amateurs and professionals

January 19, 2010

Somehow I missed this fascinating discussion on the differences between amateur and professional in the arts over at Andrew’s blog. It’s not a new conversation but the nuances are different in a community where there is less state support for the arts than we are accustomed to in Ireland. The dividing line between amateur and professional tends to be the award of Arts Council funding for many and the capacity to earn a living for others. Andrew’s piece contains some more nuanced observations drawn from this blog entry from a photographer and Clay Shirky’s book Here Comes Everybody. Andrew makes the point that there has been a conflagration between ‘professional’ and ‘excellent’ and that is not necessarily the case. For example the Irish traditional music scene has been (and continues to be) primarily ‘amateur’ in that the artists involved don’t necessarily make their living full time from the craft, meanwhile the quality of much of the music is excellent. ‘Amateur’ and ‘Professional’ have become limiting silos that tend to frame our enjoyment of the arts. I agree that funding agencies must have some criteria to fund – and in many cases contributing to a working wage for artists is part of that criteria – but let’s not assume that everybody who claims to be ‘professional’ is creating compelling work while those who are amateurs are responsible for mediocrity. As one commenter in Andrew’s post points out (and as I mentioned in the previous post)

The root of the word “amateur” is the Latin “amare” – to love.

Perhaps the more important question relates to quality – how we define it, how we recognise it and how we reward it. Does it really matter what the ‘status’ of the artist is as long as the work is something that really speaks to us? And bearing in mind that we are never going to reach a consensus on what constitutes quality anyway isn’t reaching for the traditional silos of ‘professional’ and ‘amateur’ a way of relieving ourselves of the burden of exploring the ‘quality’ discussion in more depth. I have no answers to any of this but the original post and the enlightened comments are really worth reading. And, as ever, the above applies to the world of business as much as it does to the arts. We don’t have to look too far to see how much trouble the ‘professionals’ have gotten us into over the past 18 months. One wonders what might have happened had we allowed a few ‘amateurs’ in on the act.

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