Online College Courses for Credit

2 Tutorials that teach What is an Artist?
Take your pick:
What is an Artist?

What is an Artist?

Author: Ian McConnell

Understand the identity and role of artists in the context of western art.

See More

Try Sophia’s Art History Course. For Free.

Our self-paced online courses are a great way to save time and money as you earn credits eligible for transfer to many different colleges and universities.*

Begin Free Trial
No credit card required

29 Sophia partners guarantee credit transfer.

311 Institutions have accepted or given pre-approval for credit transfer.

* The American Council on Education's College Credit Recommendation Service (ACE Credit®) has evaluated and recommended college credit for 27 of Sophia’s online courses. Many different colleges and universities consider ACE CREDIT recommendations in determining the applicability to their course and degree programs.


Video Transcription

Download PDF

[MUSIC PLAYING] Hello. I'd like to welcome you to this episode of Exploring Art History with Ian. My name is Ian McConnell, and today's lesson is about defining what an artist is. As you're watching the video, feel free to pause, move forward, or rewind as many times as you feel necessary. As soon as you're ready, we can begin.

Today's objectives, or the things you're going to learn today, are listed below. By the end of the lesson today, you will be able to identify and define today's key terms, describe the difference between an ordinary artist and an artistic genius, and compare and contrast the Western and non-Western roles of the artist. Today's key terms, as always, are listed in yellow throughout the lesson.

The first key term is artist, a person who creates works of aesthetic value. Genius, an exceptionally talented, knowledgeable, or creative person. Oeuvre, an artist's body of work. Aesthetic, concerned with beauty, or the appreciation of beauty. And just on a side note-- sometimes the word aesthetic is also used as a synonym for the word style-- just something to keep in mind.

The big idea, or common thread that runs through this lesson is that the Western, or European concept of an artist is that of a person who produces work of an aesthetic value. What is an artist? Well, by definition, an artist is a person who creates work of aesthetic value. So this introduces some subjectivity, because the idea of beauty itself is subjective. But let's depart a bit from the casual definition of an artist-- like I might consider my daughter to be an artist-- to focus more on the artist as a professional, or individual who looks at the production of art as a discipline, rather than just a casual activity.

Why do we care? Well, it helps us in differentiating between the artist and the non-artist, or sometimes the craftsman, or artisan. We'll talk about those in a bit. And keep in mind that there is an overlap between all of these. Again, these things are subjective, or open to interpretation.

By identifying an artist, we can identify art. An artist produces art. And vice versa, in that we can identify an artist by looking at a piece of art and pulling out characteristics unique to an individual artist. And finally, by connecting the artist and their work, we gain insight into why, or how, or why and how something was created.

For example, why was this created? What does it mean? And how was this painting created? What techniques do the artists use? Are they associated with a certain school of artists? And in the case of the painting on the right, the answer is yes. It's one of my favorite landscape artists, Frederic Church. And he was a member of the Hudson-- Hudson, New York-- Hudson River School.

The path to "genius." When talking about artists, it's important to keep in mind that there is this Western notion of genius, where an artist of extraordinary talent, or touched, as my grandmother would say. But not every artist was a genius. And again, this idea is subject to debate.

Essentially, the labeling of genius is a consensus among the learned scholars of art history. And this eventually seeps into the public consciousness, sort of by osmosis. You can probably identify, without even trying too hard, one or two geniuses off the top of your head. And you may not have that much exposure to art history. But how do they come to that conclusion? How do scholars arrive at that conclusion?

This is a simplified example, as shown below. Maybe oversimplified a bit. But hopefully it helps.

Take an artist like Michelangelo, who is extraordinarily talented, arguably one of the greatest-- if not the greatest-- sculptors of all time. So scholars look upon his body of work, his oeuvre, his collection of masterpieces, his originality. For example, his ability to make the surface of marble appear flesh-like. And they use that in determining that he is, in fact, an artist of tremendous ability.

For example, here's the scene from the Sistine Chapel-- not too bad. And his "David." Again, pretty nice. And the Pieta. These are just some examples from his oeuvre. And then they certify him approved genius. Therefore, the unanimous consensus among scholars is that he is a genius. You would have a hard time, for example, convincing anybody in the field that Michelangelo was a hack.

Up to this point, the conception of the artist has been a very Western conception. In many non-Western cultures, artists don't necessarily exist in the same way as they do in Western cultures. For example, many individuals in Western cultures that we might identify as artists would simply be known as craftsmen or artisans. They produce ceremonial or functional objects.

For example, is a blacksmith an artist? Well the Western conception may be yes, depending on their oeuvre. I think the argument that a sword is a work of art is definitely one worth making. However, the possibility might not even be considered in some Western cultures.

Why do we care? Well, it's important to remember that all definitions are not universal. And it's also important to remember that the artist's role is not universal. It depends as you move from culture to culture.

How do we critique or assess art if we don't know the artist? And the traditional Western approach to art history relies a great deal on knowledge of the artist. But there are ways of circumventing this by looking at other known attributes. Like the regional style, the known religious and social values, and the materials used. For example, without knowing anything about the artist who produced the work of art right, the Egyptian sculpture, we can still tell a great deal about its meaning and function, because so much is known about ancient Egyptian culture.

Let's take a look, again, at our objectives, to see what we learned. Now that you've seen the lesson, are you able to identify and define today's key terms? Describe the difference between an ordinary artist and an artistic genius. And can you briefly compare and contrast the Western and non-Western roles of the artist? The big idea-- the common thread of this lesson, is that the Western, or European concept of an artist is that of a person who produces work of an aesthetic value.

That's it for this lesson. I'd like to thank you for joining me. See you next time.

Terms to Know

Concerned with the beauty or the appreciation of beauty.


A person who creates works of aesthetic value.


An exceptionally talented, knowledgeable, or creative person.


An artist's body of work.