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Back You are here: Home Arts Arts You, an artist? Says who?

You, an artist? Says who?

ArtistAttempts to limit who gets to call themselves “artists” are arbitrary and exclusionary, writes Tiara the Merch Girl.

10 April 2011

A few weeks ago I got into an online tussle of sorts with an artist I once admired, who claimed that various people calling themselves “artists” were devaluing the word for those who are “real professional artists”.

According to her, real artists were judged based on quality of intellect, professionalism, and having produced work of good quality – and faux artists could not claim any of those.

Frankly, I felt this was exclusionary rubbish: the criteria she mentioned are often steeped in assumptions that are highly classist and heavily privileged.

Let’s start with the oft-quoted great names of art – Dali, da Vinci, Michaelangelo, Raphael, Rembrant, even somewhat more contemporary names like Hitchcock or Tarantino. Notice a pattern? White, Western, male – even within deeply academic circles this doesn’t change much. Anything outside those norms gets shunted off to their own categories – and even then, good luck finding yourself represented.

As one of a tiny handful of international students doing Creative Industries, we often found it hard to relate to the content of our studies.

Supposedly relevant topics such as Asian Art were alienating as they often only concentrated on Japan (a Taiwanese friend who took an Asian Art class got her group to focus on Turkey for their project after all the other groups chose Japan).

I mentally checked out of a class on performance art – ironically named Performance Innovation – because from day one it posited that their idea of “innovative performance art” was essentially “white director steals from non-white cultures, get accolades”, based on the examples provided all semester.

They couldn’t even get the original cultural references, such as the significance of colours in Indian dances, right. It was very off-putting and alienating to be the only visible foreigner in the room, trying to figure out how artistic traditions that went unacknowledged for millenia suddenly became “innovative” when in the hands of a Westerner.

Academia and the professional arts world is so often tied up and away from what’s happening outside the university / “ivory tower” – disenfranchising women and minorities. This arts world is exclusionary by design relying on the existence of a “dark matter” of amateur art to contrast itself to.

Anything outside that is considered “outsider art”, as if there’s some concrete definite insider/outsider process to art that isn’t just based on privilege and access.

Anyone who falls outside this privilege either only gets represented as an art object or ends up having to sterilize itself from its cultural and spiritual bases to be presented as “art” (or to survive theocratic rule). Really, how absurd is it for a contemporary multicultural arts festival to lose funding because it and its audiences “didn’t look like an ethnic festival”?!

And now comes people – like the artist that sparked this essay – who won’t check their privilege, freak out when people find it difficult to define “art”, and assume that it’s only the lack of hard work or intellectual rigour that stops someone from being acknowledged as an artist.

Not because most institutionalised structures of the world are still dealing with racist, sexist, classist, ableist politics.

Not because when people take it upon themselves to create their own creative spaces, they get compared to white supremacist groups.

Not because when you try to bring up your concerns about discriminatory show content in reviews, you get told off as “not understanding art”.

Not because you run the risk of being excluded from opportunities when you try to speak up for your own safety and representation.

Those concerns, claims the “real artists”, are all “bullshit cliches”.

Of course.

Rubbish like this is why I’m somewhat hesitant to talk to people who are more involved in the contemporary/performance art world. By this I mean highly academic, very White-heavy, arts festival people, writing policies – all mostly very nice people, I’m sure, but rather intimidating and using language and background knowledge that I am not necessarily privy to, with experiences I’ll never get to share.

I wouldn’t know what it’s like to write an Australia Council grant or prepare a major dissertation on my arts practice or find enough in the way of academic citations that speak to my experience.

I’m not sure I’d feel welcome or allowed. I’m too weird and artsy and political for the largely-entertainment-based burlesque scenes, but also too earnest and sincere and low-brow and messy and rough for high art. (The notion of “highbrow” and “lowbrow” is in itself rooted in fairly recent classist sentiment.)

At the very least, I’ll need to find people that are sympathetic and can act as a gateway – and I’m not sure how.

In the meantime: let’s all call ourselves an artist or writer or creative whatever if we like. Take back the title. It’s just a job description.

“Professional” just means “earns money from”, and just because you haven’t managed to earn cash from your work doesn’t mean it’s not of worth.

Besides, who gets to decide what art is worth anyway? Thierry Guetta/Mr Brainwash, the central character in Banksy’s Exit Through The Gift Shop (and whose authenticity is still under much debate), managed to command five-figure prices with hardly a second thought as an unknown whose works were obvious derivatives – but who had a keen sense of marketing and publicity.

Heck, adopt the notion of E-Prime, which strives to get rid of the construct of “to be”, including not attaching identities to people or things. Instead of “I am an artist”, say “I make art”. “I am a writer”? “I write”. It’s what you do, but who you are can be anything at all.

Art is not a zero-sum game – there is no such thing as “too much art”. Not everyone creates for money or fame, and they don’t need to. Sometimes you want to create just because you do – and that doesn’t make you any less professional.

And if you’re so insecure about other people calling themselves artists and “devaluing” your work…go spend your time increasing the value of your own work, rather than try to be the gatekeeper for a field with no barriers.

Tiara the Merch Girl is an emerging performance artist, writer, and rabble-rouser, as well as a contributor/associate editor of The Scavenger. A rantier version of this essay is available on her blog.

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