As an undergraduate student, one of my professors (an adjunct at the time) was Richard Wearn. He was leading a course required of every art student, therefore nearly every freshman was enrolled in this course at the same time (some sophomores, too!). Including me. It was a lecture class, with project-based assignments rather than written papers. A hybrid sort of course (lecture-studio, that meets only in a lecture hall). While the coursework covered a great deal of art history subject matter, the purpose was not to formally study/survey the history of art, so much as to get all of us thinking about what to make and why.
Later on, I pursued additional coursework with Richard, including some sculpture studio classes, and (the way I remember it) Richard oversaw my senior thesis. Suffice to say, he had a strong influence on the development of my "professional" ideas about art, art-making, and artistic practice. (That's not to say he had much influence on my "early development" as an artist, since I first met Richard as an adult rather than as a child. I met many artists earlier in life, and they influenced me as well — just differently!)
To give you some idea... Here's what Richard writes about himself on the Cal State LA website, where he presently works as a member of the art faculty:
My work reflects upon the status and social place of art. [...] I infer the potential for the art object to reprogram thinking and action by inviting the viewers' associative memories to inform response. [We] are forced to reconsider the position of the art object as it stands in relation to every other object in the world. The implication of the object as an element that may be inserted into a variety of scenarios or to be used in multiple courses of action correlates systems of meaning with types of use - my inquiry is less concerned with what the work means, and more to do with the question: "How do I use it???" (see original)
It was no doubt Richard Wearn's influence that got me thinking about (perhaps preoccupied with?) the use or function of art objects in our culture. But as much as Richard seems to place his focus squarely on the objects themselves (how to use them), I have a much greater fascination with the function of "the artist" in society and culture. Asking myself "how to use this art object?" leads me to likewise wonder "what role does, should, or could the artist play in the lives of other people?" Or put another way, "how to use the artist?"
It's not really just one question. It's a line of inquiry that I find inexhaustible. Sometimes troublesome and problematic, too, though certainly interesting, curious, and exciting for me...
"What does it mean to be an artist?" ... is an existential question. As such, I think many of my colleagues, peers, and contemporaries feel threatened by it. Even more so by any attempt to distinguish between "amateur" artists and "professional" artists (aside from the conferring of post-secondary degrees). The very fact anyone feels threatened by a line of inquiry that could have an infinite number of "right" answers... actually makes me want even more strongly to investigate the matter.
What does an artist do?
As an exercise, consider searching for job titles with the word "artist" in them. Here's a recent list of search results (screen capture) from Indeed.com:
And one from within a company listing several openings for "artist" positions:
Here's a sampling of similar results from Idealist.org:
Not quite the job descriptions you were expecting, are they?
"What do you want to be when you grow up?"
When I was 5 and 6 years old, I remember being asked about my professional aspirations, and I always gave the same answer: either a veterinarian or an artist. I never changed my answer to "graphic designer" or "graphic artist" or "character artist" or "scenic artist" or "teaching artist", even after becoming aware of some of these distinctions and categories. It had never occurred to the child I once was that working as an artist (being employed as an artist) meant designing video game graphics, building websites, brainstorming new consumer product concepts, or leading elementary students (and/or juvenile detainees) in arts&crafts projects. Did you?
Frankly, I'm not sure my idea of what a working artist did for a living had changed much at all until I found myself an undergraduate student contemplating what my job prospects might look like upon graduation. My vision of what it meant to be an artist had been shaped, up to that point, both by romanticized stereotypes of celebrity artists (whose stories are written into children's books, equal parts history and fantasy!) and my father's career, including the variety of living artists to whom my parents introduced me throughout my childhood. To my mind, if these people could support themselves and make a name for themselves by drawing, painting, building things, casting things, reproducing things, sewing things, making things in general, and even making jokes on a daily basis, then surely so could I?
As a child, I literally observed professional men and women getting paid to PLAY with toys! Good money, too. And that's not all... Children's book illustrators and authors get paid to doodle, draw, paint, photograph, play with kids, read books, talk about books, make silly voices, collage bits of stuff together... all kinds of fun things! Just look at Will Hillenbrand, Marc Brown, Jean Marzollo and Walter Wick, if you need a few examples. And I don't just mean to cite these individuals as abstract examples — Will Hillenbrand is married to my (former) first grade teacher, Jane Hillenbrand!
In the persons of John Arrasmith and Gary Birch (among other family friends), I observed professional artists play dress-up, handcrafting elaborate costumes and accessories for themselves and others with which to recreate scenarios (real or imagined) from American history. And not just "dress up"— they were getting paid to play "cowboys and indians". Literally! Who do you think made the costumes for Dances With Wolves?
Many — not all, but probably most — of the artists I had been exposed to (in-person) as a child had attended art school after high school, including my own father (who holds a Masters of Fine Art in Painting from the University of Illinois, and went on to be a professional photographer and filmmaker). So I was led to believe the path to becoming an artist was through a college education, and I accepted that belief as my own.
I'm not so sure I believe it anymore.
I am no closer to answering the question "What does it mean to be an artist?", today, than I was as an undergraduate student more than ten years ago. And part of the reason for that are the experiences I have had since enrolling in graduate school and pursuing my Masters degree. Everything I had expected about art school, going in, has since been turned on its head, refuted by educators of all stripes, including some of the greatest minds associated one way or another with the college/university system. In the words of Helen Molesworth:
The MFA is a teaching degree and therefore we must teach our students how to go out and be teachers, and the TA-ship is the testing ground [for that profession]. But there is another, darker side of professionalization: For younger people, college is a debt-producing engine before they even begin learning a profession. [read more here]
The way I interpret what Helen Molesworth is saying is that... Anyone who holds a Masters of Fine Art degree has the necessary training to be a professional teacher, a "teaching artist" as it were. But anyone who holds a Bachelors of Fine Art degree alone (without the subsequent Masters degree) has no professional training in any area. Wait, what?! If that's true, why bother? Why should anyone seek to acquire the BFA? It would seem to be a waste of both time and money in all cases, except for individuals hoping to one day teach in a college or university setting, those who plan to pursue an MFA for which the BFA is a prerequisite. (If one wants to teach in any K-12 setting, or generally teach minors up to the age of 18 in any setting, there is specific coursework for that purpose and a corresponding degree— Bachelor of Arts in Education or BAE. Going to art school is NOT required!)
To put it another way... Today's college and university system has no intention of producing artists from their art school programs. These programs produce professional teachers (MFA holders), along with a bunch of BFA holders who have no particular set of professional skills. ...The 5 or 6 year old child I once was refuses to accept this notion.
I attended art school to learn the skills I need to be an artist, dammit! And to be a professional in my chosen field! I never wanted to be a teacher (or a graphic designer, or an illustrator, etcetera). And if you attended art school, chances are good you didn't expect to go into teaching at first, either. I don't just want to survive, I want to thrive! And so I ask again...