Yes, I realize the title of this post is about as vague as it gets. Nevertheless, how we define what is, and isn’t, art as a worldwide culture is something that puzzles me. In America at least, so many of us seem to have no real criteria by which to judge if a work can be considered art — no standard. I understand how subjective the appreciation of art is, and I suspect survival from generation to generation has played a major role in determining what has been defined as art throughout human history. In my lifetime, Americans have become less and less prescribed in their definition of art, and to my way of thinking, this is an unfortunate trend. We tend to use the terms “art” and “artist” to describe almost any form of creativity. I am the first to admit that I don’t have a true appreciation for a great deal of modern art, which includes painting, sculpture, poetry, and a few other mediums. Okay, those are perhaps my own shortcomings and limitations due to a lack of education or sensibility.
What I’m referring to here, though, is how modern culture seems to lump all creativity into one huge basket, with very little discernment or discrimination. We use the term “artist” so loosely. We consider Leonardo da Vinci to be an artist, but we also use the same word to describe Thomas Kinkade. Most people would recognize Beethoven as an artist, but we hear the same word used to describe Taylor Swift. Really? What happened to words like “entertainer?” I play the guitar a little, the piano a bit more, and I sing well enough that people have paid me to do so at weddings, funerals, parties, etc. I have even written a handful of songs that I think are pretty good. Am I an artist? I would be embarrassed if someone referred to me that way or called my creations art. I am an amateur musician, singer, and composer. There are plenty of people who have made a very good living doing the same thing, only a whole lot better than I do. Are they artists? Well, not in my mind. I would call them professionals, and that goes for many of my musical idols.
I am not advocating that, as a culture, we have to have some kind of hard and fast rule to define art and identify artists. But I would like to see a little more differentiation to show respect to those among us who have exceptional gifts of creativity — timeless, perhaps. I suppose we all know that Michelangelo is actually a great artist or even a master, and that his work is not comparable to the images of Elvis we see painted on velvet canvases for sale at roadside stands. Or do we?