Who is an Artist?

“Art” is a term we throw around with an astounding amount of nonchalance, but also one we give a great deal of thought to. Almost anyone, even a there-year-old, would be able to point to something and say “this is art.” But probably not everyone would agree with said three-year-old. Maybe we will be debating the definition of art forever– and maybe this is an important debate to have. But what deserves equal attention is who we consider an “artist.” Historically there have been very specific definitions of who can be an artist–often privileging white men. While this has dramatically changed over the years, there is still a lot of barriers to being culturally recognized as an “artist.” An interesting perspective on this can be seen in the case of outsider art. Sarah Boxer offers a nice overview of the history of outsider art as well as acknowledges the growing acceptance, and in fact celebration, of outsider art in the “insider” art world. Outsider art, on first glance, seems like a step in the right direction to breaking down the barriers to who we call an artist. Boxer claims the “standard outsider biography thus includes not only a traumatic (typically motherless) childhood, a history of institutionalization (orphanage, asylum, prison), a stunted education, a subsistence job, and an intense drive to make art.” Outsider art opens up the realm of the art world to people who it would normally be closed off to. However, and Boxer acknowledges this complexity as well, in order to become an outsider artist, one must be “discovered” by an insider. Outsider art is becoming very popular, and is featured prominently in many of the world’s art museums. But with each artist that is featured in a museum, there are many artists who are not. Maybe their art isn’t as good as the art in the museum. But maybe there are still barriers to being acknowledged as an artist–cultural, racial, gender, sexuality, class, education, and ethnicity barriers that prevent amazing art and amazing artists from getting the recognition they deserve. I don’t know how to get rid of these barriers. But I do know that acknowledging them, and acknowledging the historical construction of these barriers as well as the present-day continuation of them is an important step in the right direction.

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