Being an Artist – An Attempt at a Definition
The early definitions
My journey with the arts started as a young child in equestrian gymnastics and dancing. As I grew older, I moved to music and theater. My passion culminated in graduating with a bachelor’s in music and theater. Many of my friends spread out over the globe pursuing graduate school, diving courageously into being full-time artists, and seeking full-time jobs. Initially, I wanted to find an opportunity in the UAE that gave me flexibility to practice my craft, while having a stable income. However, I eventually pursued a full-time role at my alma mater with The NYUAD Art Gallery. You can read about my thought process during that time in Speaking to Process . Moving from the period of intense creativity, existential questioning, and self-exploration, that characterizes a BA or BFA, into the professional world of office work was rough. The transition challenged my ambitions as an artist and how I understood myself. Through conversations with my friends and fellow alumni, I realized that I was not alone in this experience. After my formal education, I felt empowered and excited to inhabit being an artist as part of my identity. Feeling a loss of that part of myself when I took on my full-time position came as a shock. Fortunately, I found anchors that encouraged me to dive deeper into the question of being an artist. In the following paragraphs, I offer my current answer and the definition that I arrived at for now.
By the end of high school, I had subscribed to the idea of the suffering artist. In other words, to create good art one needs have had a hard life, and struggle. This definition quickly changed during my first years in college to: an artist is someone who fully dedicates themselves and every minute of their day to their craft and creations. As I got older, I realized that that’s impossible. We all have to contend with paying bills, making meal plans, and keeping up with basic house chores, unless we have financial freedom. My definition needed to evolve. Immediately after graduation, I began to describe myself as an artist who is not in a period of traditional creation. Instead, I used my artistic sensibilities to build a more compassionate world.
A quick internet search on what it means to be an artist reveals different discussion forum threads, blogs, and articles. They talk about various disciplines in the arts and markers for who an artist is and what they do. One of the common threads that emerges is an understanding that being an artist is a state of mind. I agree. Artists investigate our human existence and fundamental questions that are vital for understanding how we engage with our environment and fellow humans. Rubén Polendo, Founding Artistic Director of Theater Mitu and a former professor of mine, shared a beautiful metaphor in class. He received this from one of his company members. We can understand society as a tree and humans as the beings that work on the tree: those who have become known as front-line heroes during the pandemic (nurses, cashiers, delivery drivers, janitors, etc.) work on the leaves and branches – keeping our world going and in shape; politicians, entrepreneurs, and activists work on the trunk – continuing to uphold or change our regulations and the frameworks in which we live; artists work on the roots – nourishing our society and transforming it slowly in often imperceptible ways. Everyone experienced the importance of arts during the pandemic. We turned to comedians for relief, music for peace of mind, and movies and TV series to escape our daily lives. Often, the actions of artists are not immediately visible. Professionals working in the arts often grapple with this often. How do we measure the impact of arts to request funding or justify an institutions activities?
The turning point
One of my most formative conversations happened shortly after graduation with Michael Littig and Brian Patrick Murphy after participating in the Zuckerberg Institute’s #FirstClass. Michael is an incredible mentor, friend, theater artist, teacher, and entrepreneur. He co-founded the Zuckerberg Institute, is a member of Theater Mitu, and has facilitated artistic exchanges across the world, among many other achievements. Brian is an incredible mentor, actor, coach, and entrepreneur who co-founded the Zuckerberg Institute and the world-famous Mark Fischer Fitness. In the conversation, I expressed that I felt my artistic identity drift away because I was not creating art or publicly expressing myself anymore. Their response was a question followed by a simple permission: “Do you need to produce or create to be an artist? Not constantly producing work is alright and does not take away from your identity as an artist.” Because what are we trying to prove? And do we have to prove that we are artists to other people by being able to point to a production we directed, a social media feed filled with videos and recordings of performances, or an artwork we painted?
The question and permission have completely transformed the way I think about my existence as an artist and consequently how I define the term. I do think that practicing one’s craft is important, and I have been doing my best to continue with voice classes and regular exercises. However, performing or constantly producing visible proof that I am an artist is not my priority anymore.
Remembering conversations with professors, colleagues, and friends has unearthed a broader definition of being an artist: Defining yourself as an artist is enough to make you one. After I mustered up the courage to own this foundational part of my identity, I asked myself: What does this mean for my existence in the world? I think back to the tree metaphor as well as conversations with the US-American theater director Joanna Settle. Joanna talks to her students about the importance of active listening and observing in directing. This opened the question: What are the skills and sensibilities I have developed through my training in the arts? In music and vocal performance, I learned to use my voice to express other’s intentions, understood tension, relaxation, and careful listening; in acting it was being present to the words and body language of the people in front of me and the energy of a room, and imagining someone else’s emotional world; and in directing it was active listening, observation, and thinking about your audience’s experience.
Being an artist - my current definition
With this in mind, I have arrived at my current definition of being an artist. Being an artist requires nothing more than identifying yourself as one and pursuing a craft. Existing as an artist means to consciously use our artistic sensibilities to interact with the world and people around us. I wrote about artistic sensibilities and their application in personal and professional settings in my forthcoming post Discovering Artistic Sensibilities in Professional Contexts.
While I would love to practice my crafts (singing and directing) more rigorously, I have known for many years now that I do not want to pursue a career as a professional artist. And it is the addition of the word professional that brings me clarity and peace of mind. I inevitably compare myself to singers, directors, visual artists, and dancers who practice their craft every day. They rely on their artistry to secure their, and often, their family’s livelihoods. In other words, it is their full-time job. They are pursuing the arts professionally. It is easy to fall into the trap of thinking that these professional artists are the “real” artists. However, we need to remember that there are many more ways to be an artist. The definition I arrived at has given me freedom to exist more broadly without giving up on this crucial part of my identity. I believe that the dedication and passion to make a difference in the world through our craft and sensibilities connects all artists - professional or not.
What it means to be an artist to you? Whether you are practicing yourself, are an avid follower of the arts, or are pursuing a career as an artist, leave your thoughts and definitions in the comments.