Who is the amateur?

One of the key terms in this research is ‘amateur’. The Get Creative campaign is aimed at amateurs, or those who are not yet involved in amateur arts but would like to be. And Voluntary Arts, one of the key stakeholders, represents umbrella organisations of amateur arts groups, as I discussed in a previous blog post. However, trying to narrow down what this term means is far from straightforward, and some of our reading and discussions have thrown up some interesting questions around it.

What is an amateur? The OED tells us that it is ‘one who loves or is fond of; one who has a taste for anything.’ but a second meaning, more to our purposes, is ‘one who cultivates anything as a pastime, as distinguished from one who prosecutes it professionally; hence, sometimes used disparagingly, as = dabbler, or superficial student or worker.’  There is a reference to the amateur in relation to the arts from 1803; this makes sense as it was in the late 18th and early 19th century that the idea arose of the arts as ‘autonomous’ or not associated with a particular social function (Shiner 2001).

Note the disparaging tone from the OED, that an amateur is a ‘dabbler’ or ‘superficial’. Despite this common association between amateur and being a bit rubbish at something, this description appears to be rather a long way off the mark. In fact, the category of amateur, which only appeared in the modern era (the earliest example being 1784), may already be obsolete. In 2004, the think tank Demos published a research report (Leadbetter and Miller 2004) entitled The Pro-Am Revolution, arguing that the distinction between amateur and professional is becoming increasingly blurry. They came up with a new character, the Pro-Am: people pursuing amateur activities to professional standards (think marathon runners, activists, the Territorial Army, and many more), and argued that this constitutes over half of the British adult population, and has important implications for policy and the economy. This idea has been taken up in relation to theatre; Perry and Carnegie (2013) make the case for the ‘Pro-Am’ in theatre becoming more common. This is ‘where professionals and amateurs work collaboratively in theatre’, and it is is ‘changing the very nature of amateurism’. They describe examples of amateurs performing alongside professional actors in theatre companies such as the National theatre of Wales’ 2011 performance ‘The Passion’.

The original ‘Pro-Am’ argument has become rapidly outdated; the authors’ prediction of the expansion of ‘Pro-Am’ activity was premised on people gaining more money and more leisure, but post-recession this idea seems rather quaint. In particular, this expansion in wealth, the authors argued, would allow the ‘Pro-Am’ revolution to move beyond middle-class men who were the ones who were predominantly participating in this form of ‘serious leisure’ as it is sometimes called. What is helpful about this report, however, it that it highlights the inadequacy of the term ‘amateur’ to describe much of what goes on under this label, in that such activities may involve high levels of skill, commitment, and time, and may also generate income. This is corroborated by the DCMS report (2008) Our Creative Talent, which found that a small but significant minority of participants in amateur and grassroots arts and cultural activities went on to work professionally in the same area. Similarly, Whiting and Hannam (2015) found that for many of the respondents in their study of people living in a ‘centre of creative industry’, the Ouseburn Valley Newcastle upon Tyne, especially the working artists, ‘clear distinctions between ‘work’ and ‘leisure’ in their lives were not present’. What they did as an ‘amateur’ in their non-work time fed into their professional lives; and research (eg Banks 2009) suggests that this is the case for many people working in the creative industries.

The idea of the ‘Pro-Am’, as well as calling into question the common associations of ‘amateur’, draws on older ideas of ‘serious leisure’ as explored by Jeff Bishop and Paul Hoggett 30 years ago in their utterly gorgeous study, ‘Organizing around enthusiasm: mutual aid in leisure’ (Comedia, 1986). I have a big crush on this book about ‘communal leisure’ groups in Bristol and Leicester (which I am the only person ever to have checked out of the Cambridge University library). The authors document in beautiful detail the lives of the mouse-fancyers, the morris dancers, the numismatists (look it up), and the military modelling clubs, describing how these groups make up an overlooked and underestimated slice of civil society. One of their interesting findings was that ‘in virtually every group we studied, a myth was studiously maintained that the social meaning and purpose of the group was subsidiary [to the enthusiasm itself]’ (p.114), despite evidence that people often joined just because their friends did, without any particular interest in the actual activity. Importantly for our study, they describe how seriously those involved took these ‘leisure’ activities, which further calls into question the association of ‘amateur’ with ‘dabbler’.

Who, then, is the amateur? And why does this matter for our research and for wider questions of cultural policy and social justice? The amateur is often not the dabbler. The amateur may be highly skilled in their chosen activity(ies), and is likely to have a high level of commitment to it. The amateur may also work professionally in the same or a related field, or aspire to do so. This pipeline from amateur to professional arts is one of the reasons that paying attention to the amateur is important in wider debates. Recent research (of which there are many examples, this being one) has highlighted the high levels of inequality in the creative industries. Inequalities in amateur arts participation matter because they feed into inequalities among arts and culture professionals. If those who are representing our society artistically are drawn from a narrow section of it, then the art and culture that is produced will also only reflect a narrow range of perspective and imaginations.

In addition, another of the key words for this research is ‘value’, following on from the cultural value debates and the Warwick Commission report into the future of ‘cultural value’. Hoggett and Bishop (my new best friends), and similarly Ruth Finnegan (1989) discuss this in relation to creating ‘pathways’ or connections within civil society. But there is also a more personal level of intrinsic value in the activity itself on the level of identity and belonging. Does creative cultural and artistic activity provide a particular type of intrinsic value, compared to other kinds of ‘communal leisure’? How can the value of such activities be communicated? And are there any ways in which creative cultural and artistic activities might be detrimental to civil society, for example by reinforcing social divisions?

Such questions have rarely made it into policy, being drowned out by louder, more urgent issues around professional arts and culture. As Eleanora Belfiore discussed in a recent paper, the Arts Council’s predecessor, the Council for the Encouragement of Music and the Arts (CEMA), initially only supported amateur rather than professional arts (in 1939-40). Belfiore notes that the shift towards the Arts Council as today predominantly funding professional arts organisations is at odds with the initial vision of CEMA. However, with the expansion of the creative industries and the increase in precarious labour and self-employment across the board, it looks like the amateur may be on the rise again – but in a new, 21st-century form.

Banks, M. 2009. Fit and Working Again: The Instrumental Leisure of the Creative Class. Environment and Planning A 41, 3, 668-681

Finnegan, Ruth H. 1989. The Hidden Musician: Music-Making in an English Town. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Leadbeater, Charles, and Paul Miller. 2004. ‘Demos | Publications.’ Demos. http://www.demos.co.uk/publications/proameconomy.

Perry, Rachel, and Elizabeth Carnegie. 2013. ‘Reading Pro-Am Theatre through a Serious Leisure Lens: Organisational and Policy-Making Implications.’ Leisure Studies 32, no. 4: 383–98.

Shiner, L. E. 2001. The Invention of Art: A Cultural History. Chicago, Ill. ;London: University of Chicago Press.

Whiting, James, and Hannam, Kevin. 2015. ‘Creativity, Self-Expression and Leisure.’ Leisure Studies 34 (3): 372–84.

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