“Interdisciplinary art” is a term that can be unclear, even to experienced artists. We may see it on other artists’ web pages, in grant applications, or in job or academic program descriptions, but still be uncertain as to what about the artist or art is “interdisciplinary.” There is some debate over what constitutes interdisciplinary art, but in general, art can be described as interdisciplinary in one of the following three ways.
Artists that work in more than one discipline with a unifying theme or purpose are usually described as interdisciplinary artists.
Sometimes, you will hear artists that produce more than one type of art describe their work as “interdisciplinary.” This can be a bit confusing, as many of us can do more than one thing in the arts. It’s not at all uncommon to meet a painter who also enjoys writing and performing stand up comedy, an actor who can sing, a novelist who can sing and play guitar, or a singer-songwriter who has also written a novel. These people may or may not be interdisciplinary artists.
Anyone who practices more than one type of art is free to call themselves an interdisciplinary artist if they wish, but in general, an interdisciplinary artist is someone whose work in two or or more art forms has a unifying theme or purpose. If I keep writing novels with the goal of providing encouragement, comfort, and insight for people who may be dealing with real-life issues my characters face, and I also start singing covers of favorite songs at open mics, I am not an interdisciplinary artist, because my creative writing and my music would not have a similar theme or purpose. If I learn to write songs, and begin writing and performing original songs featuring the same characters that show up in my novels, then I would be an interdisciplinary artist.
Art work that requires more than one genre to produce can be defined as interdisciplinary, though it is not necessarily categorized that way.
The television show, “Crazy Ex-Girlfriend” blended a traditional television comedy/drama story line with singing and dancing numbers in order to tell the story of the main characters. This is probably the clearest contemporary example of interdisciplinary art. YouTube creators who write and perform skits or engage in storytelling that is enhanced by graphics they design are also interdisciplinary artists. Musicals are another clear example of interdisciplinary arts, as the film or play includes acting, singing, and sometimes dancing in order to produce the work.
Other art forms are not defined as interdisciplinary art by most, though the practice of more than one art form is clearly present. Many contemporary opera singers are also skilled actors, and both study and use acting techniques along with their singing. Rap blends skills in spoken word art and music. Rapping is not singing, and all rappers cannot necessarily sing, but they must have some knowledge of music in order to produce spoken word that goes with music. Someone who places lines of text within a painting or sculpture may consider themselves a painter or sculptor and not a writer, but they must know enough about writing to produce lines that have the desired impact when paired with their visual art work.
Art work that blends art practice with another field is sometimes defined as “interdisciplinary art.”
Defining art as “interdisciplinary” when art is blended with a field outside the arts is probably the biggest gray area here. All art mixes the practice of art with something else. Artists do not live in capsule hotels with no sensory input other than our own art work, and if we did, we would probably start producing works about social isolation or loneliness or the food downstairs in the cafeteria.
Everybody’s art has a purpose and a theme. If you write parodies or comedy sketches, your purpose is to bring laughter to people. If you write horror fiction, your purpose is to allow people to experience frightening things in a safe environment. Anybody whose art career includes teaching is both practicing their art and working in the field of education at the same time.
Art defined as “interdisciplinary” because it blends art with a field outside of the arts or seeks to reach a goal that is often a goal in a different field is typically art produced specifically to be used in that field or to reach that goal. My reason for writing about the topics I choose may be to provide inspiration, comfort, and insight to those who are facing the issues my characters face, but I am a novelist, and my ultimate goal is to produce a novel. If I sat down and said, “I want to teach the public about mental health, so I am going to produce a series of novels that depict mental health issues in a completely realistic manner,” I would be an interdisciplinary artist, blending the fields of psychology and creative writing. Someone who simply enjoys writing soft, mellow songs is not necessarily an interdisciplinary artist, but if they work with a health care provider with the goal of producing music to relax clients or patients, they are blending the disciplines of health care and music.
This practice is often seen in issues of social justice, in which an artist produces paintings, drawings, plays, or other art work intended to inspire awareness and action on a specific issue.
Next time you hear someone described as an interdisciplinary artist, check out their work. And if you discover any opportunities in the arts, and think your work may be defined as interdisciplinary in any of the above ways, do not hesitate to pursue the opportunity. Interdisciplinary art’s definition can stretch beyond even what I’ve described here, and you never know what you might find.