On being an ‘artist’

Every time I have had the privilege of sitting with an artist, be they of the visual, performance or literary fields, I have always been interested in what makes them tick. What does being an artist mean in these contemporary times, where everything seems and sounds formulaic? Does the word still denote some poor, struggling soul, battling the demons of his or her talents, or does it mean something else, something more?

While sitting with a local rap artist the other day, we discussed these very questions. He told me he wanted to make something that was not only meaningful and representative of himself but to those people who found pleasure in his work. How often do those who call themselves artists say this to themselves and actually mean it, I wondered. It seems to me that nowadays the idea of being a brand has far surpassed and indeed displaced that of being an artist. A lot of so-called artists go to great lengths to prove their versatility, trying to be everything at once, oblivious of their failure.

It is therefore unsurprising that one will usually find a musician trying to be an actor or vice versa, a television presenter or, best of all, a DJ trying to be all of the above. Some call this "the hustle" and, while it may very well be just that, in artistic terms it comes across as nothing more than folks playing at being jacks of all trades but masters of none. This is not to say that it is impossible to be good at more than one practice but any dedicated artist will tell you their craft demands nothing but their full attention.

There is certainly an argument to be made that for many who refer to themselves as music artists, it is far easier to go the "self-branding" entertainer route than it is to carve their own path. The reasoning that often accompanies this self-branding, the "everybody is doing it" rhetoric, usually finds much abuse and actually illustrates most that we are dealing with individuals who are not real artists, since they don’t really produce anything of timeless worth, nor seem interested in doing so.

I am reminded of one of one of the master classes that took place during the recent Cape Town International Jazz Festival, where the question of artistic uniqueness was dealt with. The master class – led by Gregory Porter, the humble giant of a man whose exceptional talent as a jazz vocalist and songwriter demands nothing but reverence – was an enlightening one.

Porter’s message was as uncomplicated as his approach to music, and "finding your voice" was his theme. He espoused to the young people in attendance the significance of celebrating their uniqueness and expressing themselves through it. He noted how it was in each person’s nature to invariably want to leave something behind, and that for there to be something unique, where music was concerned at least, a personal imprint was always necessary.

This personal imprint can be anything that makes up a person’s identity: their language, their culture, and even their relationships, explained Porter. But what was certainly the underlying current behind everything, Porter said, was the simple point that as an artist, you ought to know why it is that you do what you do. His words of wisdom, which I wish could be imprinted in the minds of anyone who sees themselves and wishes to be respected as an artist, were this: "When you have talent, keep a healthy ignorance of what you should or should not do."

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Mpho Moshe Matheolane
Mpho Moshe Matheolane is a Motswana from the little town of Mahikeng. He is a budding academic, researcher and writer with interests in art, history, semiotics and law. He sits on the Constitutional Court Artworks Committee – a clear case of serendipity – and is a firm believer in the power of an informed and active citizenry.
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