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,
The shift from doing to being in contemporary ideas of the artist is connected with the rise in status that artists have experienced during the past century. Being recognized as an artist has probably never been as desirable as it is today. It brings not only admiration but also a licence to transgress social norms not available to the rest of society. Indeed, the willingness to be different becomes a further sign of the moral and spiritual integrity that we ascribe, on somewhat tenuous evidence, to the artist today.
Many societies value artists to the point of awarding them distinct financial advantages, most commonly in the form of grants. Ireland goes further, allowing artists to earn up to €40,000 from their work without paying any income tax. Many artists understandably consider such measures a high form of political enlightenment, but cleaners and shelf-stackers on minimum wage might see things differently. Be that as it may, it is evident that a social role that brings status and cash, in addition to its lifestyle qualities, is attractive to many people. So it is in the interest of those who are recognised as artists—and of their admirers—to control who can join the club.
The problem they face is that there is no objective way of recognizing an artist than by their actions. Artists are people who pursue the creative activities that produce art. The degree of skill, originality, ambition, resonance or feeling involved is independent of the act. A person may be act as an artist well or badly, just as a baker can bake well or badly. The assessment of quality will include objective criteria (e.g. about handling of materials) and subjective ones (e.g. whether the result gives pleasure). But a person who produces an unpleasant loaf of bread is no less a baker than a person who produces a dull painting is an artist. They are just not good ones.
Most professions are concerned with quality control, so that the work of poor practitioners does not undermine confidence in the standards of the rest. But the art profession—if such it is—seeks often to erect its barriers further upstream by denying many people who practice art, including the very large numbers of people who do so for the love of it, the status of artist. Art school education, social status, class, critical acclaim, commercial success—none of these are useful in determining a person’s right to describe themselves as an artist, or to ask others to recognize them as such.
To divide artists between professionals and non-professionals is not to make a quality (or status) judgement but to recognise a difference of social occupation. A professional artist is simply someone who acts as an artist most of the time, perhaps to the exclusion of other occupations, and in ways that other people are willing to support financially. A non-professional artist is someone whose artistic action is either only a small part of her daily life or not of a kind that other people admire enough to support financially. This distinction can be made without recourse to aesthetics. Being a professional artist is not equivalent to being a good artist—unless your measure of quality is monetary. A person can be a fine artist but not wish for various reasons to place their work in a market.
So what is an artist? Someone who enacts the creative processes that produce artworks. What is a good artist? That is a question for another day.