Rant 39: Get Real - What Makes You an Artist?

Rant 39: Get Real - What Makes You an Artist? Rich White, Escape, 2008. wood, boards, paint. Credit: Rich White

What, or who, decides if an artist is 'professional' or not? If you have another income to support your practice, does that make you an amateur, or worse still, a hobbyist? Alison Sharkey questions where the boundaries lie.

In a recent heated discussion with a group of artists, an accusation was thrown into the fray that has left me pondering. 

The battle lines were drawn between ‘real’ artists who survive financially from their practice and those that were called ‘hobbyists’. 

The real artists move from funded project to school, to show, to funded project; discretion is a luxury, you must find a way of keeping your integrity as best you can within this bid for financial survival. 

When I brought up this debate later in the local pub, there was outrage at the suggestion that just because you worked part-time, for example as an arts administrator, at a Tesco fish counter, or as a graphic designer, you might then be described as a hobbyist. 

Everyone there was so employed. We were uncertain where to place those on tax credits. 

These ‘artists’ maintained that employment gives them the independence to be choosy about where they took their work, so they could be selective as to whom they got into bed with.

Is ‘real’ interchangeable with ‘professional’, ‘hobbyist’ with ‘amateur’? 

The professionalisation of the artist has attracted its own derision from some sections of the art world, an objection based on the assimilation of the artist into the capitalist model, the avant-garde agitator a distant and mythical figure. 

Business and entrepreneurial courses are being introduced at art colleges, professional development agencies offer artists marketing and managerial courses. 

Is this dissent, then, a call to embrace the badge of amateur, the pursuing of work for pleasure over financial gain and livelihood?

Who is the more ‘authentic’: the smug amateur who can talk of risk-taking while receiving a monthly salary, secretly bitter about their diminishing output as their paid work makes ever increasing demands, or the professional who works under the unceasing pressure of pursuing projects and opportunities to keep a roof over their head? 

Step forward the real artist!

Contributed by Alison Sharkey

Alison Sharkey is a visual artist based in Cornwall.

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