My friend Kent, a wonderful painter, wants to be a professional. He says that he wants to be able to make his living from selling his paintings. He wants to be recognized, famous even. He wants a big-name New York gallery to represent him. He just had a solo show in the local library, had many people told him how wonderful his work was, but he sold not a single painting. And he hates that.
Kent is 66 and has been sculpting and painting all his life. He now hired an art consultant to help him make it.
The art consultant's verdict was that my friend is “not ready” for the big time, that he needs a “body of work”. I suppose the 18 paintings in the show and the dozens of canvases stacked in his garage don't count. Kent now plans to spend the next year adapting himself to “the market” in the hope of becoming “a professional”.
It’s a strange business being a professional artist. In a society of merchants like ours, in which selling-power is the measure of all things, being a professional of anything separates the respectable from the dabbler, the accomplished from the dilettante. Or at least that is what most people believe (including my friend Kent). I say it’s a strange business because making art in and of itself is not a business at all, and for most of human history was not considered as such. Of course artists were paid (sometimes), but the motivating impulse to make art was not to manufacture a commodity. Artists in a society of merchants (like today or in Northern Italy during the Renaissance) lead a schizophrenic existence, swinging back and forth between their traditional role of expressing human consciousness through beauty and their desire to be accepted by their fellow merchants. There is nothing new about this. What is new is the notion that unless you sell you are no good, that unless you are “in the market” you are an amateur, a lightweight, not to be taken seriously.
I beg to differ.
First of all, the term amateur originally had none of the derogatory connotations it has today. The word derives from the Latin Amator “a lover” from which the French Amateur came to mean “someone who does something out of love”, and presumably not for gain. For centuries some of the best and most respected artists, poets, and scientists in Europe were amateurs. In the 17th and 18th century, to equate an artist with a “professional”, i.e. a tradesman, would have been taken as an insult. Professionals were cobblers, carpenters, and later bankers.
But leaving history aside, there are logical flaws in the very assumption that just because you do not make your living from your art it must therefore be of inferior quality.
The most common argument espoused by artists for wanting to be “professional” is that they want to devote all their time to their art, and the only way they can accomplish that is by being full-time artists. The alternative, of taking a part-time desk job and doing art on the side, is considered at best a stepping stone en-route to full-time professionalism. But take a look at most “full-time” artists. Do they truly devote 100% of their time to the very thing they love to do? Of course not. Much of the time of a professional artist is devoted to business, to promoting, marketing, negotiating, and setting up galleries. In other words, full-time artists are also full-time by name only. Their second, money making occupation (promoting their art) has little if anything to do with making art. Let us say that all this merchandising takes up 50% of the artist’s time. What then is the difference between this full-time professional and an “amateur” who also spends 50% of her time painting and makes a living with a part-time office job?
The second flawed argument defines a professional artist as one who gets paid for what they do while an amateur doesn’t (or gets much less). The assumption in the art world today is that the more your art fetches the better it is. In other words, a painting hanging in your studio is nothing more than an artistic potential not yet realized. If that same painting gets sold to a customer for $5,000 it’s probably not bad. But if Christie’s sells the very same painting for 3 million dollars it has miraculously transformed itself into an unquestionable masterpiece. A painting does not seem to have an intrinsic value according to this argument but like a stock or a bond fluctuates in its artistic merit according to its market price. By this reckoning an amateur’s painting which may not even be for sale can never be very good.
The absurdity of this argument is best illustrated by listing names of such artists who by this definition should also be considered amateurs (i.e. never got money for their art) like Schubert, Emily Dickinson, Kafka, or Van Gogh.
The third argument for professionalism in the arts has to do with having an audience. Even if you concede that an amateur is not by definition inferior just because she only paints 50% of the time and never sold a canvas, there is still the issue of sharing the work with the world at large. Most people, including artists, consider spending inordinate effort on an arts project that is not for public consumption as a waste of time. But is it? Private art, the musings of the soul, a lifelong dedication to perfecting one’s skill, somehow count for very little according to this argument If your work is not seen it might as well have never been created.
But is it a given that just because an artist chooses not to exhibit her work her work is necessarily inferior? Consider this, during the one hundred years in which Bach’s St. Mathew Passion lay in some dusty library stack with not a single soul knowing of its existence, was it a lesser piece than after it was discovered and performed? Wasn’t it the same masterpiece unchanged by its exposure?
It goes back to the Zen Koan: “Does a tree falling in a forest unobserved make a sound?” I have no doubt that it does. Being there to witness it would make not the slightest difference to the tree.
There is nothing wrong with choosing to combine being an artist and being a merchant. Just because you are a good hustler or look gorgeous doesn’t mean that your work is trash. But the opposite is true too. There is nothing wrong with creating work that will either be sold nor perhaps ever be seen by anyone. The greatest symphony ever written may have been an unpublished work by an anonymous composer we have never heard of.
The ratio of unpublished to published works, known to unknown artists, is so staggeringly huge that it is not only possible but downright probable that the greatest works we venerate are just pale reflections of far greater works we will never know about.
The Kvetching Factory
"Start every day with a smile and get it over with" (W.C. Fields)