Artists’ Social Role in the Eyes of a Non-artist’s

During my formative years, I witnessed a popular trend in which people could easily be identified as artists from their physical appearances and lifestyles; having long and tangled hair, dressing in eccentric fashions, living unconventionally, being bohemian and anti-mainstream. At that time, when postmodern ideas were increasingly popular among Indonesian artists, people liked to say, »Artists are the others, those who are different from us.« Anyone possessing those properties would be simply associated with the notion of artist.

I acknowledged myself an anthropologist, lecturer, researcher, and the likes of a non-artist, because people around me recognized me as such. Likewise, no one in Solitude would consider me an artist because I didn’t introduce myself that way. The fact that I have never been trained in art schools – and I grew up in a non-artist family in a rural area in a Southeast Asian country where poor rice-farming inhabitants were not habituated to »artsy« traditions such as reading classic novels or going to operas, museums, or art galleries – just reassert my acknowledgement.

Meanwhile, on a sunny day evening in Temple Solitude, I had an ordinary conversation with a fellow who was in her first week at the Akademie. There were only two of us sitting and sharing cigarettes. She is from a big city in Europe widely known as the global center for art, culture, and fashion. Exchanging some chitchat about what artists in our countries do for a living, she revealed that she had just graduated from a university and decided to pursue a career as an artist, even though her mother – who was also an artist – quite disagreed with her decision. So, as she has declared, I regarded her as an artist. As simple as that!

From these short stories, we may draw different conclusions about how the identity of artist is formed. You are an artist because you say you are an artist, or because people consider your particular qualities, or because you have accomplished a set of standards and requirements for deserving such a label. And, once you have been successfully labeled as an artist, your work would be then regarded as art.

Wait! How do you know that it will be art? Is it just because of your labeled identity? Or because you say it is art, then it will be art? Is it you who define what your work is, or is it your work that identifies who you are? What is art, what is not?

Answering such questions will help us in discerning the difference between artist and non-artist.

Look at how these logs are arranged: the colors, and the marks. It is beautiful, isn’t it? Can I call it art even though I don’t know who the creator, is or even though other people do not consider it art? Will it be still called art if, say, it was not created by an artist? (I took this photo on November 27, 2016 in the woods near Akademie Schloss Solitude)

It will be difficult or even potentially misleading to define one’s identity by taking the acknowledgement or appearance of the subject as the consideration. No, I will not talk about acknowledgement because it is the most obvious example of how anyone could claim to be anything he/she wants. I believe seeing what is beyond is more »valuable.« You may see the way someone behaves or dresses, for instance, as a reflection of her mental unconsciousness which, according to Austrian psychoanalyst Sigmund Freud, is the fundamental reality. Or, that patterned behavior could also be seen as a sort of symbol from which we can understand one’s culture, like what American anthropologist Clifford Geertz showed in his Interpretation of Cultures (1973). Many anthropologists agree that what is real is the culture itself. However, applying this method of identification in any social setting, region, and period can lead you to failures. In Solitude, most of the artists I have met were far from this categorization. There was no apparent distinction between the artist and the non-artists.

When we are distinguishing between artist and non-artist, it’s normal to consider the apparent distinctions. Social identity lies in difference, and difference is asserted against what is closest. However, if you agree that the physical appearances, the manifest difference, between them is sometime invalid and irrelevant, then we need to try to look at another aspect – the social role.

There must be a place in our social structures that needs to be filled by a particular group of people with their special abilities and characteristics. Artists’ social roles, including the associated patterns or behavioral norms, are defined by the expectation of their peers, the non-artists. However, as there are many different social contexts in this world, the expectations for artists’ role would be culturally different as well. For example, the role played by the bohemian, anti-mainstream, and anti-establishment artists that I briefly describe above might be considered the role of non-artist in the eyes of the fellow sitting next to me in the temple on that evening.

If the differences between artists and non-artists are cultural rather than natural, if artist and non-artist are social roles, defined and organized differently in different social settings, then we need to make explicit what is almost always left implicit from one another, the rules or conventions for being an artist or a non-artist of a particular age group or social group in particular region and period. We must agree that the differences are determined by aesthetic symbols.

Finally, as a member of a community identified as a non-artist, I have always expected that artists are those who could play a particular role that we could not – to produce aesthetic symbols, artworks, that we could feel and understand. It is through the artworks that they communicate their ideas with the rest of us. If we fail to feel or understand them, they are actually obscuring and misleading their identity and social role, aren’t they?