Saturday, January 29, 2011

Hobby Artist - Discuss

Recently I was involved in a screening process that led to a good discussion of the group's intentions in respect to the artists it supports. Yes, a certain level of expertise is important to maintain the standards of the organization and thus its cache as a quality group to exhibit with. Yes, one of its goals is to nurture new artists, ones that may be on the cusp of launching a career, or ones that need a place to learn whether or not making art their vocation is really what they want to do. Yes, it also needs the professional artist, but that is not the only kind of artist that makes this organization work as well as it does. And then someone described those we were screening as, "let's face it, hobby artists."

I'm not sure I've ever heard those two terms used in conjunction with each other. I do know that I instantly bristled taking offence, was very uncomfortable as the conversation continued, wondered if any of them had referred to me as a hobby artist. You see, I'm very sensitive to this term "hobby" because it has always had negative connotations as applied to my quilting career, makes light of what I take rather seriously. (And in the context of this conversation, it indeed was being used negatively.) In two syllables it can turn something I approach professionally into something not worth another's time to consider. Am I wrong? Isn't there another term we can come up with to differentiate someone who can make a living making art and one who does not but perhaps approaches it in the same way?

Definitions of hobby generally reference this idea of doing something for enjoyment, not profit (as if the two are mutually exclusive) and indeed, this is the basis for Internal Revenue Service tax code when income does not turn a profit; you list it under "hobby." Yes, I railed at this when I started earning money for teaching classes. In no way was I making enough to turn a profit, but I didn't consider it a hobby either. I finally made my peace with the IRS terminology and continued on comporting myself in a professional way. (One of my signature classes was teaching Judy Mathieson's Mariner Compass block method.)

But here it is - on is an article on the definition of hobby that begins: "A hobby is a spare-time recreational pursuit." It makes me feel somewhat better when it admits "Engaging in a hobby can lead to acquiring substantial skill, knowledge, and experience. However, personal fulfillment is the aim." Yes, personal fulfillment was my initial drive when I got into quilting, and part of that fulfillment comes from acquiring that skill, knowledge and experience. And it is always nice when that leads to some monetary rewards, but then, that apparently puts you into the category of professional. I'm getting confused.

So what does say about professionals?
"A professional does something as a profession, or receives payment for some activity. The adjective "professional" can indicate that someone has great skill in a craft or activity, or that something demonstrates such skill. To conduct oneself as a professional (exhibiting "professional behavior") would indicate that the person's actions remain in accordance with specific rules, written or unwritten, pertaining to the standards of a profession. The opposite of "professional" is "amateur" (disparagingly: "rank amateur"). In many cases someone can perform the exact same craft or task, and the only difference between a professional and an amateur consists in the payment of the one but not the other." This all strikes me as a slippery slope. I want a different word to describe what I think I am! Cause I'm sure not receiving much payment for my skills, not enough to make me anything but a hobbyist in most eyes.

The definition of an artist, on the other hand is pretty straight forward: "An artist is someone who employs creative talent to produce works of art." Hey - that's me. And I want the respect that should garner. I don't want it classified into "hobby" or "serious" or "professional" even. Maybe tell me if I'm a good artist or a bad artist - that's about it.

But seriously, how do you respond to this term of hobby artist? Is there a better, less denigrating term we could be using?


Connie Rose said...

Geez, I just left a long comment and the preview function didn't work and I lost the comment!

I'll try again -- Great post, Sheila! I consider people who aren't serious about art, those who take classes continuously but never do their own work, never actually push new techniques toward their personal vision -- dabblers. Some of this, some of that, no commitment.

Re: the IRS -- the U.S. Tax Code, which is the LAW, as opposed to the IRS being the law, says that in order for one to be considered a business, they must have a profit MOTIVE and economic activity. There's nothing in THE LAW about having to turn a profit in 3 out of 5 years or else you're really a hobby. How many of the mega-corporations out there show losses on their bottom lines year after year after year, because it's good business practice, they're writing off this or that against profits, or whatever. The IRS doesn't force them to stop doing business, doesn't turn them into hobbies.

I've filed a Schedule C for over 20 years and I've rarely turned a profit from my various art businesses. They haven't shut me down yet and I know they won't. The IRS is a front for the Treasury Dept, trying to scare people into complying when in fact the laws regarding small business have been upheld in Court.

Have a wonderful Sunday!

The Idaho Beauty said...

Actually, Connie, I do know what you have related about the tax codes. The biggest advantage for declaring yourself a business over a hobby is that as a hobby you can only take deductions up to the amount of income. As a business, as you noted, deduct away. Still, if you don't have a profit motive, you are just a hobbiest. I still don't like the term because of the negativity it implies. I still need a word that describes this middle ground better.

I DO like your term dabbler, though. That describes much better what most people are getting at when they use the term hobby, what I think was being implied when the term "hobby artist" was being bandied about. Oh, these people are just dabbling at painting, have filled up their house, given away to everyone they can think of and now just want some place where they can get rid of the excess. Um, isn't that what non-hobby artists do too, except with a bit more intent than dabbling would imply? I'm ranting here!

magsramsay said...

It would have made my blood boil!!
My working profession is a scientist but like you I have a professional approach to my artwork and quiltmaking - it's far more serious than a hobby.
As I don't make my living from it you could also say that I have more freedom to experiment and develop as I don't need to be market-led or follow the trends.

In the orchid world, much of the practical expertise in these plants lies with the so-called hobby-growers rather than the 'professionals' like myself who's interest is more specialist and academic.
We often refer to these growers as 'qualified amateurs' - their knowledge is often greater than ours.

bj parady said...

Rant away! I agree that it is dismissive in tone--as if making art in order to put food on the table is superior to making art to feed your soul. So I guess it's more the tone that puts me off than the actual words 'hobby artist'--it's a term I've heard before in the art world, and usually means to me someone who just makes art for enjoyment.

If the speakers meant that the petitioners in question haven't crossed that magical threshold from dabbler to artist, it still doesn't excuse snobbery--not everyone follows the same path.

Chris said...

Great post, great comments. I agree with magsramsay, having a day job allows you the freedom to do whatever you like, experiment and take risks with your art. I know so many people who went to college and majored in art and after graduating never, ever made another piece of art. I consider it heroic to make art despite all of the responsibilities one may labor under in life. Hobby is paint by numbers, or quilt by kit. If you do that all day, does that make you an "real" artist?

Kathy Hodge said...

While people should make art for any reason whatsoever, I can understand the IRS disqualifying those for tax write-offs who make no effort to market their work. The income tax is all about income, and if you're not trying to get more of it by selling your work, you shouldn't be able to write off art expenses, any more than you could write off a cookbook. (Unless you're a professional chef). But the 3/5 or 5/7 year profit standard is too arbitrary. I agree that big corporations can lose money like it's going out of style and somehow that's ok. If you prove that you are trying to sell your work, that should be enough.

And all these tags, hobbyist, dappler, doctor's wife, amateur, dayjob/artist don't matter one bit, it's the work that counts!

The Idaho Beauty said...

Thank you, everyone for your thoughtful replies. We still haven't come up with a less denigrating term for us caught in the middle between "hobbyist" and "professional" but you've helped me clarify my own thoughts on this a bit. Chris - you hit upon what I was trying to put my finger on - hobby tends to imply no creative input, you're just following directions as in a paint by number or kit project. I am definitely a hobbyist when it comes to my knitting and embroidery and would never tag "artist" onto it. As Kathy said, it is the work that counts.

My brother commented in an e-mail "What were they thinking to even pair that (hobby) with artist?" I think that was my original reaction as well. He notes that it does take skill but skill alone doesn't produce art (amen to that!). So learn your craft and learn it well - and follow your bliss. Hope he doesn't mind me pulling key points from his e-mail but these mirror my own thoughts - he just said them so clearly.

Oh, and he reminded me of the French and Latin root of "amateur" (which we have noted also can have negative connotations): "lover of" and "to love." I guess we should embrace that.