2010 and its been 15 years since I had my first professional work in “the arts” (for want of a better descriptor) For reasons unknown this inauspicious milestone has prompted me to reflect upon my own work history, the things I have done and, more importantly, the nature of what the ‘working professional’ is in the 2nd decade of the 21st century?
This navel-gazing exercise finds its fundamental in the definition of ‘professional’. It’s a powerful word, a word with weight and status and implications. And whilst few would argue this, the definition of exactly what ‘professional’ means remains contentious and inconsistent.
The most base of definition would simply be Professional as a descriptor of someone who gets Paid to work in a particular field. A person paid to make art is a professional artist; a person paid to make clothes is a professional tailor. And so on…
The issue this base definition raises however is that it encompasses everyone with a paying-job. Subsequently the distinction of being a ‘professional’ or indeed the use of the word at all becomes redundant, ‘professional’ fails to mark a distinction or status that common usage of the word would imply. Professional dog walker…? Professional checkout operator…?
So, to take a step more refined we could define a professional as a person paid to perform a task that requires specialist knowledge, certification and/or specific education or training. This definition with greater specificity would fit the traditional idea of the ‘Professions’ - law, medicine, accountancy - jobs that are encompassed or overseen by a ‘Professional Body’. You might make the argument that those working in filmmaking for example, are encompassed by the various guilds and associations. But this is a big stretch to suggest that such organisations have the same authority as the Medical Board or Bar Association; organisations from which someone may be disbarred and so unable to continue to practice their profession. Union agreements aside, you don’t have to be a member of the Writers Guild to write a screenplay or a novel and be paid to do so. So whilst Lawyers, Doctors and Accountants might argue that no one else can truly be called a ‘professional’, such stubbornness wont sway the word out of common usage for other perceived professions.
If we then move specifically to the arts industries (broadly encompassing theatre, tv, film, music, art, and a myriad of hybrids) the idea of ‘Professional’ takes on another connotation; context. As the arts and arts-based industries are generally and traditionally considered to be difficult to break into and make a living from, the idea of being a Professional marks a distinction of Success.
This idea seems to be derived broadly from the idea that everyone starts in the arts woking for nothing, doing it for the love and a desire to create. Then, much like separations between amateur and professional in sport, when a person is good enough they move up to being paid to do what they previously did for nothing and make a living from it.
So it may be said that the term Professional has greater specificity, is more meaningful and is more applicable when used in reference to the arts industries (and sport) than anywhere else. It denotes an accomplishment and a progression from the mass to the elite; from part-time amateur to full-time professional.
This distinction may be even more apparent and applicable in the digital age of consumer co-creation, the Prod-User and User Generated Content. Fuelled by the pressure cooker of powerful and accessible tools of creation (software) and an unlimited and openly accessible broadcast system (the internet) we are palpably in the age that declares proudly that “anyone can be an arts-worker”. This massive spike in the number of people engaging with creative arts industries practice as Amateurs gives extra impetus to entrenching a dividing line - a moniker to stamp a person as having risen above the mass of unpaid creators becoming successful enough to make a living from that creation as a Professional. The term becomes a medal of achievement.
Now, this is not necessarily to suggest a hierarchy of importance or worthiness. Great artistic civilisations have only risen when art and culture are embedded in this populous not confined to the elite. If every kid was making music imagine how many Mozart’s, Tom Yorke’s, YoYo Marrs we’d discover? The digital age has this potential to unlock and provide opportunity for what might otherwise be lost or undiscovered.
Yet, somewhat ironically, through widespread engagement with Folk Art - in its literal sense of Folk being ‘of the people’ - we make the need, the desire, for a moniker of status, success, achievement, all the more entrenched. If everyone is making videos then what does it take to call yourself a ‘professional filmmaker’? Is it just being paid? Or is it something else..?
This leads us to yet another incarnation of ‘Professional’, one that has broad appeal and popular usage. Many might argue that above ideas of ‘specialist knowledge’ and ‘being paid’, Professional is a state of mind. It is an attitude and a way of conducting ones self in regard to their creative practice. A mindset that is irrespective of whether one is being paid and making a living for their efforts - a state of ‘Professionalism’ rather than just the pragmatic moniker of being a ‘Professional’.
Certainly I, as most, have worked on ‘amateur’, un-paid films that were highly ‘professional’ in the way they were conducted. And similarly have worked on professionally paid projects that were far from professional in conduct. At an individual level, paid arts workers can often demonstrate a distinct lack of professionalism whilst amateurs exhibit all the traits u would hope to find in the pros. The point is that budget (or lack thereof) is not a garantee of Professionalism.
The downside of this reading of Professional is that it leaves aside Professional experience and knowledge - something that no attitude of good intent can make up for.
If I was more cynical I might suggest that those who argue professional has nothing to do with being paid but is wholly a way of conducting yourself do so as little more than means for amateurs to adopt the term ‘Professional without having to earn it, a kind of self delusion to raise their status above their amateur colleagues and exert a notion of experience they do no actually possess.
But I don’t think I’m that cynical… And something about a quote from James Cameron rings true “Pick up a camera. Shoot something… you are a director. Everything after that you’re just negotiating your budget”
So to come to back where we began - after 15 years can I call myself a professional…? I find myself making a list of all the Professional (ie Paid) roles I have performed in those years on projects large and (mostly) small… Actor, sound designer, lighting designer, sound mixer, technical director, video camera operator, production assistant, live staging technician, voice-over artist, video editor, motion graphics artist, magazine editor, journalist, book author, website content editor, director, producer, script editor, screenwriter, radio host, photographer, sound mixer and sound recordist. And those roles may be in turn viewed in a more succinct list of arts industry spheres I have worked in: theatre, film, tv, advertising, radio, publishing, museums, music and online.
Am I a professional? Certainly this is how I have made a living. I’ve never worked a job outside of these related ‘arts and media’ industries, never needed a ‘day job’ to support my creative work, never worked in a bar or cafe between gigs.
And yet for the most part (or at least for arguments sake) I have not been any one of these roles consistently enough to make living unto itself. It’s taken an engagement with all of these and my own flexibility and adaptability to make a good living collectively by performing them all at various and overlapping times.
If ‘Professional’ means being paid for what so many do as un-paid amateurs then I assume i get a tick. But despite my 15 years experience and having undergraduate and masters degrees - along with a soon to be completed PhD - it might still be hard to justify ‘specialist expertise’ when I’m such a jack of all trades. And certainly there is no Professional Body governing my work. I may dare to hope that I have always conducted myself professionally. I am quite certain that a great majority of the work I’ve had was simply because I was a touch anally retentive about showing up on time. I often tell my students that producers will take reliability over talent any day of the week.
So, having formulated this summary of my career to date I conclude that I’m probably not alone or unique in my checkered professional history and my confused state about what Professional really means. ‘Professional’ is a many varied badge and we all wear it in different ways - as a mark of success, a signifier of status, a certification of experience or a descriptor of attitude and conduct.
What is consistent as I reflect back is that I am, above all else, an Educator. Of all the roles I have played it is teaching that has been the hub and, moreover, the most engaging, involving and satisfying field of endeavour. It’s taken 15 years and a sojourn through a myriad of roles and fields to arrive at that conclusion and the following position - whilst I will continue to write, edit, shoot, produce, script, composit, review and record - and will likely always make part of my living from these endeavours - I am above all else a Professional Educator. And the mark of status as a professional educator I carry is that I would trade all my other pursuits for teaching on any given day of the week.
This may appear a touch self-indulgent for my blog-post - I fear it will prove to be one of my least popular scribblings - but it all seems rather fitting since this week I start a new job as lecturer in Screen Studies at the Australian Film, TV and Radio school (AFTRS). A new Year, a new job and the start of a whole host of new Professional challenges for the next 15 years.