Progressive politics, ideas & culture


the amateur/professional line in art

This Magazine Staff

Lots of talk on the old Internet tubes about the de-professionalizing, or even ‘democratizing’ of art (and journalism, said the blogger). It is the age of the self-taught amateur, yes? Good for all of us.
What do we mean when we talk about professionalism? For the professional freelance writers I represent in my day job it has a lot to do with formal education, experience, hard work, being paid for the work, being paid fairly for the work, and doing enough work and being paid enough for it to make that work your primary source of income (so you don’t have to do other things for money that might take you away from the work you love).
But somehow in the age of the amateur, such considerations carry with them an air of elitism and crass commercialism. For working artists, the pressure to give it away for free is coming from both sides — from the traditional producer sectors whose contracts are trending less and less artist-friendly, and from the user-advocate sector who want to make sure the Internet doesn’t suffer a permanent lockdown. It’s all very fascinating and, for working artists, a little nerve-wracking. An illustrative anecdote:
image courtesy Nightwood Editions
This is the cover of a novel I wrote (professionally). The photo on the cover is by a Canadian photographer named Katie West, who was paid by my publisher for the use of this shot (complete contract details known only to him and her). Ms. West, while still a student in art school, is a professional photographer. While mostly self-taught (I think), she sells her photos through a web-store. You can view her extensive portfolio on the photo-sharing site Flickr ( — be forewarned, there are some saucy images).
Katie West does not licence her work under the Creative Commons, but rather uses the standard, and somewhat old-fashioned Copyright symbol and the message All Rights Reserved beneath her photos. Nevertheless, despite some minor technical protection measures on the Flickr site, it is not that difficult to simply take one of her photos from Flickr. She trusts that you won’t. She is not against appropriation art; in fact she enjoys when others make art based on her photos.
The other day, Ms. West uploaded a new photo on Flickr, and labelled it with a long story about an art show featuring some of her work in Windsor, Ontario. While attending the show, she was drawn to the work of another featured photographer. Something about it was oddly familiar. She talked to the artist about the work, and was told stories of the shooting sessions and models involved — but something wasn’t sitting right. With a little research after the show, Ms. West discovered that the oddly familiar photos were in fact the work of another online photographer named Lara Jade Coton, who was not the “artist” at the show. The photos in the show were for sale, and any money made was certainly not going to Lara Jade Coton.
Art fraud was not invented by the Internet. Certainly not. But the fantastic explosion of creativity the digital age has enabled is presenting unique challenges to those who would endeavour to live by making art. Would the fraudster in this anecdote have even had access to the work of Ms. Coton without the Internet.
The new Creative Commons standard of Some Rights Reserved does offer legal protection from unauthorized commercial use, and I doubt flat-out fraud is even a licencing issue. Nevertheless, I celebrate Ms. West’s use of the All Rights Reserved notice, even as I celebrate the Internet’s “democratizing ” tendencies. Democracy may, at some level, be about sharing and equal access, but it’s also about protection of individual rights. And individual rights really should be as important to amateur artists as they are to professionals.

Show Comments