“An amateur gives people what they want; a professional gives them what they need.”
I can’t remember where I heard that quote, but it guides me when I think I should be producing work that people might like, rather than following my own meandering impulses.
Which brings me to muse on the term ‘amateur’. It is often used as a derogatory description for someone not considered good enough to be a professional artist. Professional artists are thought to be those who derive their income solely from their art. Both descriptions are open to debate of course. Who judges ‘good enough’? And it’s more than difficult for most people, however ‘good’ they are, to survive entirely on producing art.
Perhaps a better distinction would be to evaluate the merits of the work itself and not who produced it. But, again, who judges that? Art is notoriously subjective and the opinions of art critics are often criticised themselves.
To be considered an amateur wasn’t always a bad thing. At the beginning of the last century an amateur could be extremely talented, but practised their art for love rather than money. Professionals relied on wealthy patrons and commissions to support themselves. London’s Royal Academy of Arts was one of the leading institutions of the time. Being accepted as an Academician brought respect and recognition, and allowed members to exhibit and teach as esteemed artists.
The teaching of drawing and technical skills ceased to be taught in Western art colleges in the 1960’s in favour of ‘self-expression’. This led to an explosion of other genres, such as photography, film, installations and abstraction to express the creative urge. Collectors such as Saatchi supported and encouraged the movement, although most viewers found the works challenging at best. Art, which had generally been an expression of beauty or at least a reflection of reality, became a sometimes shocking baring of the artist’s soul.
The distinction between amateur and professional was blurred even further, as anyone could produce anything and call it ‘art’ in the name of self-expression. Traditional techniques and approaches were frowned on as old-fashioned and unnecessary.
Over the last decade or so there has been a strong movement back towards basic skills. Drawing is now taught in most art colleges, including the Royal Academy. Representational art, especially watercolours, is in high demand. Highly detailed work indistinguishable from photography is greatly admired. Perhaps this is the popular backlash to the wild shock factor art using human faeces, cow-dung and dissected animals.
This has of course made it even more difficult to differentiate between good or bad, amateur or professional. We can be guided by a critic’s opinions and value their assessments, but ultimately we have to make up our own minds. Knowing a little about drawing ourselves, whether we practice it or not, should help us to see when, say, the perspective is wrong or the tone is flat. Teaching children to draw should be mandatory in schools, as it gives them life-long insight. Learning to draw as adults is a gift everyone should give themselves. Amateur or professional doesn’t really matter. Good or bad drawing does!