I'm a singer/songwriter, which is (in most cases) considered to be a type of artist. While it's rather hackneyed to start off an article with a dictionary definition, it's certainly not as bad as starting a wedding toast or valedictorian speech off with one, and I've heard both. So here we are, from Dictionary.com, because books are dead (tm):


1. a person who produces works in any of the arts that are primarily subject to aesthetic 
2. a person who practices one of the fine artsespecially a painter or sculptor.
3. a person whose trade or profession requires a knowledge of design, drawing, painting, etc.: a commercial artist.
4.a person who works in one of the performing artsas an actor, musician, or singer; a publicperformer: a mime artist; an artist of the 
5. a person whose work exhibits exceptional skill.
Certianly I fall under number four, possibly number two if writing is a "fine art", and number five is 100% assured so long as I play a show on a night when there are no important sports games, "reality" TV "competitions", or more famous people playing in town to distract everyone, and a few friends and family members show up (thanks mom!).
If someone were to ask me what the definition of artist is, I would probably just shrug and say "Someone who makes art".  Not because I can't be more poetic than that, but because to be poetic would be falling right into their trap. 

TrapCredit: olovedog / freedigitalphotos.net
It's like this only with a sign that says "Your Big Break, In Here!" over the top

You see, if you've made the plunge to be truly dedicated to making some sort of art, you've unwittingly taken an oath which allows everyone without any artistic inkling to judge you by the vision of "The Artist" that they learned from TV and from other people who watch TV while you were irrationally deciding to dedicate yourself to art. 
"But TV is built on cliches and stereotypes!", You shout at your screen, thinking I can hear you, "Real artists aren't anything like what's on TV!"
I'm afraid that's not entirely accurate, my loud and indignant friend. While I've never met an artist who could pass for a complete caricature, I've likewise never met an artist who doesn't fit one of these tried and true images of the stereotypical artist. Here we go.

An Artist is...A Bit of a Weirdo

TV Examples: Phoebe from Friends, Brian from Spaced

We'll start with this one since, if you're an artist, you might not even realize that you exhibit it. Just in case the examples above aren't familiar to you, here's a primer:


Folksy busker at the Central Perk Cafe on Friends, most famous for her song "Smelly Cat" and for generally doing everything in a way that would never be considered normal, and that includes even basic things, such as running

Here's a sampling of her work:

From across the pond (from North America-- if you're in the UK, from... in the pond) is Brian, the basement tenant in Simon Pegg and Jessica Stevenson's sitcom, Spaced. Brian is a professional artist who works mainly in watercolours, but when he is asked what he paints, he usually responds like this:


It's worth noting that both shows contain several other characters that possess artistic talents-- Joey is an actor and Monica is a chef on Friends, and on Spaced, Tim is an aspiring, but talented comic book artist, and Daisy spends almost the entire series trying to write something, to uphold her claim to being a "writer". But I've singled these two characters out because I'm not a scientist and so just the fact that they fit the point I'm trying to make is good enough.

Pictured: Definitely NOT me

ResearcherCredit: Taoty / Freedigitalphotos.net

More seriously though, I would like to point out that the shows themselves highlight these two characters as spaced out (ha) freaks largely because of the amount of their existence that is dedicated to being artists. While the other characters are solving personal issues or worrying about finances or technology or where they're going to live, these two are instead almost unilaterally focused on expressing their feelings, creating something, and they seldom leave the world as they see it inside their heads for very long.


Why do they think we're like that?

Hear me out. While it's rare for us artists to act exactly like these two (because short of having sections of your brain removed that might be difficult to do authentically), I will be the first to admit that I've quoted philosophers, existentialists, and plenty of other people who "nobody has ever heard of" in ordinary conversation. I am likewise, at a loss, whenever anyone starts talking about "that time they got so wasted that..." and "that great new Nickelback album".

In a conversation with other artists, however, the references usually get nods in understanding, and not their confused cousins, scrunched up faces of what-the-hell-are-you-talking-about, which is what I get from almost everyone else.

ConfusedCredit: freedigitalphotos.net / artur84

"Dostoy -what now?"

Why do we do this?

Here's what I think. We do have a certain amount of "I want to be different" grown into ourselves (from that initial decision to dedicate ourselves to art), and so we intentionally seek out entertainment and information in different ways to "soak it up". This isn't to say that people who aren't artistic don't like experiencing new things. Just that for us, the thrill of treasure hunting is just as important as enjoying the bounty. But we spend these dubloons in the same way any socially-adusted culture pirate would-- in casual conversation. Your brain naturally finds the information it likes best, too bad for everyone else that it's a Nietzche quote about how pointless existence is and not a careful analysis of Bobby-Lynn's strategy for winning Survivor: Antartica.  Right?

An Artist Is...A Hippie Lovechild Who Cries a Lot

TV Example: Vaughn from Community

Artists are love-in, hug-fest crybabies right? We love the flowers and butterflies and we can bust out a soggy, over-sharing love poem in seconds, and if you laugh at us we'll either cry or just shrug and call you "bro".

Like Vaughn, from Community. Basically the bane of the existence of lead character Jeff from the time he was introduced on the show until he left, Vaughn is a no-shirt wearing, hackey-sack-a-decade-too-late-playing, poetry writing incarnation of "chilled out". He drinks green tea and constantly talks about how connected the universe is, and his catchphrase at one point was simply "no worries". 

What a douchebag.


Why do they think we're like that, and why do we do this?

I know quite a few musicians like Vaughn here, complete with a green tea addiction, dislike for shirts, and a need to be philosophical even if they're incapable of adequately explaining their points. These artists definitely exist. Why is it the stereotype though?

The current situation in most of the developed world is to get into the structure and fight your way upwards, become as successful as possible as judged by the majority of the population, and then retire as the next generation does the same.

An artist, to be successful, doesn't necessarily have to follow this same route, because an artist decides for his or herself whether or not success has been achieved based on any criteria they choose. Do they just want a lot of people to know about them? Ok. What about sales of records or prints? Sure. A feeling of general accomplishment? That's fine too.

This lack of a need to subscribe to society's roadmap to success means that some artists can be whatever person they want to be, including one who is exceedingly passive, and still get what they want out of life (Jack Johnson's entire career was/is built on this ideal). We have to draw our own roadmap, and since we have to it means that we get to, and if given the option of choosing any path through life most people would chose the one with the least stress, whether they're artists or not. 

But to that guy who just lost a round of golf on purpose to get promoted to Assistant (to the) Regional Manager, you look the same as Vaughn, you lazy, non-conformist jerkwad of a hippie you.

Yes ManCredit: pakorn / freedigitalphotos.net

Admit it, you want to say "no".

An Artist Is...Broke

TV Examples: All of the Above Plus Every Artist Ever Depicted On TV, Ever

I've saved the best for last. Which is saying something, because as an artist the very concept of being able to save anything up should be foreign to me, right?  Let's go back through the video clips. Vaughn doesn't seem to be very well off, given that, as Jeff says, he lacks two out of the three ingredients most necessary for service: a shirt and shoes. Brian is living in the basement suite of an apartment building, a basement which he has shoehorned his whole art studio into, and so probably lacks a place to sleep. Finally, Phoebe is shown to be playing her music in a few places, but most of them are either for small change or possibly even for free.

Oh right, they're artists--they're supposed to be broke.

An artist's wallet. Only we already spent those squiggles.

WalletCredit: graur razvan ionut / freedigitalphotos.net

Why do they think we're like that?

They do, but also they don't, sort of. This is the stereotype responsible for more confusion between artist and the general public for at least the last few decades, if not more. You see, on TV artists are continually portrayed as being hard up for cash, taking on menial jobs for menial money, and mooching off of the good will of others. But on entertainment talk shows, TV ads, and the tabloids, artists such as actors and musicians are very clearly millionaires with total disregard for the little guy. So I think in this case, this depiction of artists on TV as washed dusted up social leeches is quite cathartic and soothing to the non-artistic viewer. It's their version of getting back at the man, which we get to do all the time as artists, so maybe we should just let them have it.

 But seriously, I'm broke just like those characters you mentioned, how come?

You can't see me doing so, but I've been typing this entire article through the hole in my pocket where the money used to be. Being an artist takes everything you've got--time, effort, drive, and of course, money. I own my own home, and I bet I've still spent more on my music career over the years and will continue to do so. If you're not willing to go broke for your craft, then you simply don't want it enough.

Okay I Admit It, I'm An Artist and I am One of These Cliches...

What do I do about it?

While I could certainly suggest that we all stop falling into the trap of becoming living cartoons, think about what that would actually mean. Artists stick out in an interesting way because we are weirdos, because we don't care what everyone else wants us to be. If Dave Grohl started hosting seminars on real estate, and did public service announcements about paying your taxes on time, would anyone regard him with even a hint of the amount of reverence they do now, as one of rock music's favourite sons?

Dave GrohlCredit: AP/Jack Plunkett, Invision

I doubt it, bro.

All written material copyright c2013 Jonathan Ferguson. Photo credits attached to each image.