JNM Redux, Detail, 18 x 22" / 45.72 x 55.88 cm, Acrylic on Paper, 2014
It’s that time of the year again—when a lot of us do some reflecting on what’s gone down in the last twelvemonth. I guess it’s only natural for artists to reflect on their practice around this time, and since I decided (before the pandemic) to spend the past year on a sort of artistic sabbatical, my reflections took a somewhat different turn.
That, in turn led me to consider what it takes for someone to be considered a ‘practising’ or ‘professional’ artist. (And whether that even matters, whether other people consider you thus or not.)
I know what I was told, but now I’m not so sure.
See, I’ve always been rather gullible and I used to take what people told me at face value (hopefully I’m a little bit smarter, now). And I was once told (by an art mentor-type of guy during an artist’s career workshop a bajillion years ago), that a ‘professional’ or a ‘practising’ artist, is someone who either:
So, a younger jillamonster, who was so desperate-slash-eager to prove herself-slash-show everyone that she was dead serious about art, swallowed this statement whole. That meant she moved heaven and earth (i.e. prayed, pounded the pavement to beg, plead and grovel at galleries), to make damn sure she had that one solo and one group show per annum.
And yet, in spite of all that, I guess I still don’t really know if all that counts. I mean, so am I Rembrandt, now lol—or even a Botong, Ang Kiukok or Manansala? Should I even care?
In any case, having spent the better part of this year taking art classes, I think I’m starting to take a different view of what a ‘practising’ or ‘professional’ artist is. That mentor kind of used the term interchangeably, kind of like ‘practising artist’ was the ‘correct term’ instead of ‘professional’—but most people would probably say ‘pro’ so interchangeable is what I’m doing here, eheheh.
That said, allow me to take a quick look at four other things I’ve heard people say or how I’ve heard others define what a ‘professional’ or ‘practising’ artist is.
1. Sales are what make you a professional artist. Van Gogh hardly sold anything, and I don’t think anybody would say he wasn’t pro. In the US, however, they do, ‘officially’ regard sales as the mark of a professional artist for tax purposes.
2. A proper studio is what makes you a professional artist. Those same ‘official’ US definitions also say you’ll need to have a ‘loft-style space’ to be considered pro. At art class I found out some people were like me, and made do with the space they had, even if that space happened to be their bedrooms, living rooms or kitchens.
3. ‘Fame’ is what makes you a professional artist. If you have press, or someone (e.g. a critic) writes about you, or you have a bajillion followers or something like that, you’ve arrived. I guess that is true as far as critics or art writers are concerned, but I also know that there is something a ‘legit famous artist’ I know calls a ‘praise release’ (if you know what I mean).
4. You’re a professional if art is your only job. Full disclosure: writing ‘praise releases’ was part of one of the myriad part-time jobs I had to pay for my shows, and to this day, I still mostly rely on my day job to fund my art. I’ve written elsewhere about how people don’t seem to think you’re ‘serious’ if you have a ‘real job’.
Well, I know I’m not the only artist with a second, non-art job, and that I’m pretty sure there are a lot of us.
Moving on from what I’ve heard, here are four more things I’ve seen after a quick look round the Interweb at what other people say on the subject.
1. Some people don’t even like to call it an ‘art practice’ to begin with. If you’re a ‘practising artist’ it follows that you have a practice. But there are some who feel very strongly about not calling it that because it ‘depersonalises the urgency of art-making’.
2. If you decide that you are a professional artist and act like one, then you are one, period. Lightspacetime.art says this means presenting yourself professionally everywhere, all the time’, and honouring your commitments as a pro in any field would. There are others, though, who’ve said it’s not enough to just decide, and that you must be able to walk the talk.
3. It’s not about being ‘practising’ but more about being ‘established’. Lightspace.art also points out how an artist could be painting for years but still be ‘emerging’ because she hasn’t sold anything (so that’s all about sales, again).
‘Emerging’ as a stage is followed by ‘mid-career’ and ‘established’, the latter being what I interpret as what you oughta ‘worry’ about more than whether you’re professional or not. (‘Established’= ‘professional’ = 'practising'?)
4. Time and intent are what make the difference between being a hobbyist, an amateur and a professional. Emptyeasel.com breaks down the difference as:
To be a professional is to love your work.
For me, it’s the ‘you love it so much, all the time you spend not eating, sleeping or in the bathroom is spent on *arting*’.
If you’re willing to do what is necessary and put in the hours x pay your dues even when you don’t feel like it, that will, that discipline is what makes you a pro who truly ‘practices’ art.
I know this is something where people ‘agree to disagree’ and there’s probably no right or wrong answer, although there are more or less established parameters for the characteristics, or qualifications of an established or ‘blue chip’ artist. Most people need to be dead first before they become established, anyway ^_^ and in any case that isn’t the point of this post.
I guess what I’m trying to say is that, yes, the things I’ve heard and seen are all valid in their own right. And I have hitherto adhered to what that mentor told me all those years ago about the whole one-solo, one-group show thing.
I’m no academic and I’m certainly no expert, but…
…I’m thinking that maybe, ultimately, it’s not about sales, or your studio, the fame factor or whether art is your only job.
For me, if you are really, truly dedicated to working continuously to improve your technique, to get better at expressing yourself or conveying your concepts through your chosen medium, that’s what makes you a practising, professional artist.
Suffer me to break this down for you, for a bit:
You’ll experiment even if you’re not sure the results of that experiment will sell because you want to learn, for instance. You’ll exhibit your work or show it to people even if you’re not sure anybody will like it, because you believe in your concept and you have something to say through your work. You’ll keep on doing this even if the last time you did was a flop.
You won’t let anything—no sales, bad reviews or feedback; lack of time, resources or support—stop you from making and continuing to make art, because you’ll always find ways to make things work, so that you can work.
Which brings me to my final consideration…
…about whether it should matter if people think you’re a practising or professional artist, or not. I guess that’s that whole ‘you shouldn’t care so much about what people think’ thing.
I guess that, in turn, boils down to that whole ‘what artists do is valuable x matters’, something that ought to be respected enough to be compensated fairly for. I also saw somewhere that artists seem to be extra self-conscious about this whole ‘professional’ thing, and that might be a reason why.
In any case, I feel like maybe it shouldn’t matter if people think you are practising or a professional or not—what matters is what you think, and whether or not you act accordingly. Don’t let anyone tell you otherwise, and above all, don’t be discouraged (easier said than done, I know, but I’m here if you could use some encouragement).
Now, I’m not saying you should totally not give a rat’s patootie about what people think.
I do concede that the way people see you—as a practising artist, or not—does ultimately have a lot of bearing on how seriously they end up taking you as an artist. When I say ‘people’ I mean your audience, or the people you want to reach with your art.
Whether that audience comprises collectors, galleries, or anybody who just loves art or is looking for something to hang over their mantelpiece is really up to you. But I guess what I am saying is focusing on how ‘professional’ you are, or whether people will consider you a practising artist, maybe shouldn’t be as crucial as doing the actual work of creating your art.
If you know, for yourself, that you are doing all you can to become better, and there are people who may or may not be members of your audience who don’t seem to see that yet, you are practising, nonetheless. I’m saying that maybe we shouldn’t let public perception be the be-all, end-all of our creative process, but that the creative process itself deserves the lion’s share of our energies.
Maybe I’m just saying all this, because…
…in the course of my reflections, I’ve been fully aware that I am now deviating. I’m breaking away from that whole ‘if you don’t have a solo every year, you don’t give up your writing job, you don’t live off of your art sales, you’re not practising, you’re not ‘legit’. And there’s a part of me that wants to reply inwardly, ‘I am practising! I am a ‘real’, ‘serious’ artist!’ (Honest ^_^)
I don’t know, lol. There’s a lot I’m having to think about. I guess it’s mid-life crisis, haha. And I don’t know if what I think is ‘right’ x ‘correct’ x valid.
All I know is that ‘practising’ or ‘professional’ or not, I’m going to keep on painting, and hope that in doing so, I’ll get better at it, and that maybe more people will come to like my monsters. And that whether I sell them or not, I just can’t stop making them. I guess it’s a compulsion I have, or a disease, lol. Anyway, at least I’m sure of that much.
Anyway I’d like to end by making so bold as to paraphrase Steven Pressfield:
Maybe you’re not being paid, maybe nobody knows who you are, maybe no one will ever buy, let alone exhibit your painting, sculpture or installation. But you can KEEP WORKING entirely on your own. With each painting, you’ll learn something. On others, you’ll learn a lot.
If you have to take a gig driving for Uber or waiting tables at Hooters, it’s okay. Keep working. Nobody can stop you from getting up at five in the morning and putting in three hours sketching, scumbling or glazing. Or two hours. Or one. When someone asks you what you do for a living, answer, ‘I’m a practising artist.’ You are.
I don't purport to know everything. Yet if the little I do know can be of any help, you are more than welcome to it.