The “Aspiring” Artist

In the last couple of weeks, I’ve noticed the phrase “aspiring artist” being used to describe the young MFA’s who populate Philadelphia, Jersey City, and some of New York’s seedier neighborhoods. For example, on NPR’s Fresh Air, author Richard Price spoke about the aspiring artists living in New York’s lower east side. He goes on to further describe them as “Would-be artists working in restaurants…a wave of MFA’s.”

I take exception to the use of the word “aspiring” before any young person who strives to make his or her living through art. Aspiring: hopeful, would-be, wannabe. The word either conjures images of optimistic naiveté– a cherubic, Heidi-like girl-woman who paints watercolors from her easel in the woods, and dreams of moving to the big city so that she can sell her paintings and “make it,” or it feels like a sarcastic snort aimed at slacker hipsters living off an allowance from their parents as they claim to make art, but actually spend most of their time shopping for albums and vintage t-shirts, and drinking PBR at Williamsburg bars.

Yet, to describe someone who has invested time and money in a fine arts education as aspiring is insulting. It’s particularly derogatory when it refers to someone who has received an MFA, a terminal degree in the visual arts. Is a PhD of Early Christian Art an aspiring scholar? Is an MBA an aspiring businessperson? Is a JD an aspiring lawyer? We are not aspiring artists; we are artists! We may aspire to be well known, even famous, but we need not aspire to be artists. For that, we need to continue to engage in creative pursuits, to make art.

Indeed, today, that is all one needs to do in order to be an artist— make art. Historically, one had to apprentice to be an artist. Now, that craft is not viewed as integral to art (in fact, it’s often looked down upon), there is no real requirement for calling oneself an artist. This is further complicated by the fact that “What is art?” remains one of the great philosophical questions. Hence, although we can get undergraduate and graduate degrees in painting, sculpture, printmaking, photography, new media, and other fine art genres, these degrees are not technically requisites for the artist; artmaking is the sole qualifier for an artist, and we’re not even sure what that is.

So, perhaps artists are to blame for allowing anyone with a pair of scissors, a glue stick, some glitter, a found object, and some free time one Saturday afternoon to stake claim to our profession. But the artist who lives her life in pursuit of creativity, as a researcher, a thinker and a maker is not aspiring; she is.

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