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How to be an unprofessional artist


Some of us spend considerable time professionalizing our creative output in order to a.) hopefully make money and b.) feel like our ambitions aren’t a total waste of time. Others, however, have steered away from professionalism, whether by intention or just not having your shit together. For Momus, Andrew Berardini writes a manifesto for the unprofessional artist: she who stays out too late, drinks too much, misses deadlines, skips the gallery dinner to hang out with friends. Count me in.

No one likes being called an amateur, a dilettante, a dabbler.

“Unprofessional” is an easy insult.

The professional always makes the right moves, knows the right thing to say, the right name to check. Controlled and measured, the professional never fucks the wrong person or drinks too much at the party. They never weep at the opening, never lay in bed for days too depressed, sick, broken to move. They say about the professional, “so easy to work with” or “so exacting but brilliant.” The professional takes advantage from every encounter, employs every new acquaintance as a contact, always hits the deadline. When asked about their work, they know what to say, a few lines of explanation sprinkled with enough filigreed intrigue to allude to abysses of research, the mysteries of making. They answer emails in minutes. Their PowerPoints are super crisp. Look at their website, so clean, so modern, so very pro.

You don’t feel like any of these things.

You are hungry, tired, overworked. You drank too much at the party and then slept with the wrong person, and then the really wrong person. You missed the deadline, it just thrushed past with a whoosh. Hustlers around you disappear into wealth and fame. Your dealer tells you to make more with red, those red ones are really selling. Maybe, she says, you make only the red ones for a while? Your student skips class to go to an art fair. The most pressing collectors are the ones holding your student loans. They keep calling, you wish you could trade them a drawing. It can take days to answer the simplest email. Your website, if it exists, is in shambles.

You wander. You doubt. You change styles, media, cities. You experiment, you fail. Again. And again.

Unprofessional most literally means “below or contrary to the standards of a paid occupation.” Who makes the standards? Is everyone paid? Fairly? Is being an artist a job or something else? Who sets these standards? Do you wish to be standardized?

Art and success.

So easy to cocktail those two words together into “professionalism.” Pull up a famous artist’s CV and work from the beginning. Does success look like a sculpture plunked outside the Palace at Versaille? Is it a biennial, a prize, a blue-chip dealer? Is it the cover of a magazine, a thick, chunky retrospective catalogue? Even more evasive things just glanced, the luxury sedan like a bullet, shiny and hard, that the aging photographer bought after he dumped his smallish gallery and long-term partner, for a bigger dealer and a younger girlfriend, shiny and hard as his car; or perhaps, the off-hand mention of a domestic servant, a personal chef, the third nanny, the smallest chink in the opacity of wealth, so very far from the roaches scurrying in your kitchen sink and the fact that you’ve eaten nothing but mushed pumpkin and cigarettes for a month.

This did not feel professional, but it’s true. These things you experienced to be an artist.

Your body of work is a mark of your passages, the richest of your thoughts and the deepest of your emotions. Simply manifesting this into art is hard enough, but today you feel like you need to be professional. The pressure and penury makes you nervous and cautious. What can you make that will take the iron of poverty from your flesh, that will make this feel less like a terrible mistake?

*Image of a professional artist via