Here in Washington, D.C., we are all swept up in amazement and wonder with the Redskins’ rookie quarterback, Robert Griffin III. He is as flawless off the field as he is on. It becomes difficult after a while for writers to find new ways to describe how amazing he is, but in yesterday’s Washington Post, Thomas Boswell found a way with his column, “Robert Griffin III: A breathtaking artist who makes fans hold their breath.”
We know that many great athletes are also great artists. We don’t like to talk about it, because every darn thing doesn’t have to be analyzed to death. Sport-as-art is a secret that we fans keep so the wrong people, the ones who can make “serious” art a misery with their pretension, can’t mess up our fun.
I found that opening for a sports column to be fun. I’ve been obsessed with sports my entire life–on my daily commute I listen to sports-talk radio and I TiVo ESPN’s “Pardon the Interruption“–but I hadn’t thought about great athletes as artists before. Perhaps I should have. I’ve spent much of my professional career pondering the question of what makes an artist.
I didn’t name this blog “The Writer’s Road,” although creatively I am, first and foremost, a writer. And when I drove across the U.S. interviewing artists, I defined the term broadly, meeting with painters and photographers and film directors and musicians and sound engineers and songwriters and oral storytellers and actors and, yes, writers and editors.
I will confess, however, that I found the word “artist” limiting at times. Some simply associate that word with, say, painters or photographers; that would more accurately be termed a visual artist. And I have learned that some songwriters don’t like to be called artists. In their world, an artist is the performing artist who records their songs; often the songwriter is not a performer, and may even feel disdain at being lumped with performing artists. After all, only they could have written that song, but any number of artists can perform it.
For a long time I used the word creatives. It’s used by some creativity experts including, if my memory serves me, author Eric Maisel (from whom I blatantly stole the phrase “art-committed life”). In fact, I used that term as recently as October. But while creatives captures the essence of an artist–creativity–it is not a word in common parlance. In a writing workshop last year, many of my fellow MFA students found themselves hung up on my use of the word in the piece I had submitted. Our workshop rules are that you cannot speak while being workshopped–you must wait until the end–so I had to listen to a lengthy debate over what exactly a creative is. When it was time for me to speak, I couldn’t fully define it.
And perhaps I don’t need to. If you are living a creative life–and if you’re reading this blog, I suspect you are or long to–then you should by all means feel free to choose to apply the term “artist” to yourself. I ask of you, however, to not affix “aspiring” as an adjective. I hear from many writers by Twitter and email who thank me for writing this blog, and they sometimes will call themselves an “aspiring” writer. No, I reply, you are not an “aspiring” writer. If you are writing, you are a writer. You may be aspiring to be published, if you’re not already, or be aspiring to improve (aren’t we all aspiring to that), but don’t limit your self-identity with limiting adjectives.
What are the limits to the definition of an artist? Can a talented politician be an artist? A skilled window installer? An experienced auto mechanic? And does it really matter how we define the word?