First off, let me write that this is not a how to guide about how to become a professional artist. There are hundreds, if not thousands of those out there, most of them geared toward commodifying the artist personality and by extension the artwork. I’m not sure if following those guides actually help or not, just like I’m not sure whether my two years in an MFA program actually prepared me for a life of a professional artist. What I can say is that after the MFA professionalism is something that is not given over by a degree or title but acquired, and even if one doesn’t sell the work they make, does that make them a lesser artist? I suppose that to be a professional in western culture means to make money off of what one does, but does that immediately negate all the artists that slave away in and out of their studios daily who do not have gallery representation or sell their work, do not appear in flashy magazines, do not get to exhibit in the art fairs and biennials around the world, do not have long write ups on art blogs and are generally ignored?
For me to believe that I am a professional artist I have to have certain criteria met. I have to be able to make work, which means that I have to have a space to do it, preferably a studio. I have to be able to communicate with the people I know like and enjoy my work and to get it out to those that may one day like and enjoy my work. Easy enough I suppose, I have a studio and a computer. But sending off random emails to curators and galleries is like knocking on a stranger’s door, first you don’t know if anyone is home and second what do you say if they open up? The elevator speech? The ultimate in self-presentation and commodification? Give me a run-down of what you do and what you are about in 30 seconds. Go! Fair enough, even I understand the merits of this type of presentation.
The road to being a professional artist is a long and arduous one. But the question is what is wrong with just calling oneself an artist and leaving the word professional out of it? Some people get there by walking over others, by screaming the loudest, by kissing enough ass along the way. It would be naïve to think that those people do not exist. Those artists are not bothered by ethics or common decency, or the dignity of those they callously throw under the bus just so they can get a short step ahead. But for myself I have to be somewhat naïve to think that those artists will one day end up in the trash heap of history, that their behavior will get them excommunicated, because the reality is that the artworld is filled with people of the most terrible sort, many of whom are at the top of the pile, but just as many are the rank and file, waiting to fill the few spots that might one day become available at the top.
My naiveté is that I believe that the alternative is also possible, that the alternative to the commercial artworld is not only the academic profession, where you have to watch what you say and how you say it. My advice, if one can call it that, is to read whatever you can and listen to whoever you can about being an artist and as soon as you do that, forget everything you read and heard, because those people don’t know shit. Only you know how to make your work and what’s best for you. Professionalism destroys art. An artist has to be first and foremost, free.