Akademie Schloss Solitude asks me whether I’m an artist. I was selected as an artist fellow at the Akademie, so the question may seem redundant. However, there are also other fellows from other professions: architects, social scientists, journalists, designers, and writers, among others, so we may need to wear a tag on our shirts to be identified, perhaps. To be identified or to identify as an artist – what does it mean to me?
Sometimes, different categories are useful not only because they put people into boxes to be considered properly, but they also force us to justify what we really do. If there is only one option, what do we choose to subscribe or submit to? Not that this one option always does a person justice, but the final choice says a lot about a person.
Even if one chooses to claim to be an artist, does it automatically make one an artist? Children can call themselves fairies; gamblers can call themselves billionaires; dreamers can call themselves anything. Being an artist might just as well be an abstract notion, especially when one does not even earn a stable income or is protected by the welfare system to have an occupation or a status, yet still devotes most of the time to practicing art. Can an occasional painter for example, be an artist, if he paints well? Can we measure the work of an artist with the similar evaluation criteria as other professions? For example, a teacher teaches regularly to be called a teacher, instead of teaching only occasionally, like a hobby.
There have been occasions in which I introduce myself as an artist to laypeople who usually wouldn’t actively seek art in their daily lives. The responses I get are, »a painter?« »You take photographs?« The polite conversation usually leads to a mix of puzzles until we decide that perhaps we could talk about the weather instead. But I can reduce these experiences to the fact that people tend to see an artist as someone who makes something that is close to beauty, something to do with a vision; or someone who creates a different experience, or something weird. Basically, artists do things that normal people don’t usually do, at least not with a high level of devotion (or artistic achievement). Artists do things that the public doesn’t understand, and they don’t want to be understood and prefer mystery.
It may be difficult to define what an artist is, perhaps because art itself is a distant concept. Being an artist is not a normal profession that follows norms. Art encompasses many kinds of practices, which include sitting and thinking or doing nothing (much). To the astonishment of many who work very hard every day to make a living and raise a family, doing nothing or making things that have little functional or consumer value and then getting paid is an alien, and alienating, idea.
But I do know a little bit about function or the value of art, and, at the least, this is what I believe in: Art has to do with the unknown, something that does not offer easy and convenient answers to questions like those above. It refuses to sit in one single category. This is not to say that an artist shies away from all the questions above, especially when we, the artists at Solitude, are so fortunate that we are given the solitude, freedom, shelter, space, and stipend to do whatever we want to do with state funding. Although some artists may not want to live up to any responsibility in response to the inquiry about what an artist is because some think it is the inquirer’s job to find out and to learn, it is without a doubt that being able to choose to be an artist is a privileged position. This sheer privilege makes me feel obliged and excited to enter the unknown or even confusion in providing, enriching, or even complicating the definitions of an artist.
On the other side of this confusion could be answers yet to be fathomed. The space of unknown that does not have an immediate and accurate description is what I see as powerful in art. It takes arrogance to claim to know everything, but it takes just a little bit of modesty to know that many things in our world still need a lot of (new) understanding.
Remember that in school, we have always been in the position of the unknown, so that we can learn new things and hopefully equip ourselves with better knowledge for the future. We know that the world is never a fixed entity and is always changing. This fact prompts a constant revisit of existing vocabularies in perceiving our world. Art in this condition is like an excuse to create a space of delay, to contour the »yet-to-be understood.« The shape of the »yet-to-be-known« can be abstract, but let’s not forget that we are born with the ability to imagine. To imagine beyond the existing norm, and to think of a world outside the reality in front of our eyes, is what artists can do. I would even go so far to say that this ability to examine and reexamine, to imagine and reimagine our world, is the right of a human. Artists are those who stand up and claim to exercise this right.
Such a stance has its benefit. It can be abstract, difficult to grasp, not complacent to the convenient truth. But it also comes with responsibilities, which are to imagine the abstract, the difficulty, the inconvenience. Artists do not live on islands, and we can be misunderstood or assumed to be weird, out of the ordinary. And this is a good excuse to have, like a scientist in a lab who takes the liberty of conducting experiments without a set result that may or may not one day be functional. This license to venture outside the usual scope is important to our civilization.
I am willing to take this stance for now. I am an artist.