What Does it Mean to Call Art “Too Professional”?

08/17/2009 1:00 PM |

What does it mean when someone calls a creative practice “too professional”? It depends who you ask and which practice you’re discussing, but half the time, I don’t think people know what “too professional” means.

According to art critic Ed Halter, the term implies that an object is “too perfect or finished,” though he also notes that its inverse, amateurism, receives criticism for seeming “too sloppy, or not finished enough.” Knowingly creating objects that are “too perfect or sloppy” as part of a conceptual practice may sidestep these problems, but as Halter notes, this maneuver may then be criticized as “too studied.” And these judgments do not always latch onto an artist’s entire body of work. Sometimes, an artist will receive each criticism at various points in his or her career. Much to his chagrin, I’m sure, artist Cory Arcangel has created work that has been labeled “too perfect” (his photoshop gradient prints), “too sloppy, or unattractive” (his Nintendo cartridges — although admittedly I hear this the least), and “too studied” (his intentionally ugly “dirtstyle” websites).

Halter’s model not only reveals that virtually any artistic practice gives pause to critics, but also provides an outline for the culture of MFA programs, which themselves promise “professional training.” As the critic points out, these programs provide simultaneous approval and disavowal of amateur and professional status. After all, doesn’t “too sloppy” negate “too professional”?

But a recent surge of books such as Art/Work, The Artist’s Guide, and A Guide to Getting Arts Grants have championed a more professional art world. In part this response is a necessary supplement to arts education, which rarely offers practical business advice. According to Heather Darcy Bhandari and Jonathan Melber’s book Art/Work (reviewed in last week’s column “How To Be A Professional Artist as the Economy Crumbles”), most artists make less than $10,000 a year from their artwork. This isn’t a great return on a $100,000-plus investment in a BFA and MFA.