In a way, we're all String Theorists. / by Naima Lowe

In the last six months or so, I've heard the following phrase several times from several different people, and it has made me thoroughly cranky: "In a way, we're all Artists." Now, all three of you reading know that my art practice features a mix of more rarified, highly skilled pieces and things that explicitly reject the idea of art as something created outside ones everyday existence. The three of you may also know that in the realm of "media arts" I'm thoroughly interested in understanding the impact of various institutional modes of creation and how they shape/are shaped by the creative people around them. As in, I'm just as amazed by YouTube celebrities as I am by Julie Dash as I am by Peter Greenaway as I am by Kara Walker delving into film and video in her recent work.

I'm also invested in debunking the notion of "artist" as a category reserved for cultural elites (I am in this category, so this is a tricky thing to debunk), and those who otherwise have "time to kill" while normal people are stuck getting real jobs. And I'm often exhausted by reminding myself and others that ideas of "good art," bad art," "fine art," "political art," "trained art," "outsider art," "community art," "conceptual art," "craft," etc etc are entirely coded by class, access and cultural hegemony. Each of these modes of cultural production has their own sets of institutional norms and practices, and are impacted by the flow of capital and aesthetic/political position relative to the cultural elite.

And yet, when I hear people say "Well, we're all 'artists' in our way," I get annoyed.

Perhaps I'm overly sensitive because I'm trying to pay off my art school loans on a working artists' salary, (actually, on an art teacher's salary, because most artists actually get to also be at least three other things in order to stay afloat). But the statement "We're All Artists" feels so disingenuous at times, especially when I hear it from people who have well-paying, middle class/upper middle class jobs in specialized fields that require their own type of training and experience. What would happen if I was talking to a civil rights lawyer about their work and said, "Well, we're all Civil Rights Lawyers, in our way, right?" or "We're all Labor Organizers in our way" or what about "We're all Cardiologists, in our way"?

I get that there is artistry and creativity in everything that we do, but I also feel protective of those of us who bust our asses on the daily to operate as artists. In capitalism, most artists are expected/have to more or less give their work away. There are a few who become art stars, receiving critical and financial success within one of the various art markets. But most of us essentially create work in the interest of being able to continue to make more work. Our labor is vastly devalued, regardless of whether we've received specialized training, had lives of privilege, or feel entitled to the word "artist" in the first place. And unfortunately this model is just as prevalent (if not more so) within progressive circles. How many times have we heard people talk smack about the amount that artists charge for their work, or about having "sold out" by getting a contract with a major record label or film studio? Or how often do we, as people interested in social justice, expect our artists to only speak from a very specific polemical political position, or to otherwise justify their existence by the work's ability to be commodified by the movement?

So yeah, it feels like a slap in the face to hear that everyone/anyone gets to be what I've (and many many many others, who have had even fewer tangible markers of success than I have) fought tooth and nail every day to become.

And perhaps I'm overly sensitive because in the interest of making a decent living, I'm using the creativity and artistry of teaching as my main source of actual income, and this work takes up more of my time than I'd like to admit.

So tell me, my three dear readers. Am I just being a snob with a chip on her shoulder, or should I start to find ways to address this issue among my peers?

Yours Truly, Naima