On the use of the word ‘professional’

‘Contempt for and indifference toward intellectual passions and creativity where these are not remunerative are precisely concordant with financial hierarchies. The painter is taken seriously when the hype of the media ascribes to his work monetary value’.

George Steiner, My Unwritten Books, 2008

There’s an article by Claire Bishop on the Guardian website in which, starting from a piece by Tino Seghal at Tate Modern, she questions the meanings that arise when professional artists use non-professional performers in their work. It touches on many issues but a key concern is who should be paid to make art and, by extension, what is a professional artist. That question is picked up by Charlotte Higgins in her blog on the same site.

The focus on payment is perhaps inevitable in a society that puts so much faith in money: after all, money is almost the only recognized measure of value in Britain today. Being paid to work has become the principal meaning of professional but the word originally meant something almost opposite.

A profession was different to, and more than, a trade because those who engaged in it ‘professed’ commitment to an ideal. As a result, its use was first restricted to divinity, medicine and the law. A lawyer puts the law itself above personal interest, so a judge is not to be bribed. Of course, we are all corruptible and some judges have taken bribes. But in doing so, they not only commit a crime, as would a lay juror, they also betray their profession.

Since professionals set a higher standard for their conduct and were regulated by peers they won legal privileges and social status. They gained trust because their professional ethics and practice were – at least in principle – more important to them than money. Rumpole describes himself as a ‘taxi plying for hire’ because his commitment to the law obliges him to accept any client who asserts innocence, whatever his own feelings.

When artists aspired to be regarded as professionals, rather than craftsmen for hire, they were making a claim to serve a higher ideal than their own interests – a claim that could only have been made after the emergence of Kantian aesthetics, which saw judgements of taste as disinterested, and Romanticism, which gave the artist a pre-eminent place in making them. In Western culture, an artist’s integrity is still based on that claim. It is what allows a great writer, such as William Faulkner, to say that:

‘The writer’s only responsibility is to his art. He will be completely ruthless if he is a good one. He has a dream. It anguishes him so much he must get rid of it. He has no peace until then. Everything goes by the board: honor, pride, decency, security, happiness, all, to get the book written. If a writer has to rob his mother, he will not hesitate; the “Ode on a Grecian Urn” is worth any number of old ladies.’

Paris Review, Spring 1956

The claim is still the basis of how artists are seen in the Western imagination, but it has subtly adapted itself to the commercialised values of consumer society. Now money doesn’t just finance an artist’s work – it legitimises it. Anyone who doesn’t get paid for their art is evidently, by definition, not good enough. In a market civilisation with a transactional culture, only being paid can make you worth something.

That is why – although they generally don’t think of themselves in this way – amateur artists are such a vital alternative to an arts world both confused about, and corrupted by, its relationship with money. The challenge represented by an artist who does not expect or want to be paid may partly account for the professional art world’s widespread ignorance of what non-professional artists are doing. The amateur’s commitment makes an implicit critique of market values and respects the original sense of profession, whatever the individual’s talent, aesthetics or practice.

The focus on whether artists – trained or untrained, professional or non-professional – should be paid also obscures the more important question of control. Art turns on who makes the artistic decisions, where authorship (and authority) lies. As artists have known throughout the centuries, that is often the commissioner, the person who holds the purse strings. I’m not sure things are so different whether that is a duke, a prelate or a public institution such as Tate.

There is a freedom in not being paid that few professional artists now seem to value. Perhaps they think they’re worth more than that.

(Claire Bishop’s piece also raises important questions about the meaning of the term ‘participatory art’, which she uses both to describe a set of contemporary art theories and practices and the work that originally emerged in the late 1960s as community art. This elision and some bold assertions – what research into participatory arts did New Labour commission? – don’t provide a very sound basis for some of her conclusions, but that is a different discussion.)

Postscript 19 September 2012

I met Heba el-Cheik last year, when she was studying for her Master’s at Utrecht School of the Arts in the Netherlands, and again when she came to Bristol to see ACTA‘s Coast festival earlier this year. Talking to her I gained a glimpse into what it might mean to be young and courageous in today’s Egypt. With a number of friends in the Mahatat Collective, Heba works on art events and programmes, particularly for young people for young people. She has gained her degree and is now home where things are, in her words, ‘intense, hectic, active and real’. On her blog, there’s a great post about the tensions and dilemmas around being ‘professional’, that picks up some of my thoughts here, but from an interestingly different light.

Postscript 17 June 2003

Professionalism in art has this difficulty: to be professional is to be dependable, to be dependable is to be predictable, and predictability is aesthetically boring – an anti-virtue in a field where we hope to be astonished and startled and at some deep level refreshed.

John Updike, Higher Gossip, 2011


  1. Francois, an informative and interesting piece. What you are raising plays into a key issue for our society, ie not just for the art work but for wider society….what is valued and how it is valued? You rightly skirt around a number of related issues, but taking your prompt there are issues of class wrapped into this…..if you aren’t ‘monied’, then your chioce of not being paid won’t hinge on you are called professional (orginal sense) or amateur (doing for the love of the activity) you will live in poverty?



  2. Thanks Bill. I often find thinking about what’s happening in the art world naturally leads to wider questions: it’s the connections between art and society that are interesting. You’re right to raise class, which is no less powerful for being largely unspoken these days: profes-sional is easily made synonymous with middle class.

  3. The best news is the news that someone as left the “professions” to follow their passion. It’s news because so few people can muster the will to take on the risk. Yet it’s risk that births originality. Is safety worth it? Is the promise of payment worth the loss of originality? Most of us think it is. We are sheep, mostly. Paid but penned.

  4. Thanks for your comment. Many artists – most of those I know, probably – do follow a pro-fession in the older sense of the word, or perhaps a vocation, if only because the world hasn’t offered them wealth and acclaim. I spoke someone a few days ago who has all his life as an artist and a teacher. Now he’s retired, he just continues to follow his path and is making beautiful work that will probably be seen by quite limited numbers of people.

    By the way, you might be interested in the work of Georgina Barney, an artist who’s doing good work at the meeting ground between art and farming, exploring what the best values of each can offer the other and the rest of us. Have a look at these links

  5. Thanks, Francois, for the note and for the links. I will check them out. be well

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