I don’t get no respect. No respect at all.

Yesterday, I saw a friend of mine who is a mason. I told him that there was a local festival downtown and that he should come and build a brick knee-wall in the middle of the street. It would be a fun time and people would see how good he was.

Oh wait, maybe it was the brain surgeon I invited to do an open air tumor removal. But if she found that problematic, maybe she could just trot out some of her success-story patients or barring that, some pictures of her work. She does great work.

Or perhaps it was the seamstress I talked to. She’s been at it for most of her life. She figures out incredibly creative solutions for repairing rips and tears so that they‘re barely noticeable. I figured people would be really interested in what she does. Most people don’t know how to sew, much less repair creatively.

Now, you might be asking yourself, why I would invite skilled professionals out to display the fruits of their professional labor at a community festival.

Well, it happens all the time and I still can’t wrap my head around it

But, I will make you a bet. I will bet you any amount of money that when I reveal my profession, you will exclaim: But that’s different! And therein lays the problem. People perceive my profession and my dedication to my profession as somehow less than professional

Yes, the skill levels required of my profession meet or exceed any of the people listed above. Yes, like them, I’ve spent the majority of my life either learning about my profession or mastering the skill of it. I hold a Masters Degree in my subject. Yes, I’m recognized as a professional by my peers and by professionals in related fields. Yes, I get paid to do my job. Yes, I’m very good at my job. Yes, it requires hard work, problem solving and creativity to do it well. Yes, I’m dedicated to what I do. And like those professionals listed above, I am responsible for managing my business, developing a solid reputation, advertising my services, and most importantly I provide the talent and labor for all of these necessary tasks.

So how is it that when I reveal that I’m a professional artist, the regard for my professionalism and what I will seemingly do to promote my work rolls into the gutter?

People assume that, as an artist, I am so desperate for recognition, attention or exposure that I am willing to exhibit my work anytime, anywhere and under any conditions and for any price. They equate artistic creativity to desperation.

In part, it is the non-professionals of my discipline that are to blame. They are desperate for attention. They do want recognition at any cost. In fact, they will hang their work a toilet stall if it means someone…. anyone will see it. And in trying to be a socially responsible part of a local community, many professional artists contribute to the issue by giving away labor, time, effort, supplies and even artistic output…because we’re just artists. We’ve got time, material and labor to spare.

In our community, we have an art crawl where artists pay a fee to be allowed to hang their work in local businesses. Yes, you read that right. The artist pays a fee. All for the privilege of increasing revenues for downtown businesses (according to an article in the local newspaper). But you read nothing about the artists who contributed their time and effort; the same folks who spent money to be “allowed” to show their work.

I will guarantee you that not one artist sold work or will make a future sale, based on this particular event.

So when I am asked to participate, I am considered “problematic” when I express the desire for a space that meets standards someone from any other profession would request; or in some cases demand. For some reason my standards are supposed to be more lax. I am supposed to “go with the flow”. This means I am supposed to: haul my work out of storage, unpack it, haul it into town, bring the hanging equipment, hang it so that is presented professionally and increases the stature of my work. And then I’m supposed to stand there, smile and promote my work. But more to the point, promote the business it’s hanging in. I am supposed to do this without the chance for a sale and without the work being insured against theft or damage, only to take it down, haul it back, re-pack it and put it in storage…because I’m just an artist; I’ve got nothing better to do with my time.

And if the work hanging beside mine is a wretched Sunday painter, people being generally uneducated about art, art making or the value of a given piece, automatically assume equality between the two works. They make this assumption in much the same way they will assume that if a young girl is living with a known pimp then she must be a prostitute. It may be an incorrect assumption. Nevertheless, an indelible and irrevocable impression has been made.

All of which leads me to ask: Do I look like I have the word doormat tattooed across my forehead? Because, really, that would explain a lot.

I have tried to express these frustrations to those asking me to participate in the latest community quilting-bee and art show. They come to me, assuming that I will jump at a chance to get a much-needed attention fix. And somehow, the refusal to devalue my work or my profession becomes an act of condescension toward them…because I’m just an artist. We aren’t allowed to think others should treat us as professionals worthy of respect.

Of course, brain surgeons and CEOs might feel exactly the same way.

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1 Comment

  1. September 23, 2009 at 6:00 pm

    From a fellow artist:
    People used to ask me a lot why I didn’t start making my own jewelry and do the “art fair” circuit. This pretty much explains it. I have put together so many silent auctions that were basically designed to rip off artists and allow rich people to get art nearly free. I know the promoters think I am a Scrooge but I just can’t do it anymore.

    Personally, it might be an interesting experiment to run the health care industry like this for awhile.


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