Wednesday, August 29, 2012

"Self Taught Artist"

Recently, I have heard the the title "self taught artist"a lot. 

I started thinking about that. And the more I thought of it, the more obnoxious the phrase became.

What people mean when they say that is that they didn't go to school. If that is what they mean, then they should say that. Nobody is a self taught artist. We all are informed by the world around us. We are all taught what we value by the people that surround us. We all learn technique by whatever we choose to surround ourselves with.

Unless the artist lived his or her entire life in a white room without any television, computer, books, or any kind of packaging materials at all I say that it is impossible to be self taught!

Every time an artist watches TV, they are getting an art education. Every time an artist looks at the packaging on a box of cereal, they are getting an art education. Every time a person interacts with other people or show other people their art, they are getting an art education. Nobody in our society, with any level of connection to any kind of design, media, or marketing is a "self taught" artist. And with the world population getting greater and greater access to the internet, the term "self taught" becomes less and less meaningful. The art world is using sloppy terminology. 

So, you don't like that? OK.

We can look at the other side of the coin, or canvas. EVERYONE is a self taught artist. All artists make the decision to do art, and the choice to better themselves in some way. Some people choose to go to art school, and surround themselves with other people with experience for inspiration. Other people choose to go to a cabin, or their apartment, or anywhere, and choose to grow through their own experimentation. All artists choose their path and inform themselves in the way they choose. They are all self taught. Some just choose to teach themselves through traditional "art world" paths. 

Either way, the romantic notion of a "self taught" artist is beginning to annoy me. Besides the general definition of the word, the use also bothers me. The title "self taught artist" is usually used in two different contexts. The first context that is is used is as an excuse to excuse bad work. At an art show one might be more generous while "evaluating" the work when one hears that it is the work of a "self taught" artist. The implication being that "That piece is excellent..... (for a self taught artist)". The second context is that it turns really good work into something fantastic! If one goes to a good show, and then learns that the artist is "self taught", then the work becomes even more magical. Either way, it is segregating the artist into another group, and then creating a different scale to appreciate the work. Why can't art just be art without putting different scales to judge it?

As all these thoughts were swirling through my head, the term started annoying me to a greater and greater degree. Mostly because it is creating a class system for artists. It segregates artists into different groups, not based on the physical and tangible, but based on the way someone chose to educate themselves. I prefer to let all artists be artists.

What brought this to my attention was an artist who was talking about his work. This artist described himself as a "self taught artist", almost as a shield or an excuse. If you are doing art, you are an artist. That doesn't mean that your work is "good", and that doesn't mean that you are communicating effectively as an artist. It just means that you create stuff that you call art. Some artists are more experienced than others, and some artists are more technically skilled than others. 

I also don't like hearing "female artist" or "gay artist", or "black artist". All of those distinctions are never good, and I think that descriptors like that should only be used when the content of the body of work specifically speaks about or speaks to those populations. And even then, it is dangerous to label people, or art, like that.



  1. I loved this post! Very interesting look at the language we use.

    As someone who has used the term "self-taught", may I give another perspective? I have often used the term when people ask if I am an artist - particularly if the person asking is an established or trained artist themselves. There is some insecure part of me that doesn't want to risk offending someone who may have spent years going to school to earn the title "artist" by applying it to myself.

    I once attended a panel discussion where an established artist shared her anger that people would dare to pick up a paintbrush and decide that gives them the right to call themselves artists. She said it was an affront to "real" artists who have been trained, carried degrees, or survived off the sale of their work.

    I'm not sure what experiences led me to react this way but I'm guessing that one played a part. My response can be almost involuntary.

    I love to create. I want to "earn" the title of artist but I don't always feel deserving of it.

  2. Anyone who creates art is an artist. That doesn't mean that that person is a skilled artist, or a successful artist.

    That "trained artist" that you were talking about seems to have confidence issues. Why does that person need to elevate herself? Why does she have to create labels?

    Yes, art school is valuable. Isn't it enough that she went and had the privelidge and luxury of an art education?

  3. I love this post. On a similar note, I just recently relized how annoyed I get when the phrase "started drawing at a young age" creeps into artist's statements. I think most children were creative and took part in drawing and other artsy things and I feel like including that in an artist statement does nothing but tell me you couldn't think of something more thoughtful to say about your artwork.