Artist or Artisan?

Over the last couple of weeks, I have had occasion to reread two of my favorite plays, The Glass Menagerie by Tennessee Williams and Edward Albee’s Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf.  Between readings, I sometimes forget just how good these plays are. Both are complex multi-layered pieces that take full advantage of the unique properties of the live stage situation, albeit in very different ways. What is also very apparent is that these two pieces of theatrical art were penned by writers who were at the top of their game, in terms of both art and craft. The men who wrote these two plays are not just artisans; they are artists.

In an article called “No, Not Everybody’s an Artist (Despite what they may think)” and the follow-up article, “C’est La Vie,” John Stillmunks tries to get at the difference between artists and artisans, pointing out that having a good idea or a new product or a marketing angle does not make someone an artist.  In his first article, Stillmunks says that real art touches the heart and soul of the viewer. In the follow-up, he goes further, saying that “an artist takes something out of his or her heart and soul and places it on that page, canvas, song, or whatever.” For him it’s not about technique, but the notion that the artist takes the “camera, brush, voice or pen to an entirely different level…a unique place.” This is not something that just anyone can do, and Stillmunks is convinced that it cannot be taught.

Stillmunks, a painter, points out that the current art market is just that, a market. There are juried shows and submission requirements and things that just don’t interest a number of real artists. Real artists are about making the art, regardless of the medium, and often regardless of the potential market.

Of the many who have tried to write like Tennessee Williams or Edward Albee, either in terms of style or material, most simply don’t measure up. They may have the technique, the technical knowledge, the skills. What they do not have is the willingness or the ability to put themselves into their work. No matter what medium is involved, that takes guts; sometimes it seems that it takes obsession or worse. Some artists talk about the need to put themselves into the work. This is not merely self-expression; there is a readiness, perhaps a necessity, to put the most personal parts of the inner self on display.

Once that will exists, the rest follows. There is only one of each person and if that person is truly putting him/herself into the work, the artist will do whatever he/she has to do to get the work “right.” The result may not be pretty; it may even be painful, but it will be honest. It will be unique and authentic, and more important, it will speak to people—and not just to their minds, but to their hearts and souls. Art, real art, moves people.

With the current state of the arts market, it seems that many who make things have become more artisans and vendors than artists. There is nothing wrong with creating artifacts that will sell, nor is there anything wrong with selling reproductions of your work. But I have to agree with Stillmunks: technique and sales acumen are not what make people artists.

Artists are those whose work we look at over and over again. I reread plays by Williams and Albee and a few others. We look at certain paintings and photographs and sculptures repeatedly. We watch familiar ballets and listen again to musical masterpieces. The work of artists enriches us, and so we return to it—because even if it’s not pretty, it’s very often beautiful.

Date: Sunday, 6. November 2011 23:32
Trackback: Trackback-URL Category: Creativity, Originality, Theatre

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  1. 1

    Very well said. It is a privilege to be quoted by someone with such exquisite and unmatched good taste in reading material and perspective! Your phrase: “technique and sales acumen are not what make people artists” says what took me two essays to get across. If you get a chance, read the essay a painter from Mississippi wrote after I wrote the first essay. It’s what necessitated the second try.

  2. 2

    I did have a chance to read the essay you mentioned. But I do not believe that all who paint, or photograph, or dance, or sing, or whatever are equal. Being able to manipulate the tools of a craft does not make you anything. With practice you might become a craftsman, with training and more practice you might become an artisan. Then it’s a whole other step into the realm of art, a step that few are able to make, but one that we all should attempt to take.
    Not only is there a huge difference between artisan and artist, there is a great difference between artistry and creativity. Just as you can teach people to be artisans, you can teach people to be creative, or, at least, more creative. Like you, I am pretty sure that you cannot teach someone to be an artist, at least as we are using the word. Personally, I’m all for cute and clever and interesting. Artisans and craftspeople do cute and clever and interesting, and sometimes good work, but that doesn’t make it art.
    Speaking of essays, you might be interested in this article, even though it’s about theatre. I think I will be referencing it on in an upcoming post on art and money.

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