The difference between a professional and a non-professional artist – Part 2

What does ‘professional’ mean?

Like many words, professional has changed its meaning over the course of history, adapting itself to society’s evolving concerns. Its origins were quite high-minded. To profess is to make a public declaration of adherence to an ideal or a standard. Such a solemn ‘profession’ was – still is – made by people entering religious life. The same principle was adapted for two occupations where the interests of the worker and customer could be in conflict: medicine and the law. Here the professional vowed to put the client’s best interests before their own – for instance by not advising them to pursue a hopeless lawsuit. Because of this discipline, the first professions avoided – and largely still do – external supervision of their members’ conduct, because they do it themselves through bodies such as the General Medical Council and the Bar Council. There is a high social status to being a professional and over time other workers have described themselves as professional in order to benefit from the association, though without always considering its meaning in terms of behaviour, or having the regulatory controls that the first professions have.

In culture, another sense of professional arose when wealthy people began to practice art for pleasure. The amateur – literally, ‘lover’ – emerged during the Enlightenment as nobles and the bourgeoisie turned to the newly reimagined Fine Arts as a secular value system. The appearance of amateurs must have been annoying to working musicians, painters and writers, as people with an already high social status moved in on their territory, no longer just willing to pay for their services but wanting to engage with them in a variety of ways. An amateur musician might hire others but want to perform with them too – the potential for friction is obvious, given the rigid social hierarchies still in place. The practice continued well into the 20th century (the last cricket match between ‘Gentlemen and Players’ was held in 1962) but no longer has much meaning because the social standing of a professional artist and sportspeople has been transformed over the same period. Today, many artists see being paid not just as earning a living but as validation of their status as artists and are quick to defend their position on that basis. For some, amateur has acquired the status of an insult.

It is worth recalling these two complicated but different ideas of professionalism because my thinking about participatory art uses the same word but with yet another set of meanings. When I speak of professional and non-professional artists, I make no judgement either about their conduct (the first idea) nor their ability (the second). Instead, I’m making a distinction between their intentions in the act of making art. In my thinking, a professional artist is someone for whom making art is their principal occupation. By principal, I don’t even mean that they spent most of their time doing it, simply that they regard it as the most important thing they do. A poet is unlikely to spent most of her time writing poetry; T. S. Eliot was first a banker and then a publisher. Many painters spend as much time teaching as painting. These artists are professionals in my sense not because they are paid for their artistic work, nor because it is better than other people’s artistic production, but because they regard it as the most important thing they do. Other occupations might be necessary to earn their living, but they are simply means to an end: it is creating art that is their purpose in life. 

As a result, professional artists bring different resources to the partnership with non-professional artists that is at the heart of participatory art. Among other things, they bring:

  • Education – a training in their practice 
  • Skill and expertise – developed through long periods of work
  • Knowledge – not just of their art but of the context of the project, the other stakeholders, the reasons why it is happening and more
  • Experience – of creative projects, of working with others and often of participatory art practice itself
  • Context – an understanding of ideas, trends and practice in their art and the cultural sector, and often in fields such as education, public services and policy
  • Informed judgement – with all these resources they can look at work with knowledge of the context in which it stands and the benchmarks against which it can be assessed 
  • Talent – like energy, talent is elusive and variable, but it is likely that anyone working professionally as an artist will have talent for what they do

Individually, these resources are valuable; in combination, they amount to a huge concentration of power on one side of the partnership between professional and non-professional artists. Tomorrow, I’ll look at why that isn’t necessarily a problem and the resources that enable non-professional artists to even the table.