Hard-working artisan, solitary genius, credentialed professional—the image of the artist has changed radically over the centuries. What if the latest model to emerge means the end of art as we have known it?
Pronounce the word artist, to conjure up the image of a solitary genius. A sacred aura still attaches to the word, a sense of one in contact with the numinous. “He’s an artist,” we’ll say in tones of reverence about an actor or musician or director. “A true artist,” we’ll solemnly proclaim our favorite singer or photographer, meaning someone who appears to dwell upon a higher plane. Vision, inspiration, mysterious gifts as from above: such are some of the associations that continue to adorn the word.
Yet the notion of the artist as a solitary genius—so potent a cultural force, so determinative, still, of the way we think of creativity in general—is decades out of date. So out of date, in fact, that the model that replaced it is itself already out of date. A new paradigm is emerging, and has been since about the turn of the millennium, one that’s in the process of reshaping what artists are: how they work, train, trade, collaborate, think of themselves and are thought of—even what art is—just as the solitary-genius model did two centuries ago. The new paradigm may finally destroy the very notion of “art” as such—that sacred spiritual substance—which the older one created.
Before we thought of artists as geniuses, we thought of them as artisans. The words, by no coincidence, are virtually the same. Art itself derives from a root that means to “join” or “fit together”—that is, to make or craft, a sense that survives in phrases like the art of cooking and words like artful, in the sense of “crafty.” We may think of Bach as a genius, but he thought of himself as an artisan, a maker. Shakespeare wasn’t an artist, he was a poet, a denotation that is rooted in another word for make. He was also a playwright, a term worth pausing over. A playwright isn’t someone who writes plays; he is someone who fashions them, like a wheelwright or shipwright.
A whole constellation of ideas and practices accompanied this conception. Artists served apprenticeships, like other craftsmen, to learn the customary methods (hence the attributions one sees in museums: “workshop of Bellini” or “studio of Rembrandt”). Creativity was prized, but credibility and value derived, above all, from tradition. In a world still governed by a fairly rigid social structure, artists were grouped with the other artisans, somewhere in the middle or lower middle, below the merchants, let alone the aristocracy. Individual practitioners could come to be esteemed—think of the Dutch masters—but they were, precisely, masters, as in master craftsmen. The distinction between art and craft, in short, was weak at best. Indeed, the very concept of art as it was later understood—of Art—did not exist.