On the last day of classes this year, I asked my students to tell me exactly what an artist is, and they were predictably mute.
Obviously, it's a trick question. First of all, you have to account for the fact that anyone who is good at something is awarded the title of artist. It's the ultimate compliment for a competent craftsman: "My [plumber, tailor, cannoli maker, wedding planner, etc.] is a real artist." The extent to which members of wildly different fields aspire to be considered thusly accounts for the occasional drive to add the suffix "-ist" to job titles. I play the drums, and have heard all of the drummer jokes. Other drummers, weary of listening to them, ask to be referred to as percussionists, or more rarely and weirdly, "drummists." At some point around the turn of the century, art dealers, often viewed with much distrust, began to be called "gallerists." I'm quick to point out that the addition of "-ist" did little to burnish the reputations of arsonists or rapists, but that's another subject.
And even when you've eliminated the plumber and the cannoli maker (cannoliist?) from the list, it is still perfectly impossible to come up with an encompassing definition, even if you strictly limit the scope of the attempt to a specific culture and a specific moment in history. But people still try, and I'm so glad they do - there's always a kernel, something to be used and pondered even in the most wrong-headed of attempts.
By far my favorite is the one offered by Roger Fry in "An Essay in Aesthetics," first published in the New Quarterly in 1909, and then anthologized in Vision and Design in 1920. Below is my heavily adapted and paraphrased version, which I offered to my classes after posing the question that begins this essay.
If you were about to be hit by a truck or eaten by a lion, your reaction would be roughly the same as a squirrel's - you would, operating on pure instinct, try to escape death. But providing you survived, the aftermath would be quite different for you than it would for the hypothetical squirrel, who would simply go back to gathering nuts. You would tell other people about your experience. And you might invent a second lion, or change the setting. And maybe in the re-telling, you would wrestle the lion to the ground, or capture and rehabilitate him. You might invent any number of imaginative details which would take you further and further from the actual events, but would make the story more and more interesting to your listener.
This capacity is what Fry refers to as the "second life of the imagination." It's quite significant in terms of defining what makes us intrinsically human. Bears and apes can walk on two legs, dolphins and whales use what is apparently a sophisticated form of language, and beavers and bees build homes and live indoors. But there is no conclusive evidence that these, or any other animals have this capacity not only to recount experiences for others to enjoy, but to make up wholly new scenarios based on bits and pieces of experience and sensory data absorbed by the brain.
While all humans have this capacity for the second life of the imagination, some people are better than others at recounting and inventing things based on the stuff they find there. Those who show an exceptional ability to mine this data and present it in some form that others can consider and enjoy are generally referred to as artists.
I know that many will take exception to this description and point out any number of works, media, or individuals that it disqualifies. But as I stated at the outset, all attempts at definition are ultimately doomed to failure; none can be comprehensive. I still believe that it's a good idea to try, and I hope I haven't offended any gallerists, drummists, or cannoliists among my readers.