Checkmate - Graphite - 15" x 25" - 1984 - Private Collection
The beautiful word amateur once meant : “lover of”. Over time, it has evolved from its original French, Italian and Latin origins to becoming a generic belittling reference. Once, it highlighted a recognition of and respect for "appreciators" of one thing or another (whether professional or not). Now, it is often used with sneering emphasis to describe those who do not earn their living whilst doing this or that - or for that matter appreciating this or that. Today, amateur defines someone who is more or less (usually considered “lesser”) an “ugh!” hobbyist; nothing more. It is often how the least talented or skilled in an area of self expression are defined. But this nomenclature has its greatest negative inference and impact when used by those who have a desperate need to NOT be associated with these “lesser” amateurs.
Real artists could care less about someone painting on velvet or using “magic white”. Amateurs, as an “other defined” contemporary phenomenon are not a threatening lot. They draw and paint and smile. No arrogance there. It is those who take it upon themselves to point out their “amateurism” who most “clearly” assert that these lessers do not fit into “our” self anointed realm of visual arts superiority.
Why is this? Why, as purported artists, are we so upset about being associated with all the amateurs out there? Possibly because they remind us of worker bees - of those who toil, labour, “work” for a living. I would assume that we in the visual arts see them as production without angst or vision bees - those who do for pay what they are told. They work hard 5 days a week in jobs they dislike or maybe even hate - and all this for that one day in the future when they will retire to a life of leisure and maybe, just maybe, paint their way into the sunset, whilst being satisfied to sell their artistic wares at church fairs. . . . So where’s the threat?
It doesn’t seem to lie in their dreams but rather in their everyday identified lives - their work lives - that which they do in order to achieve what they wish to achieve - whatever the cost. In essence, what bothers us (it seems) is that they (amateurs) are associated with us and us with them. And “we” (the royal we) do not like this one bit. They are amateurs. Nothing else. We, on the other hand, are artists (which is more)! They “willingly” work at jobs they hate. And even some of us (gasp) must do so also. . . but we downplay that aspect of our lives by emphasizing to everyone within earshot that we are more. . . That we are actually bona fide artists. Though to eat, pay rent, survive, we work at stuff we hate to do we nonetheless need to be seen as “better than” the otherness of lowly labourers. We are artists. And our need to be seen as such is often crucial to our well being.
This should not be perceived as unexpected in an era which thrives (especially commercially) on self-esteem issues. Add to this the most prolific phrase of the past century in western democracies : “Thank God it’s Friday!” and if it wasn’t for “happy hours”, we’d all be on the streets protesting “woe is me”.
Despising having to work and having to be seen to be a “worker” has been normalized. We’ve been raised to be more than that! (Harrumph!) Democracies have become so comfortable in being democratic, we’ve become oddly demeaned by the very idea of labour, by the very concept of its existence, its demands and (most especially) by the time "wasted" doing it. We’ve even lost interest in the idea of making our workload better, more productive, more efficient, more pride inducing. We fail to see such effort as creative enough. Work is work is work and nothing can make it other than what it is, or so it seems.
In the mid to late 20th century we killed industrial colleges, considering them lesser places of learning, whilst elevating and growing universities like prized rose gardens. This was not so much because more and more students needed to go to university to meet the needs of the contemporary job market as it was to differentiate between a “higher learning” graduate and a lesser college or “trade school” graduate. Trade schools reminded too many of us that we were not what the advertisers were promoting - smart, sassy and technologically academic. Attending university became a priority for those who were so inclined and for those who saw themselves as lesser if they did not.
No one ever says, these days, they are saving money for their grandchildren to become whatever it is “they want” to become. No. They say (in saving for education insurance ads ) : “I’m putting money away for my grandson’s university. . .” We've been sold and we now sell our kids on the idea that if they don't have a university diploma they are lesser, more ordinary; i.e. : nothing special. . . God forbid that today someone would proudly admit to being a plumber, an electrician, a carpenter or the “best PC repairman in the county”! Never mind that many of these professions are usually chosen because the student loves the trade in which they wish to become proficient. . .
In essence, we’ve lost sight of the fact that a university education, in the true sense of the word, is not about jobs and work but rather about learning and expanding one’s mind. It is not about acquiring skill sets but rather “mind” sets. And so. . . Why are they not therefore for everyone at any time in their lives, from young to old age? Isn’t learning from birth to death not the most precious gift to a living being?
That being said. In these purportedly more enlightened times, few of us end up choosing work we would "oh so love to do". Why?
Possibly for 3 reasons :
1) - The"jobs" we may like might not pay enough to keep us in the lifestyle to which (since childhood) we have become accustomed.
2) - The jobs we go to fail to stimulate us or make us feel proud.
3) - And last but not least, we are a consumer society, consuming ourselves to the nth degree of consumption. We need to fill the jobs out there, as dictated by our society, doing whatever in order to successfully navigate within the parameters of this pre-determined and rather static environment. Never mind the anti status quo considerations of creativity.
Work, therefore, has become a negative - a forced upon us ill. . . necessary to feed and house us and fulfill our needs and most especially our manufactured wants. And this we do to the final day we are “pensioned off”. As such, daily work is generically perceived to be an annoyance. It wastes all the time we wish we could spend doing those things we love to do as. . . well. . . “amateurs”. We love sports (watching more than doing), games (playing), drinking and eating (lots) and playing with our ipads, ipods and our ever evolving game boys - aggressing virtual worlds found in our online war games. Not much creativity compensation there. But frustrations do have to be let out, Eh?
Nonetheless, some of us actually do other things such as - oh my God!!! - sculpt and paint!!! And therein lie "those people", those we sneeringly point to as the dreaded “amateurs” - Sunday painters and carvers; free time “artists”; those who are so commonly and irritatingly associated with us - the “real artists”.
But then, what is being an artist?
Being one today, is not as it was in the 14th to the late 18th century - i,e, : more a commissioned labourer than a self-perceived visionary. But with time, much like the word “amateur”, the title “artist” has been re-moulded and “re”formed by us and our contemporary democratic expectations. Once the definition of a master painter to now what is more commonly known as : anyone who says they are.
Today, the title does not so much define professionalism as it does connote rebelliousness, a “pooh-poohing” reaction to the status quo, a freedom of expression bathed in an environment of art for art’s sake. As such, the calling of oneself an artist (often despite giggles to the contrary) has garnered for itself an elevated status of devil may care - of an “Oh my gawd, look what he just did, thought, uttered, created”!
Since the 19th century, painters and sculptors (who forget that Impressionist mentors were learned men and women, well on their way to becoming painter labourers of their time) have introduced the concept of eschewing regulations and authority; defying traditions, rules, laws and anything else a citizenry associates with its own perceptions of "labour" (i.e. : drudgery). At its best, art for art's sake has given us many great painters and sculptors and at its worst an appropriation of and an entitlement to the status of "artist" - as if it had ever been up for grabs.
Being an artist is “now” seen as what one is when one either has the gall to do nothing or the wherewithal to be seen to be an expert in a field of contemporary collective indefinability - for example : "I am an artist because I say I am. My world is separate from, and even more important than, the world of those who know nothing of this specialized environment of mine." And this is possible because, in our times, the status of "artist" is one which can either be deserved or not, formally acquired or not, proven valid or not - or bestowed or absconded with. No matter. As everyone has the freedom (licence?) to call themselves an artist and their creations art, in the end what we often get is neither art nor an artist. In essence, we have simply arrived at another moment in time when, once again, the emperor has no clothes.
Ironically, as a title - a status - the credibility of the word "artist" has been as damaged as the word amateur. Both have, over time, been seriously diminished and/or denigrated. With no recognizable skill sets required or regulation body to monitor such a nondescript profession as artist, the validity of it becomes questionable within the environments from which it stems and professes itself “different”. Concomitantly, with a title no longer associated with the need for excellence in the creation process, the reality and value of it as a status no longer exists - at least as it once did.
But then, as craving the title "artist" seems to be about “being” rather than doing; being something different, being something "more special" - something which says that we do not (like everyone else) hate what we do (and therefore hate what we are). . . maybe that is the enigma solved. The only question left would be : Is it an equal need or is it a "greater-than" need to NOT be seen as an amateur, as an “ordinary” lesser person? Tomorrow's social history and psychology books will tell. :)
Bernard Poulin. . .