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26th Jun 2009

What is the Job of the Artist?

The essential and original job of an artist is one of the most important in the world. Our job is to lead and heal by inspiration.

But what does that entail?

Today we call the earliest tribal artists shaman. The original shamans were men and women who basically led their tribes, while the chiefs were more managers who headed up hunting, coordinated the tribe’s moves and led any war parties or defenses.

Thus the original leaders, the ones who had or encouraged inspirational ideas in the sciences, arts, human relations and spirituality, were the artists.

The artists were also the original news reporters, what is now known as the fourth estate. This made them early historians they spread the news of their tribe or civilization’s loves, battles, relationship to the divine, etc. via, cave walls, pottery, sculpture, hymns, chants, minstrel songs, stories and plays, which we have today.

Thus artists inspire and lead through communication.

Artists inspire us to see, hear, feel and think about ourselves and our world in new ways. Real art, great art is transformative, even peacefully revolutionary.

This is very different from craftspeople who make useful things, which can be very beautiful that can be much admired and cherished. When an object’s inspirational value surpasses it’s usefulness it is art. No one would use van Gogh’s Starry Night as a floor cloth rug or the Venus de Milo as a hat rack.

Sixty percent of the average human brain is dedicated to the perception of vision. It is our dominant sense by far. This means that visual artists can more readily inspire and influence their community.

Government leaders (the chiefs), have recognized this and used it since, well… recorded history, which means the earliest visual art that we have found! For example, every president of the USA has an official portrait. Not one president has an official song, food (taste), flower or herb (scent) or any kind of texture. The USA has a national anthem and a few patriotic songs, but those are by far outnumbered by our visual symbols that include the flag, the Statue of Liberty, the White House, the Capital building, a bald eagle, the Liberty Bell, Uncle Sam, etc.

Throughout history management and leadership have been confused or intertwined. Leaders inspire and managers help carry out that inspiration in practical ways. Historically, the greatest artists of a period are often found where the greatest political power and wealth resides, however this coincidence is not always due to artists being drawn to their most likely source of income. It is a question of which came first the chicken or the egg.

Most inspirational people have more than one talent. One of the great examples of a leader (writer-orator) is Winston Churchill who was also a fine painter. As a manager, Churchill basically initially proved himself to be a failure. As an inspirational leader who had a team of managers he was a great success.

Inspirational leaders are revealed by those they inspire. Vincent van Gogh’s work does not reveal he is a great artist any more than the opinions of curators or art historians do. What proves van Gogh’s visual leadership are the people who say his work inspires them who continue to attend exhibits so they can see—and see more of it, plus the artists whose work has been inspired to another level of achievement, such as the Expressionists.

Artists are discoverers. Any artist claiming to be exploring something is, at best, in a formational stage. Artists who inspire others have explored—but then made a discovery worth sharing through their art. Columbus , Magellan, or Newton and Einstein are not recognized for being explorers in their fields but discoverers. In fine art, the same can be said for Da Vinci, Rembrandt, Pissaro, Van Gogh, Picasso and Warhol, plus many others.


Artists may use tools to make their artworks but neither the use of specialized tools nor producing what we call works of art prove that a person is an artist rather that a crafts person or entertainer. Using a sculptor’s chisel, a #2 paintbrush, a violin or PC keyboard does not prove one is an artist any more than using a wrench makes a person a plumber or mechanic. Can the artist use the tool to create something that inspires us to a new understanding and possibly action?

Psalm 113 (Vincent van Gogh) by Judy Rey Wasserman

Greek mythology likened the artist to someone who brings the fire down from the mountain of the Gods. Talent, training, technique, and even good connections can help and artist, but people recognize when inspiration is lacking. Eventually people admit that they cannot really see the Emperor’s New Clothes.

The job of the artist is to lead through inspiration, sharing a transformative new and unique (discovered) way of perceiving ourselves and our world. When we truly connect with an inspiring work of art, we know it because we remember it the rest of our lives.

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Judy Rey Wasserman is an artist and the founder of Post Conceptual Art theory and also the branch known as UnGraven Image Art. Download a free copy click: Manifesto of Post Conceptual Art– A Painting’s Meaning is Inherent in its Stroke.
Check out the limited and open edition prints in the estore.
Follow her on Twitter at @judyrey .]

3 Responses to “What is the Job of the Artist?”

  1. Anna Says:

    Thank you for an interesting article – leadership and management are indeed very different things!

    There is one thing I would like to comment on — although 60% of our ‘brain’ is devoted to visual processing, this doesn’t account for the rest of the nervous system — vast neural networks from the spine on down through the gut and beyond. I find it fascinating that ‘traditional’ cultures who have not been permeated by visual media often have a different sensory bias – mostly I’m thinking music that impacts on a somatic level. Traditional drumming and dance in many cultures engages the entire physical body on a level that both inspires and evokes the divine force within; various forms of toning, throat singing, and other esoteric forms of vocal expression can also provoke altered states of consciousness in participants. This to me is an example of the artist truly embracing the human form itself as an instrument of divine expression. When one experiences the divine on an experiential level of feeling, it can be profoundly impactful in a way that a mediated visual experience can never quite reach.

    I think it’s an interesting comment on our mediated culture that our assessment of art is so heavily biased towards visual expression. We are so afraid of feeling, of truly embracing our divine nature; we content ourselves, oftem quite passively, with brief glimpses and snatches of resonance mediated through the eyes of our few artists.

    Even more telling, we tend to characterize such indigenous musical forms as primitive or unsophisticated, when in fact, what they encourage in these cultures is the acknowledgement and embracement of the truth that we are ALL creators.

  2. Stephen Tiano Says:

    Interesting read. I’ve always thought that the function of art, and therefore the artist’s job, is to make people nervous. To agitate, to instigate the kind of thinking that’s like an itch that’s difficult to scratch.

    Certainly stand-up comedians and rock musicians can be seen to have such an effect. Even to the point of making older folks or those with calcified thinking angry.

    And getting nervous, of course, is a precursor (I’ve always thought, anyway) to setting out to do “the next thing.”

  3. doorbell buttons Says:

    Do you not think it might be smart to consider carefully about this? That is not saying you are incorrect, but when you say things similar to this, it should piss off some folks. And I wonder if you’ve given thought to the opposite side of your argument.

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