Wednesday, April 16, 2014

Who is an Artist? On Naming and Expertise

Rebecca sat down next to me at breakfast and asked, "How was the hike yesterday?"  
I replied, "Good. It was more of a walk. But it was beautiful." 
Her: "You're a serious hiker, right?" 
Me: "I guess so."

This simple exchange--or one like it--happens every day. We question our abilities. We confirm our expertise.

I noticed this conversation because it happened during a break at a two-day meeting where people heatedly debated the question of who is an artist. In that context, this simple exchange about hiking got me thinking.

What does it mean when someone says she is a hiker, or a scientist, or an artist? It can mean:
  • I do this thing often.
  • I do this thing at a high level of ability.
  • I have expertise in doing this thing.
  • I make my living doing this thing.
  • I consider this thing to be a core part of my identity.
  • I affiliate with this thing.
  • I aspire to do this thing professionally, and I am affiliating to build that future for myself.
Some professionals believe strongly in the power of aspirational affiliation. Last week, I heard a curator advocate strongly for the "everyone is an artist" frame of thinking. When you tell a child or an outsider that he is an artist, you empower that person to join a community of art-making. At the same time, you expand the definition of art and make it more inclusive. 

Other professionals believe that expertise needs to be protected. Last week, I heard an immensely talented performer say he "dances but isn't a dancer" because he doesn't do it every day. A person who dedicates their life to making art has a different way of seeing and engaging with the world. It's valuable to honor and acknowledge that difference.

Each of us defines these lines differently, and I don't think there can be one answer. There are reasonable arguments for delineation based on credentials, experience, talent, intention, time on task, and personal connection. 

I know within myself, in the small example of hiking, I froze for a moment when I was asked if I was a serious hiker. I started thinking: well, yes, this is a big part of my identity, but I don't really do it that often anymore, but I like to do it at a high level of intensity, and compared to the general public I do it a lot, and I often plan vacations around it, and probably when I am in a less crazy time of life I'll do it more... 

I experienced a half-second of heart-racing existential self-questioning just to answer a very simple question. 

I also noticed a kind of social distinction shaping up around the exchange. When I said "it was more of a walk," I was also saying "this isn't up to my standards of hiking." When she asked, "You're a serious hiker, right?," she was also asking, "You distinguish yourself from others in this way, right?" The use of the word "serious," like the use of the word "professional," started to draw a clearer line between me and Rebecca--a line that made me uncomfortable. I didn't want to exclude her from past or potential shared hiking experiences. But subtly, I did.

All of this makes me think three basic things about how we name ourselves:
  1. It's personal. Even if you think you have the way to define who is an artist or a scientist or an expert, each individual may still choose to affiliate (or opt out) based on his/her own standards. 
  2. It's relational. The things we call ourselves and each other do impact the way we see and treat each other. 
  3. It could be much richer and more expansive. A word like "artist" is a heavy hammer to impose on every nail. If the Eskimos have fifty words for snow, can't we have fifty words for artist? If we can add more nuance to the ways we name ourselves, we can move from debate to dialogue about the opportunities inherent in a diverse and complex world.
How do you interpret the question of who is an artist/scientist/expert?

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