“What Kind Of Art Do You Make?”: Defining Your Discipline

“I hear you’re an artist. What kind of art do you make?”

Depending on the type of work that you make, this could be one of the most awkward introductions you might face. The lines between art fields can get pretty blurry sometimes. More often than not, the person asking is really looking for a term that they know: painter, sculptor, drawer, graphic artist, etc. But what if you do several of them? How do you answer then?

In this entry, I’ll discuss the differences between a few artist classifications. I’ve also designed set of informative graphics that explains their differences by using funny food analogies. Check out the different classifications. Which one describes you?

download infographicexplaining_interdisc_small

There are key differences when discussing the many fields of research in art (aka ‘disciplines’).  You may have heard terms such as multidisciplinary, mixed-media, and interdisciplinary. Among others. As you can probably guess, multidisciplinary means multiple disciplines. But what about interdisciplinary or the far more mythical sounding transdisciplinary artwork?

If you’re confused, don’t worry. There are discrepancies defining these phrases even among those of whom practice them. That’s because these fields are relatively new in the larger scope of art-making. The best way I’ve found to explain these differences is to break down the words into bite-sized bits of information. Though I’ve taken considerable measures to cross-reference my definitions, they can be argued if one was to feel so inclined. As with most contemporary art perimeters. 

Keep in mind that these terms are being generalized and are used to explain a wide range of art starting from the approachable world of painting to the very complicated boundaries that make up the world of installation art. In addition, each category has its merit and placement in the art community. No one category is better than another as a whole. Another thing to remember is that the included diagrams measure each category against the full range of disciplines; from one field to many fields blended together.

explaining_interdisc_11. Single (mono)Disciplinary Artist

  • Naturally, an artist who specializes in a single discipline doesn’t go around suggesting that they’re monodisciplinary. Instead they just state their discipline as their classification. A painter is a painter, a sculptor is a sculptor, etc. This type of artist is specialized in a given field and generally spends a great deal of time researching that area and the materials belonging to that area. The diversity of research into other fields of expertise is  fairly limited, but that’s ok. There’s a lot to be said for spending a lifetime perfecting a specialized skill.

Pro Tip: Let’s say your main focus is sculpture, but you occasionally dabble in painting. Save confusion by just saying you’re a sculptor and see where the conversation leads. Dabbling doesn’t show enough of a significant prowess in other fields to merit the possible uncertainty caused by over-explaining at the very beginning of a conversation. It does however mean that you have a healthy amount of interest that can be expressed if/when the time comes. Let the conversation develop naturally around the one field before describing that ‘painting you did that one time’.



explaining_interdisc_22. Mixed-Media Artist

  • A mixed-media artist mixes several medium together to make a piece of art within a single slightly hybridized field. Example: photo collage  that has been drawn/painted on. This is still considered a 2-D work similar to a painting, but made out of a mixed selection of media. The skill level can be high, but depth of research into each medium process isn’t necessarily deep  in comparison to other multi-medium fields.





explaining_interdisc_33. Multidisciplinary Artist

  • By definition, multiple disciplines. Often interchanged with multimedia artist (varies as to if this is a proper interchange), this area of expertise has begun to blend several disciplines together to form an altogether new field. A multidisciplinary artist has a wide knowledge-base that is deeply invested in range of materials, how those materials are used together, and the processes inherent to those materials. There’s a fairly diverse set of research backing material as well. Many contemporary artists fall into this category. This category encompasses much of the work that isn’t easily contained by the normal categories of art-making.



explaining_interdisc_44. Interdisciplinary Artist

  • ‘Inter’ as a prefix means ‘together’ or ‘mutual’. In other words, varied disciplines working together mutually. This is wider and more thorough blending of concept, philosophy, process, tools, and more. By this point, dabbling is a thing of the distant past. A person or a team of people who are interdisciplinary use a skilled philosophy or knowledge from several fields to solve problems that are outside the scope of the traditional boundaries. Other academic and practical fields are often used as sources of influence. 





explaining_interdisc_55. Trans-Disciplinary

  • I hesitate to even add “Artist” at the end of this title, as it is more-or-less defined by the transcendence of disciplines. In other words, the boundaries that make trans-disciplinary research are so blurred that one actually can’t be described as belonging to only one field. They are as much an artist as a scientist or a builder or any other specific field. This mode is one that glorifies a holistic approach over a singular approach. TED conferences are a great example of trans-disciplinary thinking. A person or group of people  can be specialists in their field, but mold together as a collective to poll processes and philosophies to solve complex issues. The driving force behind this model of thinking is that some concepts or problems simply can’t be solved by singular means.



Naturally, each of these disciplinary descriptions are somewhat liquid in their nitty-gritty specifics. This is to be expected when using terms and phrases that describe something that is inherently difficult to categorize. With each passing day there are new combinations of art that require new combinations of words to describe them. And you know what?— that is a good thing!

download infographicexplaining_interdisc_small

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13 thoughts on ““What Kind Of Art Do You Make?”: Defining Your Discipline

  1. Does “multidisciplinary”
    -require that different disciplines combine to form 1 work as in your moving sculpture explanation above “learned and then incorporated several fields of knowledge so they can get to that end goal”

    and/or

    -describe a jack -of-all-trades artist who maintains a portfolio in varied disciplines (photographer, sculptor/potter, painter, illustrator) and presents each separately. Or is this person ‘just an artist’?

    1. Christina,
      You’ve asked a really intriguing question, one that seems to get at the heart of many artist’s concerns.

      “When can a person call themselves multidisciplinary rather than a jack-of-all-trades; is it necessary to fit a mold first?”

      In many ways, this has the same line of inquiry as, “When can a person call themselves an artist rather than just someone who creates art as a hobby; is it necessary to fit a mold first?”

      

The simple answer is you can really call yourself whatever you want, whenever you want. An artist’s title is a personal distinction. However, adding a clarifying adjective (multidisciplinary or any others) is a request that you will be measured against other people claiming to be in that category. As in any career, the need to clarify more specific niches within an occupation tends to happen when a person has gained a speciality. For example: a cardiac surgeon is a surgeon with an additional speciality regarding the cardiovascular system. Same too goes for the artist. A multidisciplinary artist should have a set of specialities throughout several disciplines. They are additive.

      

In addition, you made a particularly great point by asking about the distinction between discussing an artist as a whole and/or discussing a single piece of artwork. An artist could be multidisciplinary as a whole, but that doesn’t necessarily mean that each and every piece that artist makes MUST follow that defining title. Based on your description of a separated portfolio, and without knowing much about your individual work, I’d say that you could comfortably call yourself multidisciplinary. But this really depends on if you feel you have a speciality in those many fields or if you just dabble. That is a conclusion that you can glean from a few portfolio reviews, personal investigation, and/or professional comparisons.

      These guidelines are a conglomeration of research into how those lines are defined in art as well with in many other areas of profession. In the case of multidisciplinary artists, they draw on the knowledge gained from different disciplines while still staying more or less within their boundaries. Much like the portfolio example you used. It’s adding disciplines into your artistic tool-belt. The distinction between multi-*, inter-*, and trans-* are made by the amount of involvement of the multiple specialities. Using the big lens to view the artist as a whole, the multidisciplinary artist stock piles disciplines (additive), interdisciplinary artists blend disciplines (mutually integrative/interactive), and transdisciplinary artists transcend all disciplinary titles (holistic). They are not interchangeable titles as they require more and more involvement between specialities respectively.

  2. I am very confused, my artistic practice is not driven by discipline, it is driven by exploration. Developing practice that helps to negate prescriptive thinking to allow the participant to create art from a less judgemental space and then I use this art as a form of commentary of social conscience. discipline is chosen according to need but I don’t know where I fit in the spectrum of the arts. as my practice explores the impact of western ideologies through any given discipline? how do I describe where I belong as whatever I research it all seems so long winded and my practice sits on the boundaries of so many movements.

    1. Hi Wendy,
      Your question: “How do I describe where I belong—as whatever I research— [without sounding so long-winded]?”…

      It’s a good question, but with phrases like ‘negate prescriptive thinking’ & ‘less judgmental space’ I feel like how you’re phrasing your comments already showcase a bit of defensiveness & judgement yourself. Let’s start off by saying that we are all on a unique journey and we all individually write the roadmaps. Naturally, this means there’s no all-encompassing phrase that can (or should) define us 100% as an artist. By no means should you feel like you’re being subjected to some sort of mandatory label. This blog, and the time I take to write comments, are intended to help. Not confine. This is a blog that merely suggests ways to explain to yourself and to others what sort of work you make so that it isn’t so long winded when the time comes. Surely, as this post can attest, spelling out the nitty-gritty usually means overly explaining things in a way that works out the kinks before a normal interaction with the general public. I’d also argue that discipline isn’t so simply chosen by need. Reasons would suggest that a person should hopefully want to explore in areas they are interested in. Those explorations *could* lend themselves to the start of a discipline if the artist so chooses. But it’s not mandatory.

      Exploration is an important key to the growth of an artist. If you’re a person who doesn’t feel the need to fully embody the whole of a specific discipline, that’s completely within your rights as an artist. And there’s a category listed that suits that sort of description (if you so choose to want that description as part of who you are). I completely understand the ‘explore’ aspect of growth, as it’s my primary force as well. A multidisciplinary artist explores the possibilities within several areas without feeling the want to dig in elbow deep to the academia or the full integration of the specifics of that field. I spell this out a bit more in the comment listed below from July 13th, 2016. You should check it out if you want.

      Maybe you feel that the post script *disciplinary is a bit too formal for your tastes. That’s ok. Remember, this blog post was intended for many people who are searching guidance for a vast array of reasons. Might I suggest coining your own term or your own title? Exploratory artist, Poly-experience artist, Exploration Artist, etc. The goal is still the same: to show a small window into who you are as an artist in the beginning moments of a conversation. If that window leads into more conversation, find ways to feel comfortable with this being a positive thing. I encourage you to also look at my post, “7 Tips For Approaching Artwork”, http://wp.me/p3KTKs-ie. Like many things, these tips can be applied to other things not just approaching artwork. For example, approaching your own prescriptive thinking towards other artists.

  3. I still don’t get get the difference between multi- and interdisciplinary. I just can’t snap it, even the synonyms to each term are the same. :-\ Halp

    1. Alrighty… I’m here to help.=) I think it’s important enough of a discussion that I think I’ll create a whole series of these explanations. So look for those in the future.

      You’re certainly not alone on this. It is understandably hard to nail down a definitive boundary, especially within the arts. Also, these terms are by their nature in contrast to the normal modes of thinking. Also, these occupational titles are relatively new in the art world, in contrast to their common usage in other fields. I’ll try my best to help out.

      Every time you see the suffix ‘disciplinary’, mentally switch it for ‘ways of thinking’.

      Multidisciplinary = multiple ways of thinking

      Interdisciplinary = mutual ways of thinking

      Transdisciplinary = transcends ways of thinking

      To expand on that:

      Multidisciplinary — Using many disciplines to investigate how to tackle an end goal.
      Artist Example: A sculptor wants to build an interactive project = they learn how to weld, basic electronics, and hone their building skills to tackle this project. An individual end goal is the starting point from which they apply multiple ways of thinking. They build an interactive sculpture. They have learned and then incorporated several fields of knowledge so they can get to that end goal.

      Interdisciplinary — A hybrid title that happens when two or more disciplines and their philosophies intersect. We are more familiar with regular life examples like: biologist + chemist = biochemist. This is a set of skills that is built upon a coherent understanding of both the philosophies and practices in whole fields of expertise. Those ideas are then employed throughout the problem solving process. This is a methodological identity that encourages deeper cohesion between fields.

      Artist Example: A sculptor + engineer = interactive art and tech artist
      Over many years a sculptor has studied welding, electrical engineering, and mechanical engineering. They have backgrounds both in practice and philosophy that governs their choices. Conscious of proper engineering regulations, processes, and academic artistic philosophies, they build an interactive sculpture that integrates those knowledge bases throughout.

      Hopefully this helps! Thanks for the question.

      1. nice.. this particular explanation – “ways of thinking” cleared everything on the disciplinary concept. thank you

  4. Reblogged this on ARTWORK CUBED and commented:
    Good summary of difficult to define categories. I think I fall somewhere between Mixed-Media leaning toward Multidisciplinary and dreaming of being Interdisciplinary by definition!

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