An artist is a person engaged in one or more of any of a broad spectrum of activities related to creating art, practising the arts or demonstrating an art. The common usage in both everyday speech and academic discourse is a practitioner in the visual arts only. The term is often used in the entertainment business, especially in a business context, for musicians and additional performers (less often for actors). "Artiste" (the French for artist) is a variant used in English only in this context. Use of the term to describe writers, for example, is valid, but less common, and mostly restricted to contexts like criticism.

Dictionary definitions

Wiktionary defines the noun 'artist' (Singular: artist; Plural: artists) as follows:

  1. A person who creates art.
  2. A person who makes and creates art as an occupation.
  3. A person who's skilled at a few activity.
  4. A person whose trade or profession requires a knowledge of design, drawing, painting, etc.

The Oxford English Dictionary defines the older broad meanings of the term "artist":

  • A learned person or Master of Arts
  • One who pursues a practical science, traditionally medicine, astrology, alchemy, chemistry
  • A follower of a pursuit in which skill comes by study or practice
  • A follower of a manual art, such as a mechanic
  • One who makes their craft a fine art
  • One who cultivates one of the fine arts – traditionally the arts presided over by the muses

History of the term

The Greek word "techně", often translated as "art," implies mastery of any sort of craft. The adjectival Latin form of the word, "technicus", became the source of the English words technique, technology, technical.

In Greek culture each of the nine Muses oversaw a different field of human creation:

No muse was identified with the visual arts of painting and sculpture. In ancient Greece sculptors and painters were held in low regard, somewhere between freemen and slaves, their work regarded as mere manual labour.

The word art derives from the Latin "ars" (stem art-), which, although literally defined, means "skill method" or "technique", and conveys a connotation of beauty.

During the Middle Ages the word artist already existed in a few countries such as Italy, but the meaning was something resembling craftsman, while the word artesan was still unknown. An artist was someone able to do a work better than others, so the skilled excellency was underlined, rather than the activity field. In this period a few "artisanal" products (such as textiles) were much more precious and expensive than paintings or sculptures.

The first division into major and minor arts dates back at least to the works of Leon Battista Alberti (1404–1472): De re aedificatoria, De statua, De pictura, which focused on the importance of the intellectual skills of the artist rather than the manual skills (even if in additional forms of art there was a project behind).

With the Academies in Europe (second half of sixteenth century) the gap between fine and applied arts was definitely set.

Many contemporary definitions of "artist" and "art" are highly contingent on culture, resisting aesthetic prescription, in much the same way that the features constituting beauty and the beautiful can't be standardised easily without corruption into kitsch.

The present day concept of an 'artist'

Artist is a descriptive term applied to a person who engages in an activity deemed to be an art. An artist additionally might be defined unofficially as "a person who expresses him- or herself through a medium". The word is additionally used in a qualitative sense of, a person creative in, innovative in, or adept at, an artistic practice.

Most often, the term describes those who create within a context of the fine arts or 'high culture', activities such as drawing, painting, sculpture, acting, dancing, writing, filmmaking, new media, photography, and music—people who use imagination, talent, or skill to create works that might be judged to have an aesthetic value. Art historians and critics define artists as those who produce art within a recognised or recognisable discipline. Contrasting terms for highly skilled workers in media in the applied arts or decorative arts include artisan, craftsman, and specialised terms such as potter, goldsmith or glassblower. Fine arts artists such as painters succeeded in the Renaissance in raising their status, formerly similar to these workers, to a decisively higher level, but in the twentieth century the distinction became rather less relevant.

The term might additionally be used loosely or metaphorically to denote highly skilled people in any non-"art" activities, as well— law, medicine, mechanics, or mathematics, for example.

Often, discussions on the subject focus on the differences among "artist" and "technician", "entertainer" and "artisan", "fine art" and "applied art", or what constitutes art and what does not. The French word artiste (which in French, simply means "artist") has been imported into the English language where it means a performer (frequently in Music Hall or Vaudeville). Use of the word "artiste" can additionally be a pejorative term.

The English word 'artiste' has thus a narrower range of meaning than the word 'artiste' in French.

In Living with Art, Mark Getlein proposes six activities, services or functions of contemporary artists:

  1. Create places for a few human purpose.
  2. Create extraordinary versions of ordinary objects.
  3. Record and commemorate.
  4. Give tangible form to the unknown.
  5. Give tangible form to feelings.
  6. Refresh our vision and help see the world in new ways.

After looking at years of data on arts school graduates as well as policies & programme outcomes regarding artists, arts, & culture, Elizabeth Lingo and Steven Tepper propose the divide between "arts for art's sake" artists and commercially successful artists isn't as wide as might be perceived, and that "this bifurcation between the commercial and the noncommercial, the excellent and the base, the elite and the popular, is increasingly breaking down" (Eikhof & Haunschild, 2007). Lingo and Tepper point out:

  1. arts consumers don't restrict themselves to either "high" or "common" arts; instead, they demonstrate "omnivorous tastes, liking both reggae and Rachmaninoff" (Peterson & Kern, 1996; Walker & Scott-Melnyk, 2002)
  2. data indicates "artists are willing to move across sectors and no longer see working outside the commercial sector as a badge of distinction or authenticity" (Bridgstock, 2013; Ellmeier, 2003)
  3. academic, policy, and government leaders are adapting—widening—programs & opportunities in recognition of "the role of artists as drivers of economic growth and innovation" (Bohm & Land, 2009; DCMS, 2006, 2008; Florida, 2012; Hesmondhalgh & Baker, 2010; Lloyd, 2010; Iyengar, 2013).
  4. arts graduates name "business and management skills" as the "number one area [they] wish they had been more exposed to in college" (Strategic National Arts Alumni Project [SNAAP], 2011; Tepper & Kuh, 2010).

Examples of art and artists