Who is an artist? by Elaine Steinberg

The age old question of who is an artist and what qualifies a work of art remains constant. The only difference between a yesteryear and contemporary artist is the aesthetic parameters. I am going to examine the question by looking at the works of three well known European and American artists in the period between the 1930’s and the 1980’s: Joseph Beuys from Germany (1921-86), and the American artists Andy Warhol (1928-87) and Jackson Pollock (1912-56).

The Conceptualist artist Joseph Beuys believed that “everyone is an artist” . Beuys used everyday, energy-bearing materials to make art. In his installation artwork entitled: 7000 Oaks 198, he organized manpower to plant 1000 oak trees to line the streets from Kassel Germany to New York. This begs the question: Is a geographically-broken line of trees a work of art?

Beuys’ American counterpart, Pop artist Andy Warhol, also had other people manufacture his art in a commercial factory. For Beuys and Warhol creativity was synonymous with the idea. Although Beuys’ art work differs visually from Warhol’s, the message is the same: the idea is the art and vice-versa. In its purest form Pop Art, like Conceptualism, is an intellectual and impersonal approach to creativity. The Modern Museum of New York owns Warhol’s famous installation entitled: Campbell’s Soup Cans, 1968, where multiple prints of various soup cans are stacked, just like a grocery shelf display.

In contrast, Expressionist artists defined a work of art as a purely personal and emotional output of energy. Post WW11 American Abstract Expressionist painter Jackson Pollock (1912-56) tried to drive himself into a purely intuitive state (mindlessness) in attempt to literally embed his emotions into the paint and onto the canvas. Unlike Beuys and Warhol, Pollock believed only the artist’s hand could produce a work of art.

Can we therefore conclude that anyone who has an intellectual idea or emotional impetus can call himself an artist? The answer is both Yes and No. Firstly, artistic status is recognized, not self-declared. In addition, there are degrees of artistic recognition. A regional museum looks to represent its local artistic sensibility. Municipalities have the responsibility to encourage and preserve their local art and culture.

Newspapers often serve a similar role. Journalists, critics and Mr General Public have written about my garden designs as ‘works of art’. Does their declaration qualify me as an artist? Once again, the answer is both Yes and No.

I think of myself as a well-informed champion of the arts with a passion for ideas and a love for testing out formal visual effects. Most of us, myself included, create works for a whole lot of reasons; none of which include the chutzpah (nerve) to assume a stature of artistic significance. Let me assure you, being part of the zeitgeist (which can be exciting and once it is in your blood you’re hooked) is a tough financial struggle, a highly competitive creative zone and a full-time commitment. Hardly a pleasure. I create for pleasure. How about you?

Renowned artists like Pollock, Warhol and Beuys created works of art that gave license to the next generation. For posterity, works of these artists are acquired and disseminated by International and National Museums, Art Journals and galleries.

Exceptional artists do not promote themselves; their work speaks for itself.

Elaine Steinberg’s has an educational background in primary school education, visual art and art history. She left her first career as a teacher for a career as corporate art curator. Presently, she has retired to making art and designing gardens. She also writes articles for newspapers.


One thought on “Who is an artist? by Elaine Steinberg

  1. Nonso says:

    Hiii elaine,am writing a project relating to an artist…i need help pls….

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