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In English, the relationship between "artist" and "actor" is fairly straightforward: an artist is someone involved in some form of creative art, whereas an actor is involved in acting, which is one form of creative art but not the only one.

However, the Russian word "артист" seems to be a lot more narrow than the English word "artist" - my beginner's handout just translates "артист" as "actor", and "артистка" as actress, most of the google image search matches for артистка are for actors, and the English edition of Wiktionary has "artist, actor, performer".

What's the difference between an "артист" and "актёр"?

  • Your assumption at the beginning was true. Something went wrong in your further research. It would have been better to look at the context which has lead you to your question. – Avtokod Feb 6 '17 at 13:17
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An артист is whoever appears in front of a live audience: singer, musician, stage actor, or circus performer. It's uncommon to use the word to refer to screen actors (or, for people who combine theatre and film work, to use it when specifically discussing their film career).

So we can say that a subset of актёр is also a subset of артист, the latter being a much larger set.

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  • Just a side note. Do you remember, in the first half of the 20th century Soviet movies in the cast list they often wrote арт. (short for "артист") before the names of the actors who played the roles? It seems like the meaning of the word had shifted since those times. And still earlier it could also mean "painter". Ushakov mentions that. – Yellow Sky Feb 6 '17 at 18:40
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Артист is a trade, someone who acts or performs for a living. In wider meaning, it's anyone capable of good acting, has an acting talent. The main difference from the English "artist" is that the Russian term implies live performance, so it's not applicable to, say, a painter, architect or a fashion designer.

Актёр is anyone who is acting in a movie or on the stage (but not a musician, magician or the like, so it's closer to English "actor"). If a person is acting badly in their kid's school play for the only reason it's their turn to act, they are актёр but hardly артист.

Feminine form, though, is almost always актриса in both senses, except in set phrases like народная артистка

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  • @Artemix: what about it? – Quassnoi Feb 10 '17 at 16:08
  • Oh, I read "almost always актриса" as "always актриса", so it was an example of "not always". – Artemix Feb 10 '17 at 16:09
  • Is "Популярная артистка Бритни Спирс" a counter example of "almost always актриса"? Same for Клара Новикова and some other persons. – Artemix Feb 10 '17 at 16:15
  • @Artemix: try comparing the number of google hits for "популярная артистка" and "популярная актриса". Артистка is still a thing of course, just not so popular (no pun intended). Your examples seem like a copy-paste from a common source which for some reason was inclined to use артистка – Quassnoi Feb 10 '17 at 16:22
  • Based on what I see Google treats these words as synonyms and lists entries "артистка" in search results for "актриса" and vice versa. – Artemix Feb 10 '17 at 16:55
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Актёр in Russian is used exclusively for theatre and/or movie actors.

Артист is a more wide term which is appliable for actors, musicians, singers etc. Yet unlike in English (and contrary to its Latin root) it's less about "involvement in some creative art" and more about "performance". So, for example, "artist-painter" is "художник" in Russian and never "артист".

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  • 1
    Disagree about “never”, see the example here: ru.wiktionary.org/wiki/артист . (From «Идиот») I'd say, “артист” is a generic word that is usually substituted by more special words; less often so when the art in question is performance. – Evgeniy Feb 9 '17 at 22:44
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    @Evgeniy Never in modern speech. In 19th century they certainly can say so. – Matt Feb 10 '17 at 6:13
  • No reason to believe so. As to the fragment in question, there is nothing specifically related to the 19-th century in it, save orthography of the word “то есть”. Otherwise, the text is absolutely modern. It's fine, though, which is uncommon these days (those days, too). – Evgeniy Feb 10 '17 at 9:33
  • What's even more uncommon in the fragment, it concerns art qua art; those days, it was, very possibly, more common than now, but that shift concerns the subject of discussion, not the word, i. e. that's not a shift of word use (how words are applied) or word meaning; that's a shift of behaviour (what words are applied to). In the modern language, there are no other words to mean an artist qua artist (an artist in the generic sense of the word) than «артист» or «художник». – Evgeniy Feb 10 '17 at 9:41
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An example where «Актёр» is possible, and «Артист» is not is the name of the character in Gorky's “The Lower Depths”. The name refers to the past profession of the character who is now a good-for-nothing; what he did in that profession now matters not. You could still say «он плохой артист» about him, certainly, but that doesn't matter in the drama. His role in the drama is not to play tricks before the other characters, so he's not «Артист»; his role is to be a had-been who now does nothing. He is “someone who had a job once”. Which job? Well, an actor.

An example where «артист» is possible and «актёр» is not is a sentence like «Ну, ты артист», when someone makes some bold move or plays an advantageous (for them) trick in the eyes of the spectators. The word refers to the creative character of their trick, to how they form the reality around the others, most likely by deceiving someone or doing something that other people didn't expect, by doing actually one thing yet showing something else to people. But they don't work as actors and aren't even compared to such (the sentence doesn't mean “you're like an actor”, rather it means “you did play it strong”).

I don't think there is any reason to believe the word «артист» in the meaning «художник» (an artist of any kind, or even in the most generic sense of the word before you specify the creative art in question) is obsolete, as someone else suggested. This meaning is, indeed, literary; but so the subject is. It is literary to talk of art in the general sense. When a specific profession is implied, the generic aspects are not so important, and specific aspects are more telling for imagination of the users of the language, so another word that implies these aspects is used («писатель», «поэт», «скульптор», «композитор»).

So, what is the conclusion?

1) When talking about plays or reading novels aloud (like on the radio), my conclusion is this: the denotation of the two words is the same, but they refer to different thoughts: either acting as a job, or creating an impression on the minds of spectators.

2) When not talking about playing dramas or reading novels aloud, «актёр» is out of question. In this case, you would commonly find a singer or a joke-monger (someone who tells jokes from the scene, like Altov or Zadornov) to be called an «артист».

3) Also, «артист» (more commonly, «художник») has the sense “an artist qua artist, an artist in the generic sense of the word”. To express this sense, these two words are the only thing that the modern language has.

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  • I don't think there is any reason to believe the word «артист» in the meaning «художник» - Yes, this is generally obsolute value, but still possible one, – behemothus Feb 10 '17 at 3:05
  • @behemothus Not sure what you're trying to say, it appears self-contradictory… I think it's obsolete only in the same sense in which “general culture” is obsolete. The subject may be deemed obsolete (by some), not the word that's used to discuss it. That's what I mean. There's also a huge difference between “obsolete” and “seldom needed”. – Evgeniy Feb 10 '17 at 4:12
  • +1 for the "figurative" meaning. – V.V. Feb 11 '17 at 6:14
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According to the explanatory dictionary (http://gramota.ru/slovari/dic):

Basically meaning Артист - a person of any scenic profession (singer, reciter, musician), in an obsolete value - close to "Artist" in English (painter)

Актёр = actor, who stars or acts a part in a movie or the theater.

But in a figurative sense they are synonymous, they both mean pretender, simulant, dissimulator.

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