Am I An Artist or A Maker?

In mid-April, the Boston Globe wrote an article about the interactive creations I built and installed on the Somerville Community Path near its intersection with Cedar St. During my interview, I was a bit uncomfortable when Spencer Buell, the author, and David Ryan, the photographer, referred to me as an artist; but I didn’t want to broach the controversy of an “artist” versus a “maker” during my interview. (note: Kurt Vonnegut on Is it Art or Not?)

I never like being referred to as an “artist”; I much prefer the description “maker.” To me, being an “artist” implies a more exalted status in society, more skilled, more proficient, more creative, than I may rightfully claim. In my opinion, referring to me as an artist is analogous to referring to a medical student using the title “Dr.” when in fact, the student had not received the degree “Doctor of Medicine.”

But maybe Spencer Buell was right; maybe I am an artist and not a maker. Thus began my deep dive into “artist” vs “maker.”

After reading the thoughts of those who have opined on this topic, I have come to believe that there are some differences between artists and makers. However, I see these two designations as the ends of a spectrum, with some creators pinned to either end, while many—perhaps most—dance along the entire spectrum, depending on their extant circumstances.

To explore this topic, I think it is best if I break the process that artists and makers use to create into a few discrete steps:

Step 1: Was there an external precipitant responsible for creating the end-product?

Step 2:  Is the nature of the end-product known before construction/writing/painting began?

Step 3: Are there constraints on the creative process?

•  •  •

Step 1: Was There an External Precipitant Responsible for Creating the End-product? 

The Artist

Some artistic creations begin with a creative idea that spontaneously develops in the artist’s mind that is subsequently brought into our physical world.

Other artistic creations begin with the artist sitting in front of the proverbial blank canvas or sheet of paper, and waiting for the germ of a creative idea to gel in their mind. Then it too is progressively brought into our material world.

In both scenarios, the artist’s creative idea arose spontaneously; the genesis of the creative idea did not necessitate an antecedent external stimulus.

For the artist, creating is much like breathing. Just as breathing simply happens, so too does creativity spontaneously happen to the artist.

The Maker

I need a precipitant to trigger my creative process. This trigger could arrive in the form of  a problem that needs a solution, or an experience that stimulates an idea. While some people consider me to be “creative,” I know that my “creativity” will only blossom in response to an external stimulus.

Makers usually require an external stimulus to prompt them to think creatively. This precipitant might be a result of a commission, or the need to earn money, or an experience that led to a new idea.

In my opinion, the defining characteristic of a maker is that they are not spontaneously creative–makers need an external stimulus to activate their creativity. This is in distinction to artists, who are born with a proclivity to create spontaneously; they do not require a precipitating external stimulus to trigger their creative process.

•  •  •

Step 2: Is the Nature of the End-product Known Before Construction/Writing/Painting Began?

The Artist

In my readings about, and my interaction with, self-described artists, I have learned that many begin constructing their creation long before they consciously understand what they will ultimately create, sometimes this occurs because they are building their end-product before a creative idea has gelled in their mind. The nature of their creative end-product only emerges during the course of its construction.

This is not to say that the artist might not create, say, preliminary drawings, or snippets of a musical score, or chapters of a book, but these preliminary creations may ultimately have a little or no impact on the final creation, or be incorporated into the final product in a way that was not intended when the snippet was first created.

The Maker

Makers, on the other hand, are planners. After the initial creative idea occurs, makers begin devising prototypes and envisaging a step-by-step process they will employ to physicalize their creation. 

While makers will also discard some of the components they had built during the construction of their end-product, it is more likely that a maker’s end-product will significantly reflect the initial drawing/prototype than does the artist’s earliest rendition resemble the artist’s end-product.

•  •  •

Step 3: Are there Constraints on the Creative Process?

The Artist

Artists who create in response to an inner calling have the freedom to use any materials and employ any creative techniques they choose.

Most artists also need not worry that the public will damage their creations, as societal rules dictate that “art” is to be viewed and not touched; thus, the artist does not need to design for robustness.

The Maker

A maker may find that their creative options are restricted, with constraints arising from the realities of the marketplace, the fine print of their contract, a need to comply with the laws of physics, and, for those whose end-product will be touched by the public, a need to incorporate durability into their design.

•  •  •

The Difference Between an Artist and a Maker

I have attempted to demonstrate that there are differences between an artist and a maker, with the ends of the spectrum defined as follows:

A Maker An Artist
Creativity begins as a result of an external stimulus The creative process does not require an external stimulus
Begins creating a pre-defined end-product May begin creating with no knowledge of their end-point
There maybe constraints that limit a maker’s creativity There are no constraints that limit an artist’s creativity

The designation should not be considered a binary choice, it should be viewed as a spectrum.

Nor is the designation invariant in time. One should anticipate that a creator’s location on this spectrum will move as their creative output evolves with time.

Unfortunately, society tends to pigeon-hole creators as either artists or makers, and once such a determination is made, it is unlikely to be revised. Regrettably, this societal failure may detrimentally impact the career opportunities of the creatives.

At this juncture, some critical readers are probably asking themselves “why did the author fail to consider the types of materials used by the creator or the nature or quality of the creator’s end-product in his schema?”

I do not believe that these factors should be considered in my schema as societal acceptance of each of these criteria is highly dependent on the time frame.

Consider van Gogh, Bach, Emily Dickinson, Kafka, Thoreau, Melville – none of these creators were recognized as “great” until well after their deaths. If these variables were included in my schema, then a creator’s designation as a maker or an artist would be dependent on the time at which the designation was made.

For example, if a person is a “dentist” today, then when history looks back on that person a century in the future, the historians should still define that person’s profession as a dentist.

For this reason, I chose to exclude those variables from my schema of distinguishing a maker from an artist.

•  •  •

For the Future

The distinctions between an artist and a maker are not merely semantic – they reflect a difference in motivation, process, societal expectations and accolades. 

If a creator rigidly embraces one identity or the other, that decision may influence their creative career path for the duration of their creative career, for better or worse.

If art-inclined institutions and curators were to acknowledge that both the maker and the artist each provide an equally valuable service to society, and aggressively encourage creators to move seamlessly between these two identities, it might help catalyze innovation within the creative community and be a boon for society.

Today, I consider myself more of a  “maker” than an “artist,” as I satisfy at least two of the three criteria of a maker. As for my future, as a retiree I intend to continue trodding my own path as a maker, for as long as it remains fun. 

Hayward Zwerling

25 April 2024


Addendum 5/12/2024

I recently finished listening to Kurt Vonnegut’s last book TimequakeIn this excerpt from Timequake, he answers the question: Is it Art or Not?

Contemplating a purported work of art is a social activity.[…]

If you really want to know whether your pictures are […] “art or not,” you must display them in a public place somewhere, and see if strangers like to look at them. That is the way the game is played. […] 

People capably of liking some paintings or prints or whatever can rarely do so without knowing something about the artist. Again, the situation is social rather than scientific. Any work of art is half of a conversation between two human beings, and it helps a lot to know who is talking at you. […] If you [the creator of the object] are unwilling to claim credit for your pictures, and to say why you hoped others might find them worth examining, there goes the ball game. Pictures are famous for their humanness, not their pictureness. […] 

There is also the matter of craftsmanship. Real picture-lovers like to play along, so to speak, to look closely at the surfaces, to see how the illusion was created. If you are unwilling to say how you made your pictures, there goes the ball game a second time.

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