What Is an Artist: Why the Definition Matters

A woman sitting in an artist studio
Who gets to call themselves an artist? Mesut çiçen

The question of how to define art has plagued creatives and philosophers for centuries. Aristotle defined art as a true idea given physical form. Leo Tolstoy called it “a means of union among men, joining them together in the same feelings, and indispensable for the life and progress toward well-being of individuals and of humanity,” and Oscar Wilde identified art as “the most intense mode of individualism the world has known.” It seems we can, individually, define art, but we can’t reach a consensus.

The same issue arises when the goal is to define ‘artist.’ Lots of people want to be viewed as artists, and label themselves such, from tattooists (body artists) to chefs (culinary artists) to, more recently, GPT prompters (A.I. artists). If nailing down the definition of artist is a semantics issue, it’s also one with real-world consequences. In 2023, a Colorado web designer successfully claimed before the U.S. Supreme Court that she was an artist—versus a mere service provider—which meant she was exempt from the state’s public accommodations law and could refuse to create wedding websites for same-sex couples.

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In fact, there are numerous spheres in which defining what an artist is and isn’t is important. There are, for instance, grants and studio or residential spaces set aside exclusively for artists, and the organizations or government agencies overseeing their assignment need to be clear on who is and isn’t an artist. Then there are surveys conducted by economic, social and cultural researchers into artists’ employment, artists’ healthcare coverage and needs, the economic benefits of creative communities and other related inquiries for whom broader definitions of artist create a methodological problem. Without the licenses, permits, state testing or reported income requirements of other professionals, determining who is or isn’t an artist starts to feel like a value judgment.

That said, sometimes proving that someone is an artist is not just about cultural cachet or bragging rights—”official” definitions of artist (of which there are a confusing many) come into play when artists are counted in a census or have to pay their income taxes. In these cases, a self-proclaimed artist might have to meet several criteria dictated by the U.S. government to show that they’re also an artist by trade.

An artist’s job is art. The Bureau of the Census (whose data is used by the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the National Endowment for the Arts and other agencies) makes a broad national survey every ten years, inquiring about sources of paid employment during the census week. People with more than one source of income are counted occupationally in the job at which they worked the greatest number of hours during the census reference week. Because the focus is on paid employment, rather than the amount of time spent in the studio or the desire to sell art, many artists are likely to be overlooked—that is, not counted as artists. On an individual basis, this doesn’t matter as census information is anonymized, and no art dealers will throw artists out of their galleries because the Census Bureau didn’t classify them as artists. There is, however, a national policy downside: municipal, state and federal legislators are less likely to give money to the arts or to create laws that benefit artists if this group is significantly undercounted.

Artists devote time to their art. Although the National Endowment for the Arts makes use of Census Bureau data, the agency has conducted its own surveys of artists in the visual and performance spaces over the years. One of those surveys, “Visual Artists in Four Cities” (Houston, Minneapolis, San Francisco and Washington, D.C.), identified artists by their level of activity, i.e., how many hours per week they spend on art, counting those who had exhibited in some gallery or other art space in those cities over several years.

An artist turns a profit on their art. If the Census Bureau takes a broad, sweeping view of the definition of artist, the Internal Revenue Service takes a narrow one, examining individual taxpayers’ returns, and the federal agency has its own definition of artists as professionals. There are nine criteria that the IRS applies to separate professionals from hobbyists (an important distinction, as professionals may deduct their expenses, hobbyists may not).

  • Is the activity carried on in a businesslike manner?
  • Does the artist intend to make the artistic activity profitable?
  • Does the individual depend in full or in part from income generated by the artistic work?
  • Are business losses to be expected, or are they due to circumstances beyond the artist’s control?
  • Are business plans changed to improve profitability?
  • Does the artist have the knowledge to make the activity profitable?
  • Has the artist been successful in previous professional activities?
  • Does the activity generate a profit in some years and, if so, how much?
  • Will the artist make a profit in the future?

The artist need not answer “yes” to every question to legitimately deduct business-related expenses – including art supplies and equipment, studio rental, travel (mileage, airfare, parking, tolls, meals and lodging), educational expenses (conferences, master classes, museum membership) and the cost of advertising and promotion (business cards, brochures, photography, postage and shipping), but the IRS demands proof that an artist has made a genuine effort to earn a profit in at least three years out of five.

Artistic credentials, which don’t usually matter to collectors, critics, dealers and curators, may also help an artist make a case that he or she is a professional for tax purposes. These include earning a bachelor’s or master’s degree in the fine arts, membership in an artists’ society, experience teaching art, inclusion in Who’s Who in American Art or a similar directory and an exhibition history.

An artist is someone who requires an artist’s studio. Several private and public agencies certify artists’ eligibility to rent or buy live-work loft space apartments that have both residential and studio components. Artist Certification committees are set up to evaluate applicants’ need for space and their qualifications as serious, but not necessarily professional, artists. According to the artist certification guidelines of the Boston Redevelopment Authority in Massachusetts, “Any artist who can demonstrate to a committee of peers that they have a recent body of work as an artist, and who requires loft-style space to support that work, is eligible.” The definition that these committees use is quite flexible, focusing on subjective factors (“…the nature of the commitment of the artist to his or her art form as his or her primary vocation rather than the amount of financial remuneration earned from his or her creative endeavor,” in the words of the Artist Certification Committee of New York City’s Department of Cultural Affairs) rather than a set of hard numbers like exhibitions dates, sales, awards, memberships or commissions, which would disqualify most applicants. There is no written definition of artist at Artspace, the Minnesota-based developer of live-work spaces for artists around the country, and ad hoc certification committees at various sites look at applicants’ work (“they’re not making qualitative judgments, though,” Artspace spokeswoman Sarah Parker told Observer) to gauge the individual’s reputation within the artistic community.

An artist is an “independent contractor.” Artists are generally self-employed, working in their own studios, setting their own hours and creating objects that are of their own design and making, but sometimes they do work for others. For instance, they may serve as a studio assistant, helping another artist with practical matters, or they may be commissioned to produce an artwork, such as a monument, portrait or mural. In these circumstances, the definition of artist matters a lot, principally because of the issue of copyright. Someone who is an employee is paid a salary (and, perhaps, receives benefits, such as health insurance, sick and vacation pay), works certain set hours per week and is given explicit instructions on what tasks to fulfill and how to fulfill them at the employer’s work site, and the output that the individual produces on the job, which could be anything from paintings to sculpture, belongs to the employer. It is not uncommon, however, for artists who hire assistants to get around the need to pay taxes for these employees by calling them independent contractors, potentially giving those assistants a legal basis to be considered joint authors of the artists’ work if they were involved directly with the finished pieces. That joint authorship would be dependent upon the degree to which the assistant could prove that his or her original ideas and decision-making are part of the final work, according to Joshua Kaufman, a Washington, D.C. lawyer who often represents artists.

There have been some lawsuits brought by former assistants against the artists for whom they worked for joint copyright ownership of works, but they have all been settled out of court. However, in 1989, Kaufman successfully argued before the United States Supreme Court the right of sculptor James Earl Reid to claim copyright ownership of a work that a nonprofit group had commissioned him to create.

An artist is someone whom funding agencies call an artist. Public agencies and private organizations also provide money for individual artists, but nary one has published a formal definition of what an artist is. “We put this into the hands of our panel members,” Julie Gordon Dalgleish, former program director for artist fellowships at the Bush Foundation, told Observer. “We exclude certain things,” such as straight journalism, from the literature category and instructional videos from the category of film and video, but “we accepted an application from someone who braids hair. We would look at a tattoo artist if we felt there was a strong vision, creative energy and perseverance.” By we, of course, she meant the panels that review artists’ applications for fellowships to decide who receives money. Panel members regularly debate the question of whether or not a craft artist is an artist—a topic with a decades-long history. More recent concerns involve new media and digital art in two dimensions and three dimensions.

Ultimately, for most purposes, artists are people who call themselves artists. According to Marcel Duchamp, the artist defines art, and it seems increasingly true that nowadays artists also define who and what they are. Definitions by nature are confining and restrictive, while art and its makers seek to be expansive and inclusive. It may be simpler to state what makes an artist a professional than what defines an artist. ‘Artist’ has become a universal label denoting creativity and using it is often a way to shine a light on someone who does something particularly well. Socially, artists are often defined by the positive (freedom-loving, convention-defying) or negative (egotistical, bohemian) characteristics that other people attribute to them. Part of an artist’s job is to understand how artists are seen and what is expected of them, whether that’s by a certification committee that wants to see their body of work, a funding source that wants to understand the artist’s proposal, a dealer who wants to see what they’re capable of or the government, which more often than not, just wants to see the receipts.

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