If Everyone is an Artist

Joseph Beuys famously said “Everyone is an artist,” referring to his belief in a universal human creativity and the power of art to bring about revolutionary change.

Beuys Felt TV performance. Photo by Lothar Wolleh.

Lately, many thinkers have been using the word “artist” to describe someone who acts as a force of change – who does something different to shake up the status quo and make us look at life and work in new ways. Read Seth Godin's definition of art. Read his book Linchpin to see how he uses “artist.”
Godin is so influential (I am a huge fan and follower) that many, many people have adopted his definitions of art and artist.

Deep Thought Thursday

Here's the problem: If everyone is an artist, where does that leave you? What do you call yourself?
How does what you do differ from the “artist” who discovers the cure for an epidemic or the “artist” who maneuvers a brilliant business takeover?

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41 thoughts on “If Everyone is an Artist”

  1. Just tack on the word “visual” and we’re good to go.
    In trying to explain/defend myself as better or different than this generic term I feel I’d just sound whiny or defensive so best to just go with the flow and make it simple.
    I like the more general use of the term artist – it encourages creativity in all things, which can’t be a bad thing.

    1. I like your solution, Lisa. I don’t want to sound whiny either. Sometimes I will use professional, since I make my living at it. Many people will say they are just amateurs and solve the ‘problem’. I would rather the word creative be used instead of artist. Those who solve problems creatively are not artists. Whether they are selling property or they are my accountant..they are creative. We can all live our lives artfully. I still have to work on what I think about people adding or changing the accepted meanings of words to ‘creatively’ create a niche or name for themselves. Mash-ups, right? Deep Thoughts.

    2. I agree. I hate to sound proprietary, but I am not comfortable with using the word “artist” for everyone. It’s kind of like the “excellence” dilemma. All the things everyone does in the world are not “excellent”. This is not to say that all efforts don’t have value. Just that there are differences between quality of outcome.

  2. If a word can mean anything you want it to mean, then it loses its meaning, in this case, almost entirely. “Artist” is not synonymous with “creative thinker” or “inventor.”
    It’s already hard enough when everyone who has ever drawn or taken a class is an artist. In order to more clearly make my occupation known, I have to say “I’m a professional artist” or “career” artist.

  3. I like Seth Godin and his ideas too. I believe everyone can be a creator. Conducting a great business deal could be called an art. The surgeon could be an artist with the scalpel. And so on.
    Whether everyone can be called an artist is my question. If all creators are termed as artist, then I’m a painter.

  4. I agree with Lisa, use the word ‘visual’ or some other additive term. Since my artwork is about storytelling, I often tack on the word ‘narrative’ (and this often gets people interested and urges them to ask me exactly what I mean).

  5. Here we go….defining ourselves again. Always looking for a box.
    I prefer Artist with a capital “A” as the most descriptive form, and hope that what I make that is physical also transfers as an act of beauty in everything I do in my life. I’m a proponent of expression in all forms and if someone wants to call it art….go ahead.
    For me, being a Full Time Human Being defies language.

  6. I guess I move in less rarefied circles. Many of my customers say they are not artists and I respond with “If we were all artists we’d starve to death.” We laugh and life goes on.

  7. Jacqueline Webster

    I identify myself either as an artist or a photographer, depending on the situation. Oddly, I think that the title of artist garners me more repect than photographer, and I don’t always feel I fit in with other photographers quite so easily.
    I agree with both Rani and Dora; I too like Seth Godin, and I get where he’s trying to go with this. But I think there’s been a confusion of the words art and craft. There’s a lot of craft in doing something well, and all creators can master their craft. But art is about ideas in a pre-verbal form. How many business deals are pre-verbal? Many of them use a high degree of craft, but none I would say are truly art.

    1. Hah! That is yet another issue I’m always dealing with even within the craft community. Artists don’t always see craftsmen as equals (and not all craftsmen are artists) and many craftsmen look at artists as “woo woo.” This keeps coming up again and again and then throw designers into the mix and no ones knows what anyone is really anymore. I think that this is an argument that will never be fully resolved. Eventually when people of the future look back, I doubt that museums will be full of surgery and real estate “art.” But will they finally showcase fine craft and decorative art with the conceptual and fine art?

  8. Jacqueline-as an artist, why not consider your medium photography? And since everyone with a digital camera can call themselves a photographer where does that leave that leave those of us who make art our life’s work? I learned a long time ago that the difference lies in the intention. Diane Arbus was not taking “snapshots” yet many people’s family snapshots include images that remind you of Arbus’ work. Most of these are just lucky shots that happen to look really good but they don’t comprise a body of work and are not representative of the artists’ point of view or philosophical statement. So while all human beings have the capacity for creativity, not everyone commits themselves to being an artist.

  9. Is everyone forgetting how to use adjectives? – Like “brilliant” business person?Spreading a career specific term around so everyone can claim the mystique of “artist” Is like butting in line so you can say your first. I generally like Seth’s stuff, but he’s describing creativity and I don’t see how relabelling it “artist” helps anything. And if it’s “free” why isn’t everyone doing it, and how come we so jealously protect it with copyright, trademark, and high prices? As I learned it, art is a form of visual communication. It can be “political” art (force of change), “insightful” art (see things in a new way), etc. I don’t see how calling people like Edison, Dostoevsky, or Hawking, artists, does anything but show poor literary skills. And no, I don’t think I have good literary skills, I’m an artist!

  10. And everyone is a Doctor too. We have the capability to heal ourselves as taught by revolutionary healers like Dr. Zhi Gang Sha and Jesus. But are we all doing it?

  11. Jacqueline and Norma make good points. Photography is my primary medium, but I usually steer away from calling myself a photographer. As Norma pointed out, apparently anyone who owns a camera is called a photographer. I used to own a flute, but I never called myself a flutist. The term “fine art photographer” is just as problematic. Again, as Norma has pointed out, it has to do with intention and commitment. Titles are not really all that important.

  12. Yes Janice, the ego loves boxes. There is power in a name e.g. “artist” and there is power in un-naming. Nita Little, a teacher of mine speaks of how nouns can kill a creative moment in art and dance. As soon as I’ve decided what it is I am doing, for example, “This is an apple.” I am out of the moment and It’s possibilities become limited. Hmm do I limit myself by calling myself an artist?
    Now, clearly there are athletes and professional athletes and the same could be applied to artists, as Rana implies. I do think that human beings are starving our brain bodies because so many of us do not engage in the making of art, and do not get the opportunity to work the creative process in a focused way. It is a telling statement that people are more comfortable calling themselves athletes than they are at calling themselves artists.

  13. Like many of the previous commenters, I prefer the more specific “sculptor” to “artist”. I do tend to vacillate more between “sculptor” and “blacksmith” though. Since I do both functional and non functional work the context can make it an easy call but even in a fine art gallery context, Blacksmithing implies a greater commitment to craftsmanship in my mind. Conversely, at an art/craft fair sometimes I want to emphasize artistic content and go with sculptor.

  14. Julie Kaldenhoven

    Up until a decade or two ago, dancers danced, musicians made music, tycoons made business deals, and artists made art and everyone understood what that meant. Perhaps art no longer has a definition. And perhaps I was right when I said to my children’s art class many years ago “Art is life and life is art and art is everywhere.”

  15. I used to call myself an Artist, which means a lot of things to a lot of people, so they always ask next “what do you do?” or “what kind of Art do you make?”. I stopped the unclear response less than 2 years ago by calling myself what I really am, an Abstract Action Painter. Once I knew what I really was, it was easier to describe. Of course, I get the question “what is that?” but at least it leaves things open for me to elaborate on the details instead of starting at the beginning.

    1. I like your description! I paint (but not regularly) and I usually paint abstracts – I enjoy the vibrancy of colours and textures. I paint for my pleasure although I have painted several paintings for friends and family. I haven’t sold a painting but I just love placing the brushes on the canvas.
      I also create costume jewellery using beads and sometimes combining them with wire. I do sell my jewellery.
      I’ve never called myself an artist or painter although I do use the label ‘beader’.

  16. I have always used ‘self-employed visual artist’…It is mouthy but helps with specifics…From a legal standpoint, the self-employed aspect is important, as I’ve discovered that many insurance policies specifically exclude the self-employed…It also tells that it is all I do…

  17. I think everyone has the potential to be an artist–using that term more generically. I think it has a lot more to do with how you “be” with whatever your art may be, than what you “do.” I wish everyone was an artist. Our world would be a much more harmonious place..
    The “being” place I’m describing is an intuitive, creative, being present place where one is in alignment with themselves and their environment.

    1. I agree with you that the world would be a better place if everyone was an artist – there would be so many creative thoughts and actions and people would be too happy to fight with each other.

  18. I often just say I am an artist, but I want to say I am a studio artist because it refers to my art as something that I practice regularly in my studio.
    I think that is missing from Seth’s definition, practice.

  19. Just think for a minute if everyone in the world was an artist! How awesome would that be? If everyone who was planning something rotten for the day decided to make the world a little more beautiful instead. I encourage anyone who has the slightest inkling towards anthing creative to consider themselves an artist and enjoy the feeling of freedom that it brings along with it. Everyone can attempt to make anything they are working on a little nicer aesthetically, their hair, the living room, the way they arrange food on a plate.
    While I accept and applaud the artistic possibilities lurking within the masses, I do try to set myself apart by being a little more specific depending on whatever gig I happen to be be doing. I like the term Photographic Artist. That puts a little more emphasis on the end result of an art piece and avoids the thought “I bet she has a good camera.” When painting, I’m a Scenic Artist if I am painting a set or a Mural Artist, or a Make-up Artist or Body Painter. But I do just like the term Artist. And yes, it’s always better when you capitalize it! It’s like the little black dress in the back of the closet. Anyone can wear one, but who is wearing best?

  20. Oh, this is problematic indeed! I am often encouraging people to claim their inner artist by calling themselves “artist,” and at the same time feeling frustrated at the lack of respect or recognition as a professional when I call myself an artist. I went to school for seven years, studied with several excellent masters, and work in a studio. I usually tell people that I am a professional sculptor, but that is limiting if I want to experiment with different media.

  21. A good artist. lol.
    Actually, I consider anyone who creates from their heart a true artist.
    heart = absolute love of the act of creating and passion for it that supersedes criticism or pretense.
    There is a life and pulse in art that is created in this way. Also, there is an attractive naivety about it.

  22. An artist is anyone who responds to an inner, insistent drive to create. There are good artists, bad artists, visual artists, fine artists . . . BUT, as long as the person creates work/music/sculpture/painting/ etc, he or she is absolutely right to claim the title artist. We should make what we’re moved to make and leave it to others with less important things to do to put a label on us, if they must.

    1. I can connect with your comment. There is something inside that drives me to paint, make jewellery; if I don’t do it then I feel something is missing. We do tend to want to put a label on things and people.

  23. I’ve been giving this a lot of thought myself, lately. First, I need to say that my opinion is that of a photographer – a medium that has seen an exponential growth in “artists” over the past several years. And, as such, that perspective shapes my bias.
    So, with that said, more and more people refer to their work as “artistic” yet at the same time, the *value* that we place on art seems to be diminishing. Is the diminishing value of art directly related to the saturation of the term “artist” or “art”. I dunno… maybe, possibly, probably…
    I certainly think that, as more and more people refer to themselves as artists, we are (culturally) lowering the bar for what we consider art. And, maybe as more and more art is digitized and viewed online, the idea that art needs to be physical or provide a tactile experience is lessened. If that’s the case, we’ll see more “artists” entering the arena than we will see leaving it.
    Good? Bad? Maybe we’re in the midst of shift and we won’t know the outcome until later.
    Personally, good art… bad art… I’m fine with both, I just ask that the artist takes the process of creating it seriously.

  24. Since books like Zen in the Art of… I’ve considered an artist someone who follows their inner voice, who does what they are passionate about and who feels like time stops when they do it. I’ve happened to become a visual artist in the meantime. Different things for me. Seth and Hugh have used artist in the broader sense. Everyone can become an artist. It’s an action, not everyone is one. It takes effort and passion and guts to do it. To be it. To be an artist. Whatever that means. To you.

  25. Okay, hands up that I really don’t care! 🙂 Why? Because I don’t know anyone except the business coaches/gurus/consultants who actually say this. None of the business people themselves do. The usage may persist during a coaching session, a conference, or a team building activity, but I find it really hard to believe it persists back in the office. (I’ve done my time in corporate.) And what everyone might consider art kinda doesn’t matter either – the world is not my market. 🙂 I do my best to try and put my art in the right context to highlight it’s value and quality as fine art so people won’t get confused that it’s craft, business, science, or invention. All of which can also be art. And frankly my art wouldn’t be where it’s at without some amazing artistic scientists and inventors. (with a personal shout out to Paul my electronics/biologist guru advisor!)

  26. http://www.creativeclass.com/richard_florida …Ok, I apologize, I was lazy with my previous commenting…The issue(in this blog post) touches upon Richard Florida’s assertions & philosophies, which are more for the “entangled in boredom” job people than the already liberated artist group(that is my bias btw)…He does fervently support creatives specifically but where I think he helps the most is with people stuck working for others & feeling boxed in…if you don’t know his work then scan through his website, listen to his speeches, read one of his books…The brunt of the matter is that say you are working in a factory environment- you can still be creative within that job…The idea is to tell managers to encourage out of the box thinking in their workers- allowing the trying out of new ideas, designs, prototypes, by workers not usually given that kind of freedom…Some people need to keep their bread & butter jobs- so, stay within that & be creative there…The waitress who designs an extra long bendy straw for a handicapped person, & so on…It tells people you don’t have to be a painter or a sculptor to be creative, & it saves many from career poverty who (used to feel)feel that is the only way…

  27. This is trite, but after reading some of the comments, I want to add that Hitler was an artist…A failed artist, the most dangerous kind of person…Which is why I turn some off the path…

  28. My idea-side Thought of this issues is that an Art(ist) is a subject. So: Adding To which Lisa Call Tittle posted, “Visual” -Artist- . it’s like making it into a Topic or sub category of art or Artist(s).
    So which is True: Everyone is an Artist– but some are as a canvas.
    I think, Almost everyone could say “Hey I’m an Artist” but we all need to sum up what .::TYPE::. of artist we are; if we stated it.
    Ex: I’m a Poet… A writer who Express his idea’ “image” (art) with words.
    So a Poet could also be called: Expressive Artist. ^^
    Ex: I’m a Director… A producer giving directions, placement, and shared story of a movie to produce or make. Lets just call it: Movie Artist.

  29. There is a company in Toronto called “everyone is an artist” and at the head of that company is a man that preys on those who really want to be artists. Its quite disturbing actually.
    Even considering that everyone is an artist is ridiculous. An artists feels the world in a different way and shares those feelings. Not everyone does that. “Everyone is creative” works because that is true. end of discussion.

  30. This is still a pretty relevant topic as Seth Godin has continued talking about doing “art” with his new The Icarus Deception. What’s interesting and perhaps even more relevant on the Internet is the (mis)use of the word “curator.”
    I really get what Seth is going after, but it still bugs me.

  31. Beuys’ idea – everybody is an artist – receives an interesting twist if we combine it with his idea of social sculpture.
    We are, then, artist by virtue of transformative action in the world, using language, thoughts, actions, and objects.
    It is an “art de vivre,” one that is socially transformative or revolutionary. It may involve brushes and paints, but doesn’t have to resemble anything traditionally understood as art.

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