A professional artist has a noble vocation. To beautify the products of commerce and industry, to ornament the living places of distinguished clients, to enliven public spaces with works that delight and instruct the passing crowds—these are worthy endeavors, and the artist who can accomplish them is worth a high price.
Such an artist must remember, however, that the client is the ultimate authority on what goes into her home, or her snack-food packaging, or her town square. The artist may have opinions, and the artist is free to express those opinions, and to reject the commission if he does approve of the client’s decisions. That is the extent of the professional artist’s liberty. Like all workers, he has the freedom to choose whether he wants the money more or less than he wants to have everything his way. He is free to reject a job that does not appeal to him—or to decide that he needs to take it anyway because the bills are coming due.
There is a class of artists, however, who call themselves professionals, but insist that they alone have the right to dictate the content of their art. Their artistic vision must prevail, and they will not hear of interference from clients or committees. Most of them starve in garrets, but they starve proudly.
These artists have a perfect right to make their own decisions and face the consequences of them. When they call themselves professional artists, however, they are misusing the term. There is a word for this kind of artist, and it is amateur.
An amateur, as the etymology of the term implies, is someone who works for the love of the thing rather than for any financial remuneration. If you are uncompromisingly devoted to your art, and you refuse to be moved by money, then you are an amateur rather than a professional.
In most ways it is a nobler thing to be an amateur than it is to be a mere professional. A professional must always compromise; the amateur may have everything on his own terms. But the amateur cannot force me to pay for him to have everything on his own terms.
Now, it may happen that one’s artistic vision coincides precisely with what a certain segment of the public is willing to pay for in art. This seems to be what happened with Norman Rockwell, for example. Dr. Boli will make the unpopular admission that Norman Rockwell’s pictures always make him slightly queasy, but there seems to be no question that Mr. Rockwell loved what he did, and he certainly was well paid for it. In such a case there is no distinction between the professional and the amateur.
For some reason Americans tend to use “amateur” as a term of disparagement. Probably it comes from our tendency to assign a monetary value to everything. The highest compliment we can pay to anyone’s work is to call it professional, because the only way we know of measuring its worth is in money.
But money is not the measure of all things. It would be helpful to remember that the adjunct professor of philosophy at the community college is a professional teacher, but Jesus Christ was an amateur. Thomas Kinkade was a professional artist; Vincent Van Gogh was an amateur.
If you are making a living as an artist, you are a professional, and like all professionals you probably have to compromise your own taste every so often to give the client what she wants. You may have an infallible color sense, but if the marketer tells you those colors will not sell pretzels, then the marketer must have her way.
If, however, you refuse to compromise your principles, and you insist that your art must be taken your way or not at all, then you are doubtless a noble soul and deserve our commendation. But do not call yourself a professional artist. Call yourself what you are. Say the word: amateur. It will make you feel better.