A very popular blog regarding the disadvantages to being a professional artist made the rounds on social media over the last month. The writer wrote about how being called unprofessional is an insult but the term professional and how it is used doesn’t begin to describe his own art world experience. He went on to debate with himself how the word can be both a moniker for the seemingly smooth transactions among artists and galleries, those artists who know how to act appropriately and also for institutionalized behaviour that holds creativity in it’s mediocre grasp.
It’s a really good article and I sympathize with artists who can’t muster enough of a “go to” personality to walk up to that curator and just introduce themselves. I can’t do that so I get it. I also hear loud and clear how branding/marketing oneself can seem to be cynical and perhaps kill any spontaneity one might have about how they work. He makes an excellent distinction between the rights of an artist and getting paid and how fitting one’s life and work into an economic cycle can prove disastrous to our best working practices.
But I don’t think being an amateur or dilettante is the best solution. I would agree that the years I’ve spent trying to look professional, slick and smartly alive with all the best things put forward has gotten me a modicum of respect but has done absolutely nothing for my bottom line. I see loads of other creative people making way more money than me without knowing how to spell or craft a sentence. Or brush their teeth before attending an opening or even being nice. In fact I believe, in Toronto anyway, it seems like the more disengaged you are the better your chances of success because no one seems to like enthusiasm. I’ve often quelled my reaction to art at openings for fear of being seen as an idiot – forgetting that I’m supposed to not care and then shuffle off to a bar and not talk about what you’ve just seen.
I will always remember someone telling me that they began weeping in front of a Paterson Ewan and their companions asked embarrassedly, “What’s wrong with you?” To which he replied, “What’s wrong with you?” I love that.
Being professional perhaps isn’t the best mode of behaviour as an artist; it’s too much to ask and way beyond the work you want to just make. But the alternative is what exactly? By acting disengaged, or being slovenly or just being without guile can’t be the answer either. How to navigate the world of art without compromise but being able to pay your bills is all of our goals. It is a balancing act that no one can understand until they actually live day to day working almost entirely on making art work. Who does it well and how?
I would say that a large portion of the really successful artists tend to have some kind of capital in their background – a financial cushion so to speak. I don’t resent these people I only wish we all had that; it would make for a level playing field. But we don’t and we can’t go on and on complaining about it since this is a fact of life that will never change unless there’s a miracle and basic income is ushered into our lives. I have spent way too much time on the issue myself and I am definitely done.
However I do think that by changing (and attitudes are definitely changing) our ideas about what we do we stand to reinvent how we see our selves as professional. We are workers really. We are part of the labour movement and the labour movement is definitely reinventing itself. Branding and marketing ourselves isn’t something we throw out of the mix but we move it to the periphery of our working lives. We should now just get engaged in the sea change that is happening all around us: people matter and what we do is how we create our world. It’s a shift really, not a total revolution. It’s just a shift in thinking and acting.
We begin by helping each other, by forgoing our need to be defined as magicians and geniuses and join the world of the worker. This idea is all around us as artists have now created collectives and partnering situations that are advantageous to everyone and fighting for fairness all the time. We could start by getting more engaged with how art work, regardless of medium or trends, is all made by people. It’s our flesh, blood and bones at work here, its all we have and the grace that can come from the simple act of work is our gift.
Artists of the world unite. Just kidding. No, actually I’m not. Think about it….
photo by Mariellen Ward