On Being an Artist

A confession. Sometimes, in a still, quiet shadow in my mind, I consider myself an artist.

It's not something I talk about very much, or very loud. It sounds a little ridiculous, doesn't it? An artist. I am an artist. Gives me the shivers.

Talking about yourself in the language of making art is fraught with peril. It's presumptuous, arrogant. It also creates mighty expectations, painfully high to fall from. It's so much easier to talk in terms of work, and even of craftsmanship. So much less dangerous.

Admitting I think of what I do as art also makes me vulnerable to criticism. 

Famed movie critic Roger Ebert has famously said that games are not, and can never be, art. Today, in an inspiring act of humility, he said that while he still feels this way, he simply does not know enough about the medium of games to reach such a conclusion. But there are tens of thousands who feel that what I do is not, and can never be, art. So making any such declaration is opening myself up for unfavorable judgement, perhaps unnecessarily so.

Honestly, it would be easier to think of the work I do as anything but art. The language of marketing and technology provide easy measures of success: registered users, depth of engagement, press coverage, hours or dollars or clicks. But if you consider yourself to be making art, then you must ask harder, less quantifiable questions to measure success. Did I say anything about what it is to be human? Did I shine a light on society, or open hearts or minds? Did I move anyone?

These are the successes that matter most to me, but also the hardest to gauge.

Art has a difficult place in our society, and so, then, do the people who make art. Art is a luxury for those who have an excess of mental and economic resources, yes? Artists could be spending those energies on more practical pursuits, such as curing diseases or caring for the elderly. Accordingly, the artist who makes a comfortable living making art is rare.

And yet the output of all of our combined artists are what make a culture -- film and music, games and fashion, even the creative tsunami on sites as diverse as I Can Haz Cheezburger and Stuff White People Like. Culture is our tool for telling one another resonant truths about ourselves, as human beings and as a society. Art helps us understand each other.

And art -- now more than ever -- is an individual's way of staking a claim in a culture, to belong and shape it to their liking. So it shouldn't be ridiculous to consider myself an artist. The distinction between whether someone is (or is not) an artist isn't one of technique, skill, or even intent. It is the mere act of creation that matters. Indeed, it should be ridiculous to think that anyone who contributes even a single LOLcat to our cultural discourse is not an artist, however fledgling.

So should I be embarrassed to think of myself as an artist? For good or ill, I probably always will be. Socialization is hard to break, even when you know better. But if it's any comfort, I almost certainly believe that you are an artist, too.


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