Photo credit: John Emerson
Starting when I was 64, I went to art schools, undergraduate and graduate, to study painting. Let me tell you, the experience was disconcerting, even humbling, though if you knew me, you wouldn’t have assumed I was someone subject to humbling or self-doubt. I’ll explain that in a minute. But for now, let me say that by the time I had earned my MFA, I was a pathetic little ground-down nub, prone to doubt over ever having a life as an artist.
While I was in graduate school at the Rhode Island School of Design, one of my teachers, a printmaker named Henry, told me I’d never be an artist — he meant a particular, superior kind of artist that my mind’s eye spelled “Artist” — as opposed to someone, anyone, who makes art — an artist. At the time I feared he was right. The confrontation with that teacher got me to thinking about who is an artist or an Artist, and, finally, who decides about identity anyway.
I wasn’t thinking that clearly when I ran into Henry in Benson Hall. We had already exchanged testy emails after he had given me an A- (a bad graduate student grade) and called me “dogged.” And not as a compliment on my resilience.
I ran into Henry on what might, without him, have been a moment of pride. More on that, too, later. Defending his “dogged” comment, he assured me I would never
be an Artist. I might sell my work, he said, I might be represented by a gallery. I might have collectors showing my work on their opulent walls and saving it up in art storage. But I would never be an Artist, the kind of creator who transcends the usual hallmarks (sales, gallery, collectors) that define what it means to be an artist in a superior realm.
I knew what he was saying was bullshit, and I called him out on it. If only such verbal confidence was all there was to it!
Another part of me, the art student part of me, cringed in the suspicion that Henry was right. That I had no place in art school, that I was truly not good enough to belong. I was too old and too academic ever to become an Artist (or even an artist), if an Artist was something you could become
. Education wouldn’t help. Making lots of work wouldn’t help. No, no, no, either you were or you weren’t an Artist. I wasn’t, and I never could be any such a thing. In the aftermath of this encounter, the whole experience of being dissed and doubting my ability got me thinking about identity — about my own different identities.
I promised you I’d come back to who I am, who I was, as someone not easily seen as self-doubting. I went to art school after a nice career, a very, very nice career, as a chaired professor in the Princeton University History Department. As a historian I wrote several good books, such as Sojourner Truth: A Life, A Symbol
, the definitive biography of that icon of American abolition and feminism. While I was an MFA student at RISD, I published The History of White People
, a New York Times
bestseller that was reviewed on the front page of the Sunday New York Times Book Review
. If you’re a writer, I see you now turning a deep and shiny green. If you read a lot, you recognize my hitting the literary jackpot. And those were only two of my several books. (If you want to see the entire list of books and honors, check out my website
under the "Historian" tab.)
As a student of history and as a writer of books of history, it never occurred to me that anyone could doubt whether I actually was
a historian. Or, to adopt Henry’s heightened sense of identity, a Historian. Food for thought.
There are too many other people laying down rules over who is black enough, artist enough, woman enough to preclude any lasting settlement.
In the aftermath of my teacher’s accusation, I have come to distinguish between lowercase artists
, people who make art, and uppercase Artist
artists, whom my teacher recognizes as real artists, people who measure up to his criterion of possessing some ineffable quality of being. To be an Artist was ontological. Either you were or you weren’t an Artist. If you were — well, I wouldn’t know, not being one, what that quality consists of. If, like me, you weren’t an Artist, nothing could help your case, not education, not skill, not experience. Too bad for you. That is, too bad for me.
So what does it mean to be either an artist or an Artist? Do these categories allow for criteria of measurement? Clearly, my teacher and I disagreed as to whether there should there be criteria, and what those criteria would be. The famous 20th-century performance artist Joseph Beuys laid down often repeated definitions:
Who is an artist?
Someone who makes art.
What is art?
What artists make.
Another widely accepted school of thought associated with the Bauhaus says art cannot be taught. Another way of saying, I guess, that either you are or you aren’t an artist, à la my teacher. Which relates to the mystique of talent.
A lot of people possess artistic talent, in the sense that they can look at you and make a drawing that looks just like you. Though this ability seems rare, it really isn’t. Millions of people can do that, even without training in art. But talent only goes so far in life and in art. Talent is only just a beginning. To my mind, what’s called talent is the index of an interest in images to sustain the proverbial 10,000 hours of practice it takes to succeed. Without those 10,000 hours of practice, you remain an amateur, a Sunday painter like millions of other Sunday painters whose identities lie elsewhere.
I have my own definitions, related to the very marks my teacher said I could hit (sales, gallery, collectors) without being an Artist. I reject my teacher’s ontological reasoning of being, preferring criteria related to performance. If you ask me, a real artist is someone who acts
like an artist by selling her work, which has gallery representation and is collected.
Those are my criteria, which thousands, millions
of artists fulfill making work of all sorts. Some of that art strikes me as admirable. Some looks to me like random plies of things. The sheer variety of ways of making art — even of making art that sells and gets represented and collected — undermines, to me, the possibility of separating Artists from people who make art.
There are so many ways of making art! And, yet, so mysterious a means disqualifies people who make art from being seen as Artist artists. The more I thought about it, the more the ontological argument of being an Artist (as opposed to a person who makes art) reminded me of parallel arguments about blackness and femaleness. Those identities are evidently so fundamental in life. But our hold on them can be subject to myriad criteria.
Both femaleness and blackness are basic identities and seem straightforwardly natural. On first thought, it would seem that you’re born a woman, that you’re born black. Think again. Along with those of us who appear to be straightforwardly one or both, people on the borderlines — trans people and people of so-called mixed race — know that it’s not so simple. You constantly have to strive to achieve sufficient blackness and/or satisfactory femaleness.
There are so many ways not to measure up! You can be dark-skinned but not black enough if, say, you’re too educated. You can get weird looks in public bathrooms. You can have birthed children but need to buy an infinity of beauty products to make yourself woman enough to pass muster. You can be reviewed on the front page of the New York Times Book Review
and publish bestsellers without feeling like a great author. Some identities remain permanently beyond reach if other people call the shots.
There are too many other people laying down rules over who is black enough, artist enough, woman enough to preclude any lasting settlement. There are so many of them talking so loudly that you can drive yourself crazy whenever a new one pops up to question your bona fides. It took Henry’s absurd dictates to get me thinking about who decides who or what I am. I finally learned not to see myself through other people’s eyes.
Take it from me, a not-an-Artist artist, who is not-black-enough and not-woman-enough, but who is old enough to have learned who decides what I am. Other people don’t decide when it comes to my identity and when it comes to my art. I make my identity by doing it, by living it. I make my art by making my art. In either case, I’m the one who decides.
÷ ÷ ÷
is the Edwards Professor of American History, Emerita, at Princeton University. Her acclaimed works of history include Standing at Armageddon
, Sojourner Truth
, and The New York Times
bestseller The History of White People
, which have received widespread attention for their insights into how we have historically viewed and translated ideas of gender, value, hierarchy, and race. She holds an MFA from the Rhode Island School of Design and a BFA from Mason Gross School of the Arts. Her visual artwork has been shown at numerous galleries and in many collections, including the San Angelo Museum of Fine Art, the Brooklyn Historical Society, and Gallery Aferro. She lives in Newark, New Jersey, and the Adirondacks. Old in Art School
is her most recent book.