Amateur, Professional? Both!

It all started last week when I submitted two images to two different competitions. Both entry forms asked if I was a professional or an amateur.  I didn’t hesitate; I have been doing photography for a long time; I am competent; my attitude is professional, people pay me money for images. Then I got to the definition. One of the entry forms had provided an explanation of the term, professional; it was “the majority of your income is derived from photography.” Guess I’m not a professional after all; although I receive income from photography, it is not a majority.  This, of course, caused me to wonder about the term professional. I suddenly wasn’t sure whether I was one or not, but I was pretty sure that I didn’t like being labeled amateur.

The next day, I ran across an article on empty by Aletta de Wal entitled “Hobbyist, Amateur, or Professional Artist – Which are You?” Wal seems to be in agreement with the entry form and believes that professional artists are those who support themselves with their art; hobbyists and amateurs do not. In just a few days I ran across another blog post by Wal on another site, this time on Lori McNee: Fine Art & Tips. This post, “When Are You Ready to Call Yourself a Professional Artist?” has a slightly different take on the subject. In this article, Wal presents a checklist of seven items that establish a person as a professional artist. As one reader, Will Johnston, points out, she does not mention getting paid for creating art as one of the criteria; Johnston says getting paid is the actual definition of a professional, but he makes no mention of how much of one’s income is involved.

Then I ran across this tweet by Jack Hollingsworth which provided another perspective: “When i refer to ‘amateurs’, I’m referring to occupational status, not skill set.” This is fairly clear; if one’s occupation is not making art, one is an amateur. But notice the implication that an amateur might well be as skilled as a professional.

This idea is also presented by Ken Robinson in his book, The Element. In a chapter called “For Love or Money,” he examines several cases of people who perform at professional levels in a number of arts areas, but have chosen, for a variety of reasons, to make their living some other way. He echoes the definition of professional as one who earns his/her living in a field, but he also states that “the terms amateur and professional often imply…something about quality and expertise.”  Robinson discusses the meaning of the word amateur and opines that amateurs “do what they do because they have passion for it, not because it pays the bills.” In this discussion he distinguishes between amateur and amateurish, the latter, of course, indicating a lack of professional quality and probably a deficit of expertise.

The distinction between amateur and amateurish finally clarified the matter for me: I had not remembered that professional is both a noun and an adjective.  In addition to being what I had considered a practicing professional for a number of years, I believe in and teach professionalism; I think that in any art, particularly one about which you are passionate, you should have a professional approach, attitude, and demeanor whether you are getting paid or not; I think that you should attain the highest skill level you possibly can, if for no other reason than to satisfy your passion. In other words, I think that you should be professional even if you are not a professional.

All of this made me consider the other side of the duality and wonder about those artists who were not definitional professionals. The list of artists who made their living doing other things is long. It includes Henry Fielding, Charlotte Brontë, Franz Kafka, T.S. Eliot, William Faulkner, Wallace Stevens, Hart Crane, William Carlos Williams, Edna St. Vincent Millay, Pablo Neruda, Anton Chekhov, and there are many others.

Not bad company. Maybe it’s not such a bad thing to be an amateur after all—so long as you are professional about it.

Date: Sunday, 6. February 2011 23:41
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    […] I must clarify what I mean by “professional.” (It’s a topic that has come up before.) Some define a professional artist as one who makes most of his/her income as an artist. I am […]

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