Even Unpaid Artists Are Professionals

posted May 13, 2014

Artists have specialized skills like any other professional. The problem is those skills are perceived as recreational activities. People think, I can write/paint/sing. Well, yes of course you can. I’m a pretty damn good cook, but that doesn’t make me a chef. Therein lies the difference. An artist, like a chef, spends a great deal of time practicing and studying their craft, so that the work they produce is superior to that of the most skilled amateur.

If you tell a stranger you’re an artist though you often get an eye roll. It can be subtle, or you can get the full oh-christ-you’re-kidding-me version.

Oh, you’re an artist?

You might as well tell them you can bend spoons with your mind. The way they add the question mark to artist let’s you know they think you’re hilariously (or contemptibly) full of shit. They switch their perception of you off. From that point on you’re a childish fool. If you sell something though, you’re quickly elevated to a source of inspiration by the same people.

Wow, you’re a artist! That’s amazing!

For an artist there’s virtually no status in between. I don’t think there’s any other activity that has such an enormous no-man’s-land. No one who works on old cars in their leisure time has to worry about that.

Oh you’re a mechanic? But what do you do for a living? Anyone can rebuild the engine of a 1962 Plymouth Fury.

That’s basically how unpaid artists are treated. I was fine with that until I turned 40 and then I got fed up. If an artist spends years of their life practicing something, payment doesn’t get to decide the difference between what’s professional and what’s a hobby. My new-found polite indignation is all the more strengthened by my current paying gig. I love developing websites. There really isn’t anything about it that I hate. Most aspects of it I genuinely enjoy.

Why is a great job a good thing in terms of my art?

Because it occurred to me recently that my current gig is as good as earning a living from something other than my art can get. If I didn’t love writing I would have found the best-fitting career I could hope for. It’s a genuine, almost daily relief: I don’t hate this job! I might even love it!

The only thing that would be better than this, is getting paid to do a job I love so much I have voluntarily done it since I was 14. I love writing fiction more than fried chicken or lazy Sundays and I’ve never earned a dime doing it. I’m not mad or cynical about it, but since 40, I’ve been a little annoyed by the attitude I accepted all those years.

I’ve essentially been a stay-at-home-mom who saw those rolling eyes and said, “well, I don’t have a job.”

Bullshit. Stay-at-home parents work their asses off! Art is inspiring and beautiful and fun. But it is work, people. Exhausting, frustrating, to-your-limits work. The eye rollers miss that, but also miss that you can be lousy at a lot of jobs and still be fairly sure you’ll find a gig in your field. Virtually every non-writing job I’ve had there’s always at least one person who totally sucks at the work, who obviously doesn’t care about the quality of what they’re doing or that everyone else is having to bust ass to make up for their ineptitude.

And those assholes get a regular paycheck.

Not even close to true for art. Some artists get lucky, but there are virtually no lazy artist who also succeed. Most work really hard and have little recognition for it. I’ve spent time equivalent to a third of my waking life working on this thing that I love and there is nothing unique about my experience as an artist.

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