Sally Cottis by Mik Godley
Sally Cottis by Mik Godley

We have many verbs for the craft actions performed by artists: drawing, writing, playing, acting, dancing, painting, singing and so on. What unites and underlies all those actions is creation. The artist’s act is to create. Unfortunately, the idea of creativity has become so prized in recent years that it has been applied as an adjective to almost any conceivable human activity. It has thus become primarily a quality of things or people, as if it were embedded into their essence rather than achieved through action.

We speak of ‘being an artist’ as we do of being a woman or being old. In doing so we make it an existential condition—something that cannot be changed, that is inseparable from a person’s identity. But people become artists through their acts, not biology or even education. The claim to be an artist can only be justified by what a person does. At 18, Rimbaud was a poet; at 35 he was a merchant who’d once been a poet.

Creation is what an artist does when she is drawing, writing, playing, acting, dancing, painting or singing. Creation is bringing something into existence: an image, a piece of music, a text, a performance, a film—anything that did not exist before it was imagined and made by the artist. The result may be extraordinary or dull, original or derivative, lasting or transitory. However desirable it may be, excellence is not intrinsic in the artist’s act: creation is.

As we can all speak, so can we all create. The quality of either act is separate from its performance: some speakers are hesitant and inarticulate while others become great orators. Talent, training, effort, commitment, will and luck all play their part in an individual artist’s achievement. Any one of those qualities may be sufficient to create a single great work of art. Anyone can have the luck to take a great photograph; only a great photographer can take the hundreds that comprise a distinctive body of work, a creative personality.

Between those edges there is plenty of room for different people to act as artists, creating work with varying degrees of craft, ambition, originality, connection and feeling—people who are known in their families only as a storyteller, or who are admired locally as a musician, or who are recognised by their peers as a fine artist. We become artists in the act of creating art, not because we have studied or been paid or written up. It is artisting that makes us artists, nothing else.

(Adapted from Winter Fires by François Matarasso with Mik Godley, Baring Foundation 2012)


  1. Aside from the neologism, this is I think a Beuysian argument about everyone’s capacity to be an artist because being an artist is in the act, the practice. But I wonder if it is also true about design? Is design ultimately a practice (setting aside questions of quality)?


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