When it comes down to it, there are really only two types of artists in the world. It is always a matter of how you cut it, but let me say right off the jump that not everyone who makes what we normally think of as art, or who works as a professional in a creative field, can be called an artist. Knowing what we’re describing here is going to be useful in defining how we think about the nature of art, and what making art means in our changing world.
I was started my art education taking classes which were mostly focused on technique. The weight fell heavily on what might be described as the “fine art” side of things, in which students were taught “core” technical skills related to drawing, painting and composition. Though I didn’t go far enough to hit many theory classes, the general perspective was this: that art was ultimately something personal borne out of the artist’s vision. The goal of art education was to provide the skills which would allow the artist to realize their vision in the most technically appropriate and skillful manner.
Later, when returning to art education, I found myself head first in a deep pool of design theory. Here the perspective was quite different. There was always an end goal, and end product and a problem to be solved. The best design was the one which elegantly solved the problem and clearly communicated the answer for the client to their chosen audience.
Between, and aside from, these two poles lay many other explanations for what art is or could be. Many artists describe themselves as process based, following rules which have been established to generate results which cannot be predicted. Others try and pull from a place of subconscious, to work without conception or to tap into a creativity they do not feel fully in control of. Others push the limits of their materials or find ways to disrupt the traditional methods of execution altogether.
It might seem absurd to say all of this and then try to narrow this down into two boxes, but here it goes anyway.
There are, in the end, only two types of artists: those who have a solid understanding and conception of their success metrics, and those who cannot fully describe what a successful work looks like.
I am inclined to think that what I learned of design theory was largely correct when it comes to art being created in order to solve a problem. For graphic design and similar fields these problems are handed to the artist from a client. For a fine artist the problem to be solved comes from within. It is easy to point out that an illustrator or designer is striving to create a solution which works for their client or project. Often the success metrics are clearly outlined in a brief and are reviewed at stages in which verbal criticism can be incorporated into a final version.
A fine artist, even one working from their own imagination, is not without their own design brief. They too have some sense of what it will mean for their work to be “finished”. They will have a sense of when they have achieved their goal, or will set themselves anew to the task of trying to solve the problem in a different way.
It might be tempting to point to someone who paints in a non-representational or abstract way and imagine that they do not have success metric in mind. Those artists still need to judge the execution of their craft. They still must assess what has been created and how, and determine whether it has become something which achieves these goals. It is not the case that these artists threw paint around and accepted whatever came out. They are still critical of the work that has been created.
One might jump on that point and bring up process artists, such as those who do paint pouring, or use procedural techniques to create images. Due to the nature of the process, these artists have no concrete idea how the final image will turn out, but that does not mean that they do not have a sense of whether it has been successful. Someone who creates images using paint pouring will know whether or not they executed the steps of their process in a way which fulfills their own guiding system. The judgment is not applied to the end product (often) but to the process of executing the image.
Even artists who rely upon dreams and subconscious, or automatic, drawing techniques will have a sense that they have captured something which is tuned in to those elements.
The artists may not be able to explain what they are looking for, and from the outside it may be impossible to discern where the line of successful execution lays. It does not matter whether any other viewer of the work has access to that sense of successful execution. Some artists will be able to articulate those aspects, and some will not. Both kinds are artists proper.
The core here is judgment. To be an artist isn’t to be tied to a technique or process, academic school of aesthetics, genre or similar classification. An artist is someone who uses their special talents and skills to solve creative problems while exercising their powers of creative judgment to determine the effectiveness of their results.
So what? How does this narrow anything down and what is it useful for?
It makes room for a vast array of art making individuals working on creative problems that don’t always have solutions that make sense to the rest of the world. It frees some traditional artists up from feeling tied to the materials that other artists use, and makes room to bring in a variety of creative artists who are not working using “accepted” methods.
Beyond that it also sets up a dividing line which cuts across industries and experience levels. Of all the people who are engaged in the business of generating visual assets, illustrations, motion graphics and other varies content elements, not every one of them should be considered an artist. There are many who, given the amazing accessibility of tools which can be used to quicky generate images, choose not to use their aesthetic judgment. There are many who churn out images and content without a critical eye for what is being delivered into our world and visual culture. If anyone is in the business of uncritically generating images or other visual solutions, and does not consider whether their creations meet their standards, then they cannot be called artists.
An artist is someone who assesses the success or failure of their work against a set of internalized aesthetic standards.
Artists who create work for themselves must be able to critically consider whether or not what they have created is appropriate to their vision or process. Artists who create work for others map the needs of the design brief onto their own set of standards. Even technical solutions must be judged internally to see whether or not they are successful.
Judgment cannot come from outside and does not reside within a brief. It is always a requirement that that artist make an interpretation of the brief, whether this is something they can describe or not.
If someone is making visual solutions without passing judgment on them before handing them off to a client or putting the out in the world, then this person is no artist. They are simply an image generator or content creator. Indeed, that title itself focuses fully on bringing new content into existence, without any reference towards whether or not that content has achieved a threshold of quality.
Why is the realevent? For this just the reason stated above.
Our world is such that we are drowning in content. Much of it has been created thoughtlessly to fill ever expanding spaces of our digital lives.
If someone is making visual solutions thoughtlessly then they diluting the richness and value of our collective visual culture.
There may not be many areas of overlap between all artists, but I believe that the most critical key element is a exercising of internalized aesthetic judgment. We need visual solutions which are oriented both towards practical client needs and towards internalized self expression. In both of these cases we need artists who concern themselves with the quality of their craft. Whether this means engaging deeply with their process, their subconscious or trained technique, it will result in something which has the ability to nourish others.
Just like comparing vitamin rich whole foods to cheaply processed empty calories, so too is the comparison between thoughtfully birthed art and design in comparison to throw-away images.
Drawing a distinction between artists and non-artists is to also highlight the sort of arts that we consume and allow to be consumed. Paying more attention to quality and design is a way of tuning our sense of taste.
The realm of aesthetic judgement is not reserved for artists alone. It may be what defines them, but the viewer must also learn to exercise this skill. We may or may not be privileged to know what an artist was thinking about their own work. We may have an artist statement with carefully crafted conceptual outlines, or we may have only the word “untitled”. We may encounter visual assets in advertising, video games or printed ephemera. We may be able to discern the amount of success achieved by the graphic as it works on us as a consumer. We may find ourselves inspired, energized or otherwise nourished by the work, or we may find that its influence passes us by. What matters is that there is a potential for meaningful engagement which does not exist in works that were created by an image maker rather than an artist.