Thursday, September 18, 2008

Does a Painter Paint?

Guest-post from C.Ewing today:

Assuming that we use the simple "a painter is one who paints" definition, which seems passably insufficient, we have to also understand (in order to both comprehend and utilize the term properly) what it means to be "one who paints". One obvious explanation is that you are a painter when you are painting. But this is not consistent with usage at all. When a painter stops painting for the day the painter does not lose the tag painter, and suddenly regain it at a later time when painting is resumed. So that doesn't work for us.

Perhaps, we can say one who paints habitually. It's thus a profession or at least a hobby. But that gets us quickly onto a sliding scale. Just how habitually must the habitual be done in order for it to be habitually done? Once a day? Once a week? Once a month?

What if a person gives up the profession? We could say, "X is a retired painter". But this may indicate that X no longer paints, much in the way a retired factory worker no longer works in a factory. We could also say, "Y used to be a painter but doesn't do it so much anymore". This indicates that the person is no longer a painter due to infrequency, although the action is still performed. But if this seems insufficient I think it's because it is teetering towards another usage, and perhaps therein lies the problem. Painter doesn't just indicate the activity, but rather an identity-quality that we associate with a given person.

If a given person stops selling paintings, and thus retires from the market, we might still call the person a painter if the work is still done. Not a professional, obviously, because the profession has been discarded, but still a painter. But if the person stops altogether, does the painter-identifier linger? It seems like in some cases it might. People are often identified by not only what they do, but what they have done, especially if it endured over many years and/or the person was particularly acknowledged for it.

I'm not sure how to properly divide the terminology from the identity question here. It seems like how we identify the person largely determines how we use the term, and indeed, what the term actually means in a given case.

So, I guess my question remains: does a painter paint?