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What makes an artist?

Updated: Nov 17, 2021


a picture of a page from a sketch book. the sketch is self portrait of the author/artist made with pencil colours.
Soumya Singh Chauhan, Self Portrait, 2021, Pencil Sketch, Artist Owned

I have spent the past year mulling over the labels we carry and may or may not choose to wear. When lockdown began, like many who found themselves returning to hobbies they drifted from at the edge of adulthood, I did the same. I had, of course, never entirely given up on art. What was different for me, was that I had never before considered my relationship with it or explored my identity or lack thereof as an artist. This past year I happened to engage with art more actively and consciously than ever before. While there will be opportunities to dive into the academic discourse on the matter, maybe here, maybe on other more fitting platforms, I talk here about introspections and realisations I have come upon during this time.


Who is an artist?


I started playing with digital art in March, right at the beginning of lockdown. I have been drawing all my life; it has been sketching or painting for the most part. And all of this time I had been averse to the practise of digital art. I have to admit, and am embarrassed to do so, but I did see it as less than as an artform. Having never practiced it before, it seemed an easy play at art, which leads me to the conclusion that my view of art had been hierarchical to attach value to it. This is definitely something prevalent, where traditional art is considered superior to digital art, or in some spaces of marketing and other media engagements, digital art is considered cleaner for maybe purely functional purposes, or maybe aesthetic.


Anyway, this limiting view of mine changed as I struggled with it and then when the struggles bore fruit in what was produced over some time. I enjoyed digital art a lot despite my initial hesitance and stalling, and it became my primary mode of artistic/aesthetic expression. A few months in, people started showing interest in commissioned works and a childhood friend of mine was very encouraging and ordered the first custom piece. I have completed several such pieces during the year and derived a lot of joy from it. To be able to create something for a person when it comes from a place of preservation of a memory for them or cherishing a relationship or moment, makes the process and the art more special and meaningful to me. And I remember how it meant a great deal that someone liked my work enough to want to pay for it. I’ve been drawing all my life, and this is the only time I felt comfortable calling myself an artist. When I caught myself in the middle of this thought it made me wonder what has it in fact meant to me to be an artist.


During this continuing semester in the law school where I teach, we have been discussing the intersection of art and law. With a small class of 14 students, we explore our own personal relationship with art, discuss what brings value to it, what makes a creative expression art, who is an artist. And while I say that I personally believe that art does not require purpose or audience, and that its value isn’t lost for its naivety, I realise as I write this that I haven’t practiced that supposed belief. I have realised that I do devalue my art in comparison to another’s because I don’t think it serves a purpose or that I am saying much with it. And I don’t try to as well. I draw per aestheticism, I draw when I find something so beautiful that I must commit it to memory, I must try to recreate it, as if in a quest to make it my own. I don’t try to say anything with it, there is no voice in my sketches and paintings, at least according to me. Thus, I end up convincing myself that my art is not worthy of an audience, no matter how much I crave it. In these sessions we have students who have contended that purpose adds value to art, intention makes it worthy, and I have opposed it with the assertion that all art by virtue of its creation and existence is worthy, valuable. However, I do realise that while I like to believe it, and I know it will be right to believe it, I have found myself judging my art on the same grounds. The artists in our sessions, as all of them are, make me probe my philosophies, question my beliefs, that have formed with such passivity on my part.


When it came to the label of an artist, I could feel comfortable calling myself an artist, through a coloured capitalist lens, only when someone was willing to pay for my art. For it to be liked enough and in such a manner, must make an artist, I thought. And this didn’t register with me immediately. It was after a few commissions that I said to my mother, with rather childish triumph I might add, ‘I can call myself an artist now, I had always wanted to be an artist.’ This qualification for being an artist came into play in my exploration as a poet as well.


Who is a poet?


In a manner similar to the label of an artist, I am not comfortable calling myself a poet; the same rules seem to apply as do to art. However, I am more comfortable seeking an audience for my poetry because I do say something with it. In poetry I pour emotion, overwhelmingly joyous or suffocatingly melancholic, I use it to purge my system or adorn it. It is the one thing which I see as sincerely my own, of my creation.


At the start of the lockdown, a year ago, I almost got my poetry collection published, by three small to mid-sized publishers. Much like what digital art commissions did for me, I could start to see myself as a poet. It fell through though, on my doing, because the Intellectual Property lawyer in me could not let the artist in me give my work in another’s hands. I knew I was possessive of my work; I didn’t know to this extent! I don’t regret it though; I would have regretted going ahead with something I didn’t believe in, wasn’t sure of, only because I had put the label of a traditionally published poet at a pedestal. Again, who is a poet? Is it someone who writes poetry, or someone whose poetry is read, or someone whose poetry is bought? Like I said, I did put the label of a traditionally published poet at a hierarchial summit when assessing my own identity as a poet. I am trying to go back to the belief I believed I had, that all art is worthy and that all who create are artists.


The process of preparing for a publication did introduce me to the exhilaration of curating one’s art. Now that traditional publications have shed their charm for me, I might as well curate my own work, and let another carry it forward only when I am sure of their respect for it. I do have trouble curating though. I am embarrassed of about 160 of 201 poems. However, despite what seems like awkward phrasing now, it had a lot to say when it was written. And with this, I see that I value my work based on not only its intention and purpose but on what can be heard from it, seen in it. Despite my dismissal of the approach, the purpose it serves does linger on in the value I attach to my work.


However, all of this assessment, this value I attach to my works, is not for me; it’s a projection of how another may perceive it. My art, my poems, to me, are all worthy. All these labels we use are for the benefit of others, for them to see us how we wish to be seen; whether and how we choose to wear those labels is based on our estimation of if we will be seen to fit it. Thus, we refrain from calling ourselves an artist not because we don’t believe in this part of our identity; this criticism of our art is so we are not judged for identifying as one.


This has been a year of introspection, given my privilege of having the opportunity to work from home, introspect, be able to grow consciously, largely unscathed by injuries of this time. It has continued to give me more to think about and work on. And this is a continued pursuit of meaning of the self, for the self, which I believe will be more of a journey than a destination; and I am looking forward to it.


April 5th, 2021


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