Writing is an art and a craft. Storytelling is a universal human characteristic. The art is often in how the story is told. The craft is in the mechanics. Wasn’t it Stephen King who famously commented that his stories may not be literary fiction but he worked hard for them to be written and told well. Literature, of course, falls under The Arts, along with sculpture, painting, drawing, music, dance, theater, and yes, even movies. There is the art of cooking, the art of macrame, the art of baseball, but none of these are considered to be arts. Writing, however, is because it’s literature (in the broadest sense), so writers are artists.
What does that mean? There was a time in human history about 500 years ago
when it meant being a worker bee. You would have been called an artisan or a craftsman. Shakespeare, for example, was an actor and a playwright, a writer who fashions plays as a wheelwright fashions wheels. You would have served as an apprentice under a master artisan to learn the craft and the tradition of your art. While some masters could be highly esteemed by society and/or the aristocracy, their social station was in the middle or lower middle class, just below the merchants. In other words, while art was prized and creativity respected, you would not have been thought of that highly. Only master artisans could claim some measure of fame and maybe a little fortune.
Eventually, people began regarding artists as geniuses. Why geniuses? I suspect because they could think of and create things no one else could. Johann Sebastian Bach, for example, was considered a master and a genius, while he thought of himself as a hard-working artisan. This notion of genius accompanied a time when patronage was common. All artists sought the patronage of someone in the aristocracy. Ludwig van Beethoven, in Vienna, won the patronage of the Kinsky family at one time. He, clever boy that he was, worked as a piano teacher to the children of the aristocracy making powerful connections in the process. Despite this, he was never a rich man, but he was considered a genius, even in his time.
In the 19th century Romantic period, the artist as genius blossomed into the artist as solitary genius who toils in an unheated garret without the money to buy his next meal. This Romantic notion persisted also throughout the 20th century accompanied by the idea of art being a calling from a divine source. Good grief. That certainly raised expectations unreasonably for anyone creating in the arts. But this is the image and idea that we are most familiar with when someone says, “She’s an artist.” A word about the solitary part of this image: for many artists, solitude is a necessity for them to create. It no longer remains a requirement, however.
By the end of the 20th century, with technology burgeoning, a major change occurred. In the past, artists relied on someone else to distribute their art, i.e. publishers for literature and music, galleries for painters and sculptors, etc. For performing arts like music and dance, there is another layer of distribution, i.e. the performers who bring the music or dance to the general public. This distribution system is not at all like that of the artisans 500 years ago who hustled for business like any of their fellow craftsmen. And guess what? Technology has returned artists to the artisanal way of doing things.
What does it mean to be an artist in 2015? It means living and creating during a transition period regarding distribution of our art. For writers, it means becoming also a publisher, marketer, distributor, and publicist. In other words, we writers are not only writer-artists, but also we are now writer-business people. Or entrepreneurs. I see this strongly in my own life. What I hope is that writer-artists or any artists for that matter will not fall back to the artisan-craftsman one below merchant class level. I think that within each of our creative lives we are artisans, craftsmen, geniuses, and artists worthy of patronage.
If you would like to read a rich, literary article on this subject, William Deresiewicz’s “The Death of the Artist and the Birth of the Creative Entrepreneur” in the January/February 2015 issue of The Atlantic, lays it all out in artistic black and white text. I know I’ll be thinking about this article for a long time.
At some moment in my life, I heard someone say that living life is an art which makes everyone an artist…..