

You Cannot Have a Day Job and Call Yourself a Real Artist

Friend, we live in ‘Murica – how are you an artist WITHOUT a day job? We live in a country that, for the most part, doesn’t value art or artists in any meaningful way. We can go through many a bottle about whose fault that is (“the artists are too weird or not weird enough”), whether it’s OK (“art isn’t essential”), or how to fix it (“don’t bother”), but the fact remains that the USA does not fund art in the way that say Canada does, or France. What does this mean? Most artists will not work in their chosen field consistently. This often means getting a day job (Maya Angelou was a streetcar conductor, a shake dancer, paint stripper, restaurant cook, and teacher, among other things), or working “broadly” in your field (see below).

You might have a day job, a night job, and an in-between job, but that doesn’t mean you’re not an artist.

Broaden That Definition

Being an artist doesn’t look like one specific thing. We all have the way we’d prefer it to look – performing all the time, commissioned paintings out the wazoo, your choreography work booked solid for the next five years, etc., but reality requires a broader take. Some artists choose to make a living totally outside their art – completely fine. Many of us prefer to work close to what we love best; consequently, the life of a working artist may include teaching, lecturing, designing, consulting, performing, costume making, makeup design, etc. Some choose to branch out into closely related fields – oodles of circus artists and dancers work in fitness, for example, or nutrition. Does it make them less serious artists? Maybe, if you’re a hoity elitist trust fund baby who’s never had to make rent in NYC.

As a society, we’ve bought into this ludicrous idea that being an artist – good, bad, or ugly – means that you’re making a living with your art, and that you’re well-known during your lifetime. If you’re suffering from this delusion, I urge you to run – don’t walk – to your nearest bookstore and start reading about the lives of famous artists throughout history. It’s a delicious reality check, and one that’s much needed, methinks. Dare to imagine, Laura


  1. lee lee moss says:

    you know, woman/lady/girrrl – I just love you real biiihg time…