uh-oh – Seth Godin is flatter marketing with the word “art”

I have been wanting to rant about this for a little while – as I am sure many in the arts and culture industry have – and finally seeing business author Seth Godin’s post today has inspired me to state for the interweb record that no, making something well and being clever about it DOES NOT make you an artist.

I model much of my own arts and culture marketing after Seth Godin and his vaunted teachings. He’s a marketing thought giant and well worth subscribing to. Now I understand that he has a new book, and a key part of this book is throwing the term “artist” loosely about to probably appeal to  fragile and vain egos of people in the marketing and business industry who desperately need to hear this kind of thing.  Seth sees an opportunity and develops it – I respect and admire that because that is the fundamental lesson in his  business teachings. However, this does not mean I, as a real artist, have to like this.

Art as a tired old cliché for every non-artist out there

Here is Seth’s definition of art:

“My definition of art contains three elements:

  1. Art is made by a human being.
  2. Art is created to have an impact, to change someone else.
  3. Art is a gift. You can sell the souvenir, the canvas, the recording… but the idea itself is free, and the generosity is a critical part of making art.

By my definition, most art has nothing to do with oil paint or marble. Art is what we’re doing when we do our best work”

So, with all due respect and with humour, Seth’s definition of art contains three elements:

1. That as a human being, you can make “art” by doing whatever you are doing if you just try harder. (Whatever it take to feel special, I guess)
2. There are no such things as a happy accident, experimental research or exploring process – it’s about contriving messages, short-term value and designing to reach the most people possible (Sounds like advertising, not art, to me. )
3.  That art is has more in common with a motivation poster of some mountain climber with the words “Art is what we’re doing when we do our best work”.

Why do people feel so liberated to slap the “art” and “artist” on anything with the slightest of justifications?

There are some theories about this that I have heard over the years, and I will paraphrase them for you below:

a) Everyone did art in Kindergarten, and still many years later feel they are perfectly capable of telling you what art is and how is should be done. “Fill in all the white spaces on the paper with your paint, but keep your mess inside the designed creative space” is a common attitude amongst this crowd, who oddly never to go to a gallery outside a shopping mall or are on the Board of Directors of some arts organisation because they are business leaders and claim they know what art is and how it should be done. They have most likely also read Seth’s new book.

b) If someone hears bad music, they would still consider the people who played it a musician. It is still music. If you read a bad book, it is still a book. If you see bad theatre, it is still theatre (sorry, “theater”). However, if you see bad art people generally have no issues claiming that it is not art and that the person who made it is not an artist. One explanation for this is because it is the only art form you can actually touch, and imagine making it, therefore does not have the aura and mystique that it used to have. Another reason there is a general distrust about art in North America is because anybody feels free to use the word art to any thing or activity they like ( drilling wells is an art …. the art of selling cars…. the art of flattering someone into buying your book ) – I would be confused and mistrustful as well.

c) The rise of  Photography – photographs replaced much of what drawing, etching and painting server for. There are artists who work with lens, and that is very cool, but there are hundreds of millions of people out there who think that by pointing and clicking at something obvious, you are something special. There is no other medium in history that has so many people using it with so little art actually being made.

d) “Art” is a huuuuuuuuuuuuuge word. We could be talking about completely different things, and we probably are when we are reduced to the stunningly cliché riddled and redundant exercise of discussing “What it art?”.

Art is a special and élite area. So is being a NASA astronaut, a Math Professor or a wedding cake maker but that does not make these people artists. And a formally trained and educated artist can do and think about things that the vast, majority of people out there cannot do – no matter how hard you make a power-point presentation or plan a product launch.

Think about it this way – I believe that any artist can get into a business or arts program, or even an engineering program if they try hard enough. Isn’t that what those motivational posters tell us? Conversely, there are only a few people who are able to get into a Fine Arts studio program. The difference? They have a talent, and not because they are good at listening to a client and trying really hard. You don’t have to go to school to be an artist – go pick up some supplies at your local art store – but you won’t be making any art that I like for a long time, naturally enough and as it should be. So do it for yourself and don’t worry about buying a book or going to school. But if you are serious, skip the book on sale in the self-help section and go straight to classes somewhere.

Bonus knowledge: The great thing about art is all you have to do to develop an appreciation of art is to go see some. It’s not generally brought to be people in their homes, so the trouble is actually getting out to see it. But if you go to a gallery once a week, or once a month, or for most (especially in Canada) then once a year would be great. Just … look at it. No one is judging you. Just …look. Again and again and again. You’ll be surprised what you learn about yourself.

If not the term “art” then what!?

“Master” is a nice one. I would love to become a master in anything I do – and they exist in virtually every field.  A master gardener or a master marketer. A martial arts master. A master artist. A master craftsman.

“Craft” – what’s wrong with this word? Why is no one satisfied with “crafting” something – perhaps it is too closely associated with “crafty”. Kinda like marketers are when they tell you that you are an artist.

Other professional designations shamelessly pillaged

1. Architect – real architects take many, many years of study and work and it is very expensive. Or you could take an IT course for a 6 months and slap “Information Architect” on your resume.
2. Engineer – same diff for another profession that is elite. Long and difficult road and many cannot complete it. A sound engineer is something based on hard-wired talent, so I am talking directly to the companies advertising for “customer service experience engineers”.  Oh, the hubris.
3.  Web Designer who claim to be programmers – being a programmer is something I respect greatly actually, and I do not pretend to be one though I do develop websites and work with code. But HTML is not programming – it’s a mark-up language. A programmer can create programs and applications from scratch, and probably fix them too.

I also respect project managers, coaches and therapists who work hard to achieve their designation but see the worth of that “brand” diluted by many people using those titles freely.

Final word to Seth

I studied art for many, many years and you sir are no artist. How would you like it if I decided that I will designate anybody who, oh I don’t know, opens an Ebay account as a “Seth Godin” – hello, you a real Seth Godin today! Please hire me, I am a very good Seth Godin. Today, I present all of you with a certificate of Seth Godinlessness – feel free to put that on your resume.

Anybody can be a Seth Godin if they try really hard and read my blog. Because it does not matter who Seth Godin really is or what he had to do to get there, it only matters what I designate it to mean for my own purposes.

Or do you find that a bit disrespectful? I certainly hope so as I do.

Please I mean no disrespect as I am trying to emphasize a point … Master.


  1. Pingback: Gimmicks and Gadgets « Rick Carroll's Photography
  2. Seth Godin · April 26, 2010

    Semantic arguments should never be the basis for snark. I’m sure your work reflects your training and insight and effort, and if my use of a three letter word offended you, my apologies.

    Lewis Hyde’s book the gift is highly recommended.


    • artlistpro · May 27, 2010

      Your book “The Dip” inspired me to make this niche blog about contemporary art and marketing for my professional community. Most of my posts are tongue-in-cheek humour touching on issues and trends for my subset, and sometimes I get a wee bit caustic so apologies right back at ya.

      Your response had me thinking, so I am pleased to be hosting a Linchpin meetup for my community here. Cheers!

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