Happy New Year, everyone.
I remember a time from about a decade ago, when I had just abandoned my business career in favor of writing. I would go out to various places—stores, coffee shops, supermarkets—eye the other people nearby, and think something along the lines of, these folks don’t realize it, but there’s a writer in their midst.
It seems quite silly now, although some of my writer friends have confessed to the same brand of solipsism when they first got started. We imagined ourselves as someday, inevitably, famous, or at least that what we did as writers was so much more fulfilling and important than the meaningless pursuits those around us followed.
I admit this foolishness because there’s an article in this month’s The Atlantic titled “The Death of the Artist—and the Birth of the Creative Entrepreneur” by William Deresiewicz. In it, he proposes that the concept of “the artist” has changed through the centuries. First was the artisan, primarily a craftsman who made things both useful and sometimes beautiful for his customers. As Deresiewicz puts it: “Shakespeare wasn’t an artist, he was a poet, a denotation that is rooted in another word for make. He was also a playwright, a term worth pausing over. A playwright isn’t someone who writes plays; he is someone who fashions them, like a wheelwright or shipwright.”
Later, in the 18th and 19th centuries, the concept of the artist came to mean someone more exalted, whose role it was to create works of beauty or intellectual inspiration, far beyond what the common man could duplicate nor often comprehend. The artist came to be equated with genius. He received praise, awe and patronage. He rarely deigned to lower his intellectual standards to that of the commoner. Appeal to the masses or even the critics did not matter as much as what one’s patrons and fellow artists (read: geniuses) thought of the work.
Deresiewicz says this idea of the artist has changed again, forced by economics and the pervasiveness of the Web, making the artist, by necessity, an entrepreneur who caters not so much to artistic drives, but market demands. It’s something of a return to the artisan stage.
Despite those new realities, the idea of the artist as above or apart from the rest of humanity persists, even though that status lasted for only a relatively very short time in history. After all, what self-respecting artist or writer goes to the workspace every day thinking himself a craftsman, as opposed to a genius in waiting, or at the least a free spirit whose creation is unique? In those thousands of MFA programs in America, writers are still encouraged to separate themselves, to “find their own voice,” even though their financial survival depends more on fitting into categories of voices deemed acceptable in the marketplace.
Maybe such a belief is the definition not of the artist, but the artiste, the poseur, whose talent is not so much directed towards producing art as it is the creation of an artist’s aura, that above-it-all, disconnected, they-don’t-get-me air designed to keep the rest of us in awe. In fact, an attitude like that comes in handy as motivation to keep an artist going in the face of continuous rejection, even if the work he churns out isn’t a product of genius.
When I examine of myself as a writer now, after nine years of writing and publication, writing and rejection, I find aspects of all three definitions: the artisan, the artist, and the artiste. It’s the artisan who shows up at the desk every day, no matter how creative he feels, and knows that he has the experience to craft a professional product. The artist sits alongside, injecting flashes of insight and inspiration, hoping to make the work something more than the words on the page, more than just another story. That same artist spends the rest of the day critiquing the artisan’s work, and proposing new projects. And yes, there is still some of the artiste within, the one who believes critical acclaim might still come, who tells himself that his latest story wasn’t rejected because it was bad, but because it didn’t pander to the mass market. For all his egotism and self-delusion, the artiste plays a necessary role in the life of this writer, keeping him committed, and still excited about the possibilities.