The difference between a professional and a non-professional artist – Part 3

In the previous post, I outlined a range of resources that professional artists can draw on in their work, including education, skill and expertise, knowledge, experience, context, informed judgement and talent. It is a formidable, but not exhaustive list. There will be some things I’ve not thought of, as well as other resources like social capital, status and authority that, while not specific to arts practice, can strengthen a professional artist in their work. By implication, these resources are not available, or at least not to the same degree, to non-professional artists who might work with them in a participatory project. And with this concentration of power in the hands of the professionals, what possibility can there be that the non-professional artists will have any equitable influence in the creative process?

Of course, many contemporary artists do not intend to make such an offer at all. Antony Gormley’s series of Fields (1991-2003), which involve the manufacture of thousands of small clay figures, allows participants very limited creative control. Still, the offer is honest. More troubling are the projects where artists adopt a rhetoric of empowerment that, by egoism, naivety or incompetence, they do not fulfil.

There is a spectrum of participatory art, defined by the balance of power between the professional and non-professional artists involved. Projects can legitimately position themselves anywhere on that spectrum. The problems begin when, usually with good intentions, artists claim or believe themselves to be further towards non-professional control than they really are.

The distinction between professional and non-professional artists is made necessary by my suggestion that everyone involved in a participatory project should be regarded as an artist. That rests on the idea that an artist is defined by the act of making art. Everyone who participates in the London Marathon is a runner, whether it takes them two hours or a week to complete the race. Everyone who participates in a creative art project is, while they are doing it, an artist, whatever their role. The act is the same, but professionals and non-professionals bring different resources to achieving it. So what resources do non-professional artists bring to the creative act in a participatory project? 

Here’s some of what that I have observed over the years:

  • An open mind – they ask fresh, often challenging questions because they have not been trained to believe that there is a certain way of doing things. Their approach often makes professional artists rethink long-held assumptions about their work 
  • New ideas – since they do not know the rules, norms or fashions currently accepted within an art form, they often suggest things that are genuinely innovative. Even if their ideas are not good or feasible, engaging with them can lead the whole group into new artistic territory.
  • Knowledge – They may not have knowledge of art, but they have other forms knowledge that may be just as important to the creative process, about place, history, culture and identity and many other things.
  • Experience – most of the people I’ve worked with have had very different life experiences to mine. That may not be the focus of a project, but it always gives an alternative and enriching sensibility to how the work happens and what form it takes.
  • Something to say – the combination of knowledge and experience creates a rich body of material from which to shape artistic work. The Performance Ensemble, whose extraordinary production reopened the Leeds Playhouse last month, make ‘art with experience of age’. It’s hard to imagine a professional artist defining their work in such terms.
  • A need to say it – One reason why they are happy to define their work in those terms is that the members of the Performance Ensemble have a strong commitment to bring the voice of older people into the public arena. Unlike professional artists, who expect to have other opportunities to make art tomorrow, next week and next year, non-professional artists make no such assumption. Taking nothing for granted, they make the most of what may be the one chance in a lifetime to express their vision in art, to be seen, heard and recognised. 
  • Talent – And, of course, artistic talent is not limited to professional artists. Some of the most gifted and creative people I’ve known have not been professionals, for all sorts of reasons. Genius is rare; talent is not and it often takes no more than opportunity to reveal itself. 

These resources are as important to co-creation in participatory art as those contributed by the professional artists, but because they are less familiar they are often underestimated by outsiders, if not by professional artists who work regularly with non-professionals. It is the interplay of different forces, the give and take between alternative types of knowledge, expertise and experience, the variable geometry of other needs and desires, that makes this such a restless art. It gives the energy and dynamic tension that makes it often untidy but rarely dull.

This series of posts was inspired by working with the group of professional and non-professional artists who gathered in Dublin two weeks ago to continue work on the INO community opera, ‘Out of the Ordinary’. That  experience was out of the ordinary for everyone, professionals and non-professionals alike. There was nervousness in the room; I could almost feel the energy crackle. And it was hugely exciting, after months of working online, to be meeting face to face, getting a new measure of one another, unsure what others would make of our creative ideas and desires. To be honest, I felt the professional artists were more anxious than their non-professional peers, finding themselves in an unfamiliar situation with things to prove—and that’s no bad thing: it’s one of the ways in which the balance of power is held between professional and non-professional artists in participatory art.

In the end, professional or non-professional, we are all accountable to each other in the creative act.