The Amateur Tradition: The Place of Art vs. Sport in America

Q: When can an artist be considered a professional? Is amateur art as good?

A: The majority of artists alive today do it for the love of it, in spite of being unable to make it pay very well. They would thus be defined as amateurs, but their art can certainly be as good as a professional’s. If one gives points for daring, then they often outscore the professionals, who must produce the work that is expected of them in order to sell. Whether amateur’s art is valued as highly is another question.

I believe that a lot of what is wrong with art today comes from the deification of a small group of artists by the academics and critics, leaving the overwhelming majority out in the cold. Whereas in the past one could make a living as an artist without being world famous, now this is a prerequisite—the signature is paramount, the work secondary.

The sort of people who might have bought art in the past, art that reflected their taste, whatever that may be, have been made to feel ashamed of the art they like, and have relegated the decision to the experts, or have just foregone the purchase altogether. Since art has become known more for being provocative of acrimonious debate than of rapt contemplation, the corporations that could serve as our modern Medici have retreated from the display of all but the blandest art, and many are busy disposing of the relatively small collections they had amassed.

The amateur tradition in art has been allowed to atrophy, and the art world is poorer for it. Is it just a coincidence that as art became more disconnected and self-indulgent, and ordinary people lost respect for it, schools have responded by eliminating art programs entirely? With the decline of art education from a transmission of skills to what seems to be therapy at best, or chaos at worst, students tend to burn out on art at an early age, as they realize that what they are able to accomplish falls far short of what they set out to do. They are led to think of art as something that only a “talented” person can do at all, for whom drawing (for instance) is effortless and comes out perfectly, while one lacking this talent will never be able to accomplish anything. Rarely is anything but two-dimensional art taught at all, in spite of the fact that it is easier for most people to create something recognizable in clay than to create an accurate 2D portrayal.

The world of sports, in itself of no more intrinsic utility than art, does not share Art’s problem in this regard. While the students are allowed to have fun, they are also given the opportunity to master a set of skills that allow them to achieve a sense of confidence in their expertise. Even those who show no particular promise are expected to participate with the others, and are exposed to many different sports in hopes of finding one that suits them. The more gifted are carefully encouraged by staffs of knowledgable coaches, put in advanced classes, and given extra time to work on their sport. If they do really well, they come to the attention of talent scouts, who help guide them into special collegiate programs and lucrative professional careers. (I hardly need mention that none of this support network exists for promising young artists.)

Even if they never become professional athletes; and few in fact do; the fact of their amateur participation gives the sports world the knowledgeable, confident, enthusiastic, and empathetic base of support it currently enjoys. A spectacular catch in baseball, for instance, is felt to be special because the people watching have stood in the outfield and seen the ball coming out of the sky—they know, kinesthetically, how difficult it must be. Contrast the attention that catch receives with the reception of even the most difficult feat of artistic craftsmanship—the only attention it will get will be from those few who have attempted such a thing themselves.

by Andrew Werby