REWRITING THE DICTIONARY – PROFESSIONAL VS SEMI-PROFESSIONAL IN THE ARTS

poetry takeaway yaffa phillips

by Carmina Masoliver

When I was asked by a friend to think about the difference between being a professional artist and a semi-professional artist with regards to my own practice as a writer and a poet, the distinction between the two seemed – to quote author Daniel Piper – arbitrary and unnecessary. The word semi-professional is not something that has been in my vocabulary, because my ideas of professionalism go beyond the dictionary definition of these two words.

When I posed this question to others, it was interesting how many people thought about the concept as one as simplistic as definitions in the dictionary, intrinsically linked to money, rather than a philosophical question. Whilst being professional can simply be an adjective relating to a particular profession, and can refer to the activity in terms of it being one’s main paid occupation, to use the term ‘semi-professional’ places an emphasis on one receiving payment for the activity but it not being the sole activity from which one earns money. 

Needless to say, as someone whose decisions with regards to paid employment have been due to my dedication to poetry, to be referred to as a ‘semi-professional’ poet feels dismissive, placing too much emphasis on capitalistic notions of what it means to have a profession, a vocation, a calling. I studied an MA in Creative Entrepreneurship, a course designed to equip a range of artists (poets, novelists, photographers, actors, dancers), with the skills to make a career out of their artistic practice. I took a job working in education, thinking the part-time hours would allow me to combine it with my career as a poet. My work in education then took me to Vietnam and Spain. 

to be referred to as a ‘semi-professional’ poet feels dismissive, placing too much emphasis on capitalistic notions of what it means to have a profession, a vocation, a calling.

Whilst my time in Spain gave me a good work-life balance, where I could write a lot, there were still certain limitations and I felt I had never given myself the chance to be self-employed. For nearly three years now, I have been just that, my main work including tutoring, teaching EFL, content writing, events producing, facilitating workshops, and writing both prose and poetry. To take the example of events with regards to the financial side, sometimes I make a handful of whatever is left (regular She Grrrowls events), sometimes I lose money (Edinburgh Fringe), and sometimes I get funding from ACE where I can pay myself a proper fee (touring). The work I do is all part of a portfolio career, and to describe myself as a semi-professional poet denigrates what I do and who I am. 

Furthermore, from a feminist perspective, the history of the word ‘semi-professional’ is sexist. Jobs such as social work, journalism, librarianship, teaching and nursing, have historically been labelled ‘semiprofessions’. Over time, such careers have been associated with women, highlighting prejudices that dismiss them irrespective of the amount of skill involved. When I asked others about this topic, fellow poet Rachel Sambrooks was the first to acknowledge the difficulty in using this term for those working in the arts in the same way as sportspeople. She states that if defined by full-time wages ‘many published authors who are fully committed wouldn’t count. Or actors. Or performers in many disciplines.’ She goes on to say ‘writers who often aren’t paid for development of work, being professional has to mean unpaid work or you would never get paid in the first place. Professional writers and artists can be often more like businesses taking a loss while they do research and development than pure hobbyists.’

F You Pay Me Affirmation Series Unisex T-Shirts by The image 1
via Natalie Cooper / The Jewelled Crown

Another poet, Myriam San Marco, also raised the question as to whether these terms are relevant to the arts. She states, ‘artists define themselves in terms of who they are, it’s their identity whether they claim it, discover it or assert it, that determines whether it’s a professional activity or not. So, I’m a poet, a professional one. It is who I am, it’s not a hobby, I don’t just write poetry on the side. However, it is not how I make a living. Doesn’t make me any less of a professional poet though.’ Actress and poet Reece Lyons also agrees ‘it’s an interesting distinction, but one which, I think is hard to define in freelance and arts careers because there is no set formula on how to do it for a living… Some people are years into their poetry career and have never released a collection or pamphlet but that doesn’t make them any less ‘professional’ to me.’

Musician Jack Faber also suggests that this idea of being professional is about approach rather than purely about income, asserting that the arts are distinct from sports, adding that, ‘You can actually be at a professional skill level and dedication level etc. without getting paid, as opposed to not being good enough and therefore ‘amateur’. This may go some way to explain why, in terms of our identity and value as artists within a capitalistic society, this word feels like it matters. It was Edalia Day who questioned why it matters, implying that the distinction rather ‘reflects people’s lack of knowledge about certain industries where it’s unrealistic to be making a living off it and rarely a good reflection of ability.’ To make money from your art is ‘down to luck as well as ability and hard work.’ 

Perhaps this also suggests that my discomfort at not being seen as professional is interwoven with the conditioning that my value as a human being is connected with how hard I work, and even then, that hard work in itself isn’t enough, but the only evidence of that hard work is money. This takes nothing into account of the artistic process, and that often being a writer isn’t just about sitting down at a desk to write, but also about living a full life that inspires our work, and that isn’t quantifiably accountable. 

Paula Varjack made a show called ‘Show Me The Money’, all about how artists make money, and when I asked her about this distinction, she said she was interested in ‘training and practise and time.’ She says that she feels that ‘what’s more important in the title ‘professional’ is the idea that I take it seriously, that I’ve put in a lot of time and effort and energy into it, that I’ve had training, and that I continue to train, I don’t stop training, that it is a lifelong practice, it is a thing that I am invested in, in some way, every day, and it defines who I am.’ She goes on to say that ‘you could put in the training into an art practice and no-one could ever pay you for your work.’ 

Varjack also talks about the necessity of different income streams, and it begs the question about those from wealthy backgrounds perhaps having the luxury to enable them to both be considered as ‘professional’ by the amount of time they may have to spend on it without the need to worry about money. As a result, this ironically actually increases their likelihood to be able to earn money through their art. To call artists that don’t have this privilege ‘semi-professional’ could also be argued as being classist in that respect. For example, many artists work in the service industry as it enables them to have some stability of income, whilst also being more flexible than other types of work. 

Furthermore, these labels of ‘professional’ and ‘semi-professional’ are, as artist Natalie Cooper states, ‘labels from European ideological categories of dissection and classification.’ The blasé acceptance of the dictionary-defined labels ignores this socio-historical context. Interestingly, the friend who initially posed this distinction between the two terms also believed that you are a writer if you write. This is also what Cooper was told by another artist, who told her she is ‘in a process of decolonisation’ with regards to her artistic practice. So, you are a writer if you write, but not necessarily a ‘professional’ one, remains the distinction. Yet these terms are part of ‘an ‘ideology we’ve inherited, that is Euro-Western Judeo-Christian, capitalist, white supremacist, patriarchal, mentalistic and materialistic.’ Cooper’s insights in this way could spill into a whole new essay and are fascinating to behold when you divorce yourself from the conditioning of this ideology.

Like myself, Cooper is a self-employed artist, so one’s devil’s advocate may ask us whether this view is compatible with the need to exist within a capitalist society. To this, Cooper responds with the following:

My creative practise is part of how I walk this earth, and making art for physical ends, money, to obtain intangible values of security and safety, has created nothing but blocks for me. I create art to address something important to me, I create art to heal myself and those around me. I create to connect to aspects bigger than myself, and my subconscious guides me as I do these things. To try and describe any of this in terms of how it relates to the market economy is false, at least to use that as my starting point. I am not a statistic in the market, so how can my practise be?

So, when artists or poets are asked time and time again how we make money, and urge us to define ourselves as either ‘professional’, ‘semi-professional’ or other, is it any wonder that we roll our eyes?

Featured image CC BY-SA 2.0 Yaffa Phillips


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