I’ve been thoroughly enjoying Hans Abbing’s Why Are Artists Poor?, which formed an important source in my last two articles. Abbing is an economist and a visual artist, and he tackles the broad question of artist poverty from the perspective of both disciplines, trying to filter out the biases and myths that color traditional interpretations.

As a part of his discussion, Abbing brings up the question of what constitutes a professional artist. According to economists, professionals are people who earn some non-negligible portion of their living via their professional activities. This definition works for a lot of the activities humans do, but it’s problematic in the arts.

Abbing comes up with a range of interesting workarounds, but by the standards of most professions, the vast majority of musicians working in the arts are either amateur or semi-pro. University professors who do not receive monetary commissions for their compositions are amateur composers and professional pedagogues. Pianists who earn most of their money from a piano studio and only earn some money performing are semi-pro performers and professional educators.

Obviously, this kind of pigeonholing is offensive to a lot of artists and to people who care about the arts. The mismatch between artistic quality and income is so obvious to most observers that it’s hard to argue that money is a good measure of professionalism in the arts (or art-like activities like family-run artisan wineries that need to charge a significant premium to be viable).

Money is a human technology and it has strengths and weaknesses like any other technology. The fact that we have defined professionals as people who earn money for performing specialized, skilled work makes me wonder if the term professional is even applicable in the arts. After all, Abbing compares the situation of professional artists to professional sex workers, which is perhaps an apt parallel on levels beyond the economic ones—the whole negative concept of “selling out” is tied to the idea that art is somehow dirtied by money, as is sex. Yet we still hold ourselves to a double standard. I know that my paid commissions stoke my ego more than the freebies.

From what I can tell, the term professional had less importance before money was the major means of transferring value between people. Musicians in Europe were organized into guilds, with apprentices and masters, designations that signify only ability. Others worked as servants of a patron, either the Church or royalty. Only with the rise of the bourgeoisie did professionalism really enter into music. Money became important in music because people with money were becoming more important, and it was assumed that art could be evaluated according to these same terms.

None of this matters to daily music making, of course, but the point I want to make is that art and money are not particularly good fits for each other. Both are byproducts of human interactions, but not parallel types of interactions. We try to make them fit because our society has so strongly focused on money as a means of organizing value. It’s not the only means, though, and we all intrinsically realize that money has a tendency to destroy certain kinds of value even as it creates others. Thus the permanence of the “selling out” stigma. It’s cool to buy an Apple product, but it’s not cool to be the band in the Apple commercial.

I hope eventually we’ll come up with some alternative value-exchange systems that are more representative of human activities as a whole (an interesting model I read about is the equity-based restaurant network, where food is free but your ability to get service at any networked restaurant is dependent on your reputation as a fair payer. And yes, some restaurants are making versions of this work.). In the mean time, we need to recognize the limits of economic professionalism in the arts and act accordingly. There’s no point beating yourself up over the failed grant applications. Conversely though, just because you never get paid doesn’t mean you’re a genius. There are non-monetary ways to measure the value of human activities, and I think it would be interesting to try to come up with a viable non-economic definition of a modern-day professional composer. It doesn’t seem like anyone’s really tried to do that before.