“If you hear a voice within you saying ‘You cannot paint’,
then by all means paint, and that voice will be silenced”
~ Vincent Van Gogh
I want to preface this post by saying the following: Being regarded as a professional is usually only important to the artist. A buyer, for the most part, buys a creative project or piece because he or she finds it appealing, not because the artist has post-graduate experience in the field, has been featured in galleries or earns a majority of their income from their craft. Though these qualifications are something in which to have great pride, they do not really (or solely, at least) qualify an artist as a professional or quantify a degree of professionalism.
I would never presume to define the techniques or education of an artist as professional or amateur unless I was the customer purchasing the product. Nor do I think it is the place of anyone to do so unless doing so about themselves or about a product they intend to purchase. On that note, I would like to discuss the term “professional” as regards how we each conduct our own business and consider how it relates to our customer service philosophies and experiences and, perhaps by doing so, shed a little light on the ambiguity (or importance) of the term.But first, let’s define “professional”:
Merrium-Webster defines a professional in the following ways: “characterized by or conforming to the technical or ethical standards of a profession; exhibiting a courteous, conscientious, and generally businesslike manner in the workplace; participating for gain or livelihood in an activity or field of endeavor often engaged in by amateurs.” So, a professional is defined as someone who is learned in, and adheres to, the standards by which a field is conducted. Graduate education, for instance, would qualify someone (according to this definition) as a professional. Fair enough. Challenging yourself at an educational institution is a valid way to exhibit dedication to a skill, trade or area of interest and certainly implies to a customer (or employer) a willingness to establish a relationship to which the professional will be likewise dedicated. By these same guidelines, it can also be said that anyone who has exhibited a learned understanding of their field may also be considered a professional, whether attending a University or degree program or not. Now, are these “technical or ethical standards”, however, something to which a professional has to or should conform? Ah, therein lies the real question, and I think the answer depends upon the field of study.A mathematician is required to follow a formula (or technical standard) in order to define the answer to a problem. An artist, on the other hand, is much more free to tug at the boundaries of these standards in order to best represent his or her personal vision. For example, a wire artisan will prepare her work to be wearable, comfortable and clean, but is otherwise free (and encouraged, even) to implement the design in whatever technique best suits her style. A painter may prepare his or her canvas by a technical standard, but is not required to paint that canvas by any standards outside her own aesthetics. An apprenticeship is one of the few exceptions to the “freedom rule”, in that an apprentice will follow the technical standards of her teacher, only inasmuch as she feels the techniques will help define her voice. The techniques of that teacher, however, do not define the standards by which everyone creates or by which a creation, in general, is considered professional. Ultimately, this definition of “professional” is misleading and under-explained, at best, and which next leaves the following definition open for discussion.A professional “participates for gain or livelihood in an activity or field of endeavor often engaged in by amateurs”.This definition makes a distinction between a professional and an amateur, instead of focusing alone on what defines a professional. A babysitter and a nanny, for instance, both make money caring for the children of others, for gain or livelihood. However, according to this definition, one is an amateur and one is a professional, but the distinction is honestly impossible to make, by this definition alone. If the definition only regarded the monetary rewards of work, it might be easier to distinguish between a professional and amateur, but assigning a value is far too dependent on location and standard of living, among a number of others factors. The previous definition, however, can shed some light on the distinction, in that the amount of time (or education) dedicated to the field will assign one or the other the title of professional, but that is to assume these definitions cannot be read or interpreted independently of one another.Now for the last (and for me, most important) possible definition: A professional “exhibits a courteous, conscientious, and businesslike manner in the workplace”. This should be, generally speaking, the easiest to interpret, but unfortunately, we’ve all encountered an unprofessional demeanor with a business owner or employee. Why? Because we all have our own ideas of professional conduct. For instance, I’m quite the fan of a particular gritty, urban photographer, and follow his work frequently on Facebook. His posts are often vulgar and sarcastic which, to some, can be perceived as unprofessional, but when viewed in context of his body of work, it fits the “brand” he’s attempted to establish, while still interacting with his customers in a polite manner.But, in a more generalized scenario, here are a few (and not all-inclusive) guidelines by which I expect a business owner to conduct themselves in a professional manner:
- Treating customers with respect. Defamatory or derogatory language, especially in a public forum, about or directly to a customer is, for me, not an example of professional conduct. On that note, if a customer is unhappy with a product or service, publishing their complaints in a mocking manner is the least likely way to retain business. Although we, as independent business owners, reserve the right to cease a business relationship with any customer, I certainly feel it can be accomplished in a private and respectful way.
- Treating peers with respect. Let the clarity, beauty and skill of your own work speak to the merits of your techniques and avoid pointing out what you perceive to be imperfections in the work of others. If I, as a customer, appreciate and purchase the work, then the work is, to me, considered professional. In the art world, it is the responsibility of the customer alone to determine the quality and professionalism of the individual with whom he or she chooses to conduct business, as per his or her own artistic tastes .
- Treating art with respect. Though I, as a customer, always purchase to suit my own tastes or style, the artist has an inherent responsibility to take time and care with their creations. Education or previous experience aside, each piece should represent the artist’s own technical, ethical and artistic standards and not necessarily the standards as perceived by the field as a whole. In other words, I seek individualism.
Well, if you aren’t the customer buying the product or service, and you’re not the artist providing that product or service to that particular customer, then it doesn’t mean anything.
We all have our own perceptions of what best represents a professional background, product or conduct. This post was only to inspire you to consider your definitions carefully before defining another person (or their art) by them. Buy or make the work you appreciate for the reasons you appreciate them, and don’t let a standard definition undermine your own values, tastes and desires.
Art should not be defined by absolutes, but by the limitless expectations of our imaginations.