Who is an artist? Is an art director at a magazine an artist?
March 17, 2023 9:41 AM   Subscribe

I'm having a conversation with a friend about art, and we disagreed on a point that seemed so obvious to me that I wanted to get some other opinions. Is an art director at a magazine, who works with a team of illustrators and photographers and typesetters to design magazine, an artist?

I believe that yes, the art director is an artist. They are adding creative input to a collective work of art (the design of the magazine). Maybe they're not putting pen to paper or actually clicking the shutter, but if they are influencing the layout, styling, colors, of the final design they're certainly an artist and they are certainly participating in the art-making process.

Like a music producer who maybe didn't write the lyrics or the music, and maybe didn't play an instrument, but guided the process and had some creative input into the resulting arrangement. I would contend that they're an artist and deserve artistic credit for the resulting work.

Would you agree? What is your definition for "artist"? I'm sure this isn't a new conversation, so if you have any book recommendations that go into the philosophy of art I would be interested.
posted by tybstar to Religion & Philosophy (15 answers total)
It's no different from a film director who is an artist by leading a team of other artists to make a collective artistic work.
posted by MythMaker at 9:45 AM on March 17, 2023 [3 favorites]

Best answer: I worked as an Art Director for 20 years. Depending on the position level and the company, that job description can mean about a dozen different things, maybe more.

In the Elden Days, Art Directors, um... directed art. They worked with the designers and the photographers and typesetters and illustrators... often hiring the people that did those jobs. It was a more managerial position that kept styles and brands consistent. They discovered and brought in great new talent and fought for more interesting art & design.

Nowadays (desktop publishing, computer era), Art Directors often do all of the layout and design. They often choose and even buy stock photography (we used to have art buyers). And with all the conveyor-belt puke these days that means "content" in today's social media world... an art director might even be taking the photos themselves... with their phones (!!!). Again, it depends all on the business, the publication, the agency, etc.

Plus, there's associate art directors, art directors, senior art directors, associate creative directors, creative directors, senior creative directors, etc etc etc and those title mean different things at different places.

Sorry for the derail, just wanted to add context. IMO, yes, in most cases the Art Director is a kind of artist. And most of them do some kind of art for fun on the side... photography, drawing, painting, music, etc. That is, if they have ANY time "on the side" after the work is finished (and the work is never finished... they just run out of time, every time, after a freak-out at the 11th Hour).

I'm not an art director any more and I am a happier person.
posted by SoberHighland at 9:58 AM on March 17, 2023 [8 favorites]

I think some (most?) are, but some are not. Some add to the artistic process, but some just curate it or manage it.

What is art? Is it anything done creatively such as a magazine? Would an athlete who makes a creative move to avoid a defender be an artist? Is a computer programmer an artist? Can you create art without being an artist? Once you come up with a definition, it will exclude some that might otherwise fall into the category.

I happen to think, as described, an Art Director at a magazine can consider themselves artists.

Parenthetically, I would never consider myself an artist, but I have definitely created some one-off art.
posted by JohnnyGunn at 10:01 AM on March 17, 2023

Yeah, from my experience in video games, while I haven't met any art directors that weren't artists by training and inclination, their actual jobs did not always involve what I'd consider "art" rather than "project management". I don't know why you'd make the distinction other than to be mildly insulting, though, because they are all artists.
posted by restless_nomad at 10:08 AM on March 17, 2023 [1 favorite]

Best answer: The question of what is art and who is an artist has been debated for centuries. There's no clear cut answer.

Aristotle discussed the question in his Aesthetics.

Nathaniel Hawthorne wrote a short story on the subject, titled The Artist of the Beautiful.

In her book Daniel Deronda, George Eliot includes this exchange between the heroine Gwendolyn and the charismatic composer, Herr Klesmer:
"I thought that you, being an artist, would consider the life one of the most honourable and delightful. And if I can do nothing better? -- I suppose I can put up with the same risks as other people do."

"Do nothing better?" said Klesmer, a little fired. "No, my dear Miss Harleth, you could do nothing better -- neither man nor woman could do anything better -- if you could do what was best or good of its kind. I am not decrying the life of the true artist. I am exalting it. I say, it is out of the reach of any but choice organisations -- natures framed to love perfection and to labour for it; ready, like all true lovers, to endure, to wait, to say, I am not yet worthy, but she -- Art, my mistress -- is worthy, and I will live to merit her. An honourable life? Yes. But the honour comes from the inward vocation and the hard-won achievement: there is no honour in donning the life as a livery."
My personal view is that an Art Director these days is usually a manager and a designer. The Art Director of a theatrical production or movie has more claim to being an artist. And many people who work as designers "make art" on the side, i.e. paint or some such when they aren't at their day job. But is a quilter an artist? A knitter? Someone who posts photos to instagram? There's no clear cut answer.
posted by Winnie the Proust at 10:14 AM on March 17, 2023 [2 favorites]

I don't have any firsthand experience, but I would expect it to be rather difficult to get a job directing artists without having any prior experience in art. So while an art director might not be a present-tense practicing artist, they've almost certainly been an artist at some point in their careers. The music producer analogy is a good one, because even if the producer didn't write the lyrics or music to the particular song they're recording, they've almost certainly written lyrics or music before, and that experience is being brought to bear on the current song. I can't think of any major producer who isn't also a musician (not counting executive producers, of course, which are something else). Firsthand knowledge of music is essential to music production.

(This is, of course, to say nothing about side hustles or moonlighting, hobbies, or any other art they might pursue outside out of work.)
posted by kevinbelt at 10:25 AM on March 17, 2023 [1 favorite]

Hmm, defining what art is, and by extension, what is an "artist" is pretty sticky business.

There's a lot of ways to approach it. I was once the program director for a graphic design program and to keep it simple, I would invite students to think of things this way.

There is this distinction between "Art" and "Craft" that is worth thinking about. These definitions kind of fall apart a bit when you rattle them, but at it's core:
  • An "artist" in theory can be completely selfish and try to express themselves in a particular medium without concern for others.
  • A craftsperson is typically either doing something for hire (making a magazine, building a table) and/or working with others, which may mean compromising a vision.
Like I said, this definition falls apart pretty quickly. What about a painter who accepts a commission, or a playwright who must rely on a theater troupe to fufill her vision?

So, to get a little more philosophical: you could also say the Artist's "job" is to venture into the unknown, to try to tap into the spiritual, and then bring those discoveries back into the real world for others to interpret.

Ultimately, I think these definitions, while useful, are arbitrary. To me, it's really about creativity. Specifically, to what degree is the creator identifying and solving various problems? These problems could be as grand as trying to make a statement on human's relationship with the planet or as limited as "How do I fit this graphic into that box?".

In that definition, most of us are artists at some level, and it's just a matter of how much time one gets to spend in that special space.
posted by jeremias at 10:26 AM on March 17, 2023 [2 favorites]

As someone who believes art is anything done with creativity for the purposes of communicating, sharing or revealing to yourself or others - yes, most anyone can be an artist in most anything they do, even if we often don't choose to be so.
posted by meinvt at 10:54 AM on March 17, 2023 [2 favorites]

I would say that if you're in that position you almost certainly are an artist by dint of your training, skills, and experience - but not necessarily by virtue of the actual job you're doing now, depending on that specific job description/role.

(Having had many years of close-up observation of a music producer in my family, my impulse there is that that's not particularly clear cut either, varying with the producer, the band, and even the song. There were projects on which that person was very much an artist making artistic contributions, and others in which he was a very skilled technician but not particularly an artistic contributor. Any distinction is about what he did on that project, not about the title he had while doing it.)
posted by Stacey at 11:17 AM on March 17, 2023

Would you agree [the art director is an artist]?
Yes, but not necessarily any more so than a lot of other jobs that don't have "art" in the job title.

What is your definition for "artist"?
I guess anyone who does creative things?
But context matters. When I simply say "artist" with no context, I probably mean someone who regularly creates visual works of creativity.
(Excluding writers, musicians, dancers, art directors, etc., even though they definitely are artists.)

Likewise, the word "doctor" alone would typically not be referring to doctors of jurisprudence, pharmacists, PhDs, etc.
posted by kidbritish at 3:58 PM on March 17, 2023

The missing info here is "why do you need to determine whether someone is an artist or not"?

If just for argument's sake, anyone who is thinking creatively to create an end product is an artist.

But is this to see who is up for a specific award or grant or title or claim that needs to know who the artist was on a particular or proposed project, more info is needed.
posted by Unsomnambulist at 4:15 PM on March 17, 2023 [1 favorite]

They're not an artist and they're not making art. They're a designer (or a manager of designers), designing a magazine. My view is that it's art when its primary purpose is to be art. When its primary purpose is utilitarian, it's craft. A magazine's purpose is to communicate writers' ideas or sell ads for felt berets or whatever. An artist can however use the skills of art directing to create a piece of art in the form of a magazine. See: art books.

At the end of the day it doesn't really matter, but I'm a different kind of designer and have never considered what I do to be art.
posted by umwelt at 6:14 PM on March 17, 2023 [1 favorite]

No it’s design.
posted by dame at 3:23 AM on March 18, 2023

The Art Director of a theatrical production or movie has more claim to being an artist.

I do the (independent) theatre version of this, though we'd just call it a director or producer - "art director" seems to be pretty solidly visual-art-related. I would consider people in these roles as artists - it's through this work that we enable art to happen. Getting people and resources together, planning the work, getting the work out there - that all involves some degree of artistic skill, even if it's not the only skill you're using.

It's a very controversial position, mostly because in my context there's a lot of tension between "artist" and "arts administration" and "arts management" as well as an overarching feeling of "managers/bosses are ruining art and don't have artists' interests in mind", without a lot of consideration for people like us who end up having to wear all these hats at once because we're making our own thing with not that much in the way of resources.
posted by creatrixtiara at 7:17 AM on March 18, 2023

You won't get a definitive answer because, as others have said, the art/not-art line is hotly debated, but here's my definitive answer: no, they're absolutely not an artist.

They're doing design. They're managing and directing designers, illustrators, photographers, etc. Sometimes they're being creative. But they're not being an artist. I wouldn't even call all the people they're directing artists - some might be, sometimes.

To me, if they're an artist - as opposed to "just" being creative - the term is being used so broadly as to be meaningless.

(Background: degree in design/illustration, worked briefly as a freelance illustrator, then freelance model maker, occasional actor, now sometimes do web design. The only point I might have called myself an artist is when I was doing illustration and did some off my own back to be exhibited and sold.)
posted by fabius at 5:44 AM on March 19, 2023 [1 favorite]

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