William Penrose, Contributor, Lookie-Lookie
Attention is a kind of currency. Receiving attention for artistic achievement is an endorsement of worth. Artists, likewise, are expected to pay attention—to cultural relevance, creative opportunities, and the guidelines to engage. Consequently, artists are increasingly encouraged to cultivate their business competency to garner attention and recognition. How professional does a professional artist need to be?
The number of university arts programs has inflated with specializations that include arts therapy, arts administration, and assorted curatorial programs, among others. Larger numbers of artists and cultural workers have been trained to enter the workforce. The economic systems and structures that drive markets—commercial and nonprofit—can determine the frame of the artist’s work. Artists are ever more pressured to package their practice and articulate a single narrative in less than 30 seconds (or within the allotted word count).
I understand the need for artists to expand their business skills and language so that they can seek support to create and publicly present their work within these organized systems. At the moment, I don’t want to evaluate business programs for artists in our marketplace. I want to better understand the concept of professionalism and who gets to decide its meaning. What is a professional artist?
The Research Center for Arts and Culture (RCAC) has been asking this question to artists since the late 1980s in its Information on Artists reports. During in-person interviews, respondents choose the top three answers that best fit their definition of a professional artist. The list of definitions, more generally, falls into three categories:
1. The Marketplace Definition: I make my living as an artist; I receive some income from my work as an artist; I intend to make a living as an artist.
2. The Education and Affiliation Definition: I belong to an artists’ association; I belong to an artists’ union/guild; I have been formally educated in the arts.
3. The Self and Peer Definition: I am recognized by my peers as an artist; I consider myself to be an artist; I spend a substantial amount of time working at art; I have a special talent; I have an inner drive to make art; I receive some public recognition for my art.
Over years of the RCAC’s research, a plurality of actors, musicians, and dancers—in the years 1988, 1990–1992, 2000, 2004, and 2011—offered their number one definition for being a professional artist as “I make a living as an artist.” Divergently, a plurality of painters, craftspeople, and older visual artists—during these same time periods—identified “I have an inner drive to make art” as their first definition of professionalism.
My hypothesis is that the more an arts discipline has divisions of labor, the more likely it locates professionalism in market success. That is to say, a firmer position in the labor market is plausibly correlated to an increase in evaluating success through the market economy.
Artists, diverse in their strategies, create work along a spectrum of divisions of labor from completely solo practices to immensely large-scale productions. Visual artists, broadly, often create work alone and may occasionally employ collaborators, manufacturers, and representatives. Writers, who also traditionally create work in solitude, regularly require some formation of support including editors, agents, publishers, and distributors. Artists working in the performing arts most commonly necessitate large teams: producers, directors, performers, designers, managers, and the list goes on. It becomes a bit clearer why performing artists are more likely to associate professionalism with earning income. When the arts closer align to business principles, economic structures determine the rules of the game for those who play and who, most likely, are celebrated.
In his seminal book Ways of Seeing, John Berger writes, “The art of any period tends to serve the ideological interests of the ruling class.” The materials and expression of painting developed and refined from 1500 to 1900, he offers as example, supported the evolving and increasingly international beliefs and attitudes around property and exchange. Art became ownable and exchangeable by individuals and estates.
During which historical transformation, then, did the fine artist become professional, and how was profession conceptually shaped and reshaped? (I take a moment to assess the assumptions of the logic. After pause and calculation, I realize the limitations of interpreting professionalism through the history of economics.)
I turn, instead, to the Oxford English Dictionary (OED).
The word professionalism, without its suffixes, is simply profession or profess. The OED reports that profession has its origin in Middle English during the High to Late Middle Ages by way of Old French from Latin. The usage of the English word has roots in religion, and it only becomes secular over centuries as related to one’s calling.
Having professed—the earliest usage of the word was in a passive voice—is to have declared publicly, to have taken vows of the religious order. One was professed to the church rather than making a profession; a quiet humility rests in its meaning. The earliest uses of profess are not dissimilar from the way we use vow today.
In its beginning, to profess was to declare publicly. Its origin is in Latin. Adding –ion to the end of a Latin verb changes the word to a noun. So profess becomes profession like direct becomes direction. The suffix –al creates adjectives from nouns or other adjectives such as natural or musical. Here, we get professional.
It wasn’t until the late 16th century that professional, in a wider sense and according to the OED, was “any calling or occupation by which a person habitually earns his living.” By the late 18th century, professional matured to convey: “engaged in one of the learned or skilled professions, or in a calling considered socially superior to a trade or handicraft.” During the Enlightenment we are closer to our more contemporary understanding of the word, which, defined by Merriam-Webster, includes a type of job; a calling requiring specialized knowledge and often long and intensive academic preparation; the act of taking the vows of a religious community; and an act of openly declaring or publicly claiming a belief, faith, or opinion.
While exploring linguistic derivations—getting joyfully lost in etymology and abstract associations—I was amused to discover that, although the word profit looks like it may come from the same lexical lineage, it has its Latin root in proficere. It is not from the stem profiteri, which means to profess. Proficere is to advance or to progress; profit is directional and measured. In contemporary application, within modern capitalism, profit values accumulation. Profess, contrastingly, is relational. Its application reveals how we relate to each other through our callings.
Unfurling the definition of words can expose the fragility of language’s boundaries. Descriptions and meanings merge and bleed. “To declare publicly”—to profess—strangely resembles the definition of protestation: a solemn affirmation of a fact, opinion, or resolution; a formal public assertion. Protestantism—a religious division of Christendom shaped through reformation—echoes in my mind, and I welcome the connection. The word protest begins protestation (and I object to interpret professionalism only through the lens of economic language). Protest can be action. One of its forms: occupation, the holding of a space or symbolic site. The artist’s occupation, if their profession is public promise, is sited in humanism.
It is difficult to pay attention to profession without considering the writing of Simone Weil. Attention, exemplified in the spiritual sense by Weil in her essay “Reflections on the Right Use of School Studies with a View to the Love of God,” consists of suspending our thought, leaving it detached, empty, and ready to be penetrated by the object. For artists, consequently, the quality of attention determines the quality of the art. When all attention is oriented toward creation, it is the highest form of attention—creativity is then pure and intense. The artist’s creative process is like Simone Weil’s prayer.
Let us accept as well, regarding the quality of art, that as much attention ought to be given to failure, in the artist’s mind, as is given to accomplishment in their creative work. The details of these failures illuminate the methods of creativity, which is a gift that can enter through the artist at any moment, through any portal of our living time.
Gifts cannot be pursued; they do not lend themselves to the seeker. Gifts, the most treasured kind, reveal themselves to us when we are open, waiting, and ready to receive. Through trained work—compounded over time—and cultivated talents, the artist is ready for reception. Their attention and awareness signal the release of gifts to the artist. Attention is attitude; profession is devotion; and the artist’s soul is the conduit.
Recognizing public proclamation—a profession—requires public listening, understanding, and acknowledgment. To recognize is to re-cognize, to perceive or become aware of again. Vows are renewed to re-mind promise and re-commence commitment. Professionalism is not achieved towards an end, but is an enduring covenant to the process of becoming. Professed artists are the shepherds of our precious culture.
Defying restrictive definitions can help us to better appreciate a historic understanding of professionalism, and, therefore, a historic understanding of the relationships we forge with each other. Artistry is not business. Business is business. Artistry is creativity invoking the imagination. Resisting conformity to the new rules of professionalism—based in procedure and accomplishment—we release control in order to inhabit the sacred. When we are professed to our humanity—our communal vow—we allow ourselves to be open to the possibility of understanding who we have been and who we can be.