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The Name Game
Yesterday, an artist friend of mine made the comment: "What we need is another word to either describe those of us who work with paint and/or drawing materials--or another word to take the place of artist, which I've always thought should be reserved for those who produce works of exceptional quality or merit, as it does when used to describe that of a musician, author, chef, wood worker etc." Hmmmm...nice trick if you can do it. I've always been under the impression that the quality or merit was expressed in number, not words--numbers on price tags or statistics known as sales figures. But then I guess hype and hyperbole (both involving words, by the way) have a lot to do with those numbers, so maybe not.

Technically and generically, an artist is anyone who produces art. So the definition doesn't so much revolve around the word "artist" as around the definition of the term "art," and we all know where that road leads (in circles usually). As in any type jargon, there are general terms, such as artist, and then as one moves deeper into the field, gradually more and more specific words and phrases, such as "painter." From there we move in one of three directions, either in defining the medium, as in "watercolourist;" or toward subject matter such as "landscapist;" or we begin to talk about style, such as "impressionist." And of course, even here there are often no common single words for some kinds of painting such as "portraitist," or "still-lifer" or "abstractor." So this is where we get hit by modifiers all over the place--oil, portrait painter. Add to that differentiations in terms of style and you have realistic, oil, portrait painter.

Our search for specific, one-word labels is only natural. It is a search for simplification, not for our own use as artists so much, but as shorthand for public consumption in place of long, technical phrases such as "Abstract Expressionist, oil painter." It's not necessarily a fruitless or even pretentious search, but it is a long shot. For a new term to enter general usage takes either a great deal of time and effort on someone's part, or an overwhelming need for such a term as in "Internet." Personally, I've got better things to do than even worry about such things, much less make any effort to change people's use of the language. I'm just satisfied to be a picture painter.

Contributed by Lane, Jim
7 June 1999


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