Being an Artist vs. Making Art

BEING AN ARTIST AND MAKING ART are not the same. One is self-conscious, the other is directed outward, as Jacques Maritain observed, to the good of the work—to the perfection of the work of one’s hand (if you are a visual artist) in its service to the eye and a cultivated sensibility. The first is largely a theatrical posture, the second is a commitment to something larger, more enduring than oneself. That something, it is hoped, graces its time in some incalculable way. So doing, it earns serious attention by serious people in times to come.

Judging from the broadcasts that come over my e-transom several times daily, young people enter the arts—and are encouraged to do so—for the identity it affords. It is a free-for-the-asking assertion of identity, of selfhood, and of status. Look-Ma-No-Hands art is what we get when young students are swollen like puff adders with notions of the artist’s importance with no corresponding insistence on mastering anything beyond the rhetorical rigors of a press release. Below, is a sample of Swedish university product that could just as easily come from Kansas or California. It explains itself this way:

The Spare Time exhibition explores the concept of spare time and the impact of recreational activities. What makes us experience well-being and satisfaction in our free time? How do we detach ourselves from work and our everyday responsibilities?


Brice Bourdet, "Carla: Here is Elsewhere" (2011)


A university art department, bereft of things to teach since no one thing matters more than any other thing, will “investigate”—that is today’s word, is it not?—the ways we hang around and do nothing.

Among other things the exhibition visitors will have the opportunity to hula hoop to the accompaniment of Chinese pop music; watch a potato field sprout and grow during the summer and climb into a bird watching tower to find out more about Swedish outdoor life.

Luckily, there are not quite as many Americans hanging around doing nothing as there are in Sweden.  But give us time. We are getting there. And while we are doing nothing, why not play at whatever we can call art? After graduation, there will be little else to do for more young people than ever before. Art offers a way of doing nothing while pretending to be doing something. And the art press keeps itself going by reporting on  the pretense.

Installation shot of artists in the former Yugoslavia just . . . being.


Spare Time has been funded “with support from the European Commission.” Thought you might like to know. This is the sort of thing Europeans have been able to spend their tax dollars on while the United States footed their defense bills. But I digress.

Henry Geldzahler, in a commencement address given at the School for Visual Arts, NY, in 1976, commented on the distinction between being and making. The money part of his address begins with a brief survey of the myth of the Bohemian artist who does what he wants, when he wants, living close to the edge but enjoying the camaraderie of a like-minded community:

Myths die hard. . . . my experience tells me that making works of art should be thought of as an occupation rather than as a way of life. F.R. Leavis tells us of a moment in Stephen Spender’s autobiography World Within Worlds when T.S. Eliot asks the younger Spender what he wants to do. Spender answers, “I want to be a poet.” Eliot said, “I understand your wanting to write poems but I don’t know what you mean by ‘being a poet.'” Today there are numbers of stockbrokers whose way of life more closely resembles that of the traditional artists on the Riviera than it does the old-style stockbroker. Similarly, there are successful artists who live and look like stockbrokers.

© 2011 Maureen Mullarkey