artists and professional vagueness

Guest blogger emerita Jenn Lena and Danielle Lindemann have a forthcoming article in Poetics analyzing the self-identity  of artists. The issue is that people often question whether they are artists. From the paper “Who is an Artist? New Data for an Old Question:”

Employment in the arts and creative industries is high andgrowing, yet scholars have not achieved consensus on who should be included in these professions. In this study, we explore the ‘‘professionalartist’’ as the outcome of an identity process, rendering it the dependent rather than the independent variable. In their responses to the 2010 Strategic National Arts Alumni Project survey (N=13,581)— to our knowledge, the largest survey ever undertaken of individuals who have pursued arts degrees in the United States—substantial numbers of respondents gave seemingly contradictory answers to questions asking about their artistic labor. These individuals indicated that they simultaneously had been and had never been professional artists, placing them in what we have termed the ‘‘dissonance group.’’An examination of these responses reveals meaningful differences and patterns in the interpretation of this social category. We find significant correlation between membership in this group and various markers of cultural capital and social integration into artistic communities. A qualitative analysis of survey comments reveals unique forms of dissonance over artistic membership within teaching and design careers.

When you get into the nitty gritty, the authors focus on embededness in institutions as decreasing ambiguity. There’s probably an Abbott side of the story where people in specific orgs or art systems successfully getting the high position in the field.

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Written by fabiorojas

April 29, 2014 at 12:22 am

7 Responses

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  1. Thanks for the post, Fabio–we’re pretty excited about this piece, and the others in this special issue on the arts. I encourage you to read them all!

    I’d like to clarify that the respondents that fell into this “dissonance” group did not “question” if they were artists–they marked off jobs that are commonly associated with professional arts (e.g., “musician,” “dancer or choreographer”) work but when we asked them if they had ever been (or were currently) professional artists, they ticked “no.” We were the ones questioning: what does it take to see yourself as an artist, if working as one is not enough?

    I’ll poke around in the discarded analyses to see if dissonance group members are more likely to have high incomes (I think the only proxy we might have for your “high position in the field”). As we report, members of this group do not have a propensity to work within a certain professional practice or medium (except for those who are “designers” or “teachers of the arts”). Instead, they are (as I noted above) musicians and actors and dancers and such.

    The argument we make is that social/professional embeddedness impacts identity. On page 82 we write: “Arts graduates who grew up around artists, who then surrounded themselves with other artists at schools specializing in the arts, and who currently work primarily in arts fields have had, at three discrete stages in their lives, these identities concretized through their daily relationships with other creative individuals.” [These were the traits that correlated with being in the dissonance group.] We make a passing comparison to Bourdieu’s research on the children of academics, and then note that “status is a process, not a birthright” and follow with the observation that: “Arts graduates who work on the border of the field (in arts-related work) may experience role conflict that is significant enough that they refuse or cease to define themselves as artists.” Although we don’t cite Abbott here, I think you will see the connection.


    Jenn Lena

    April 29, 2014 at 1:24 am

  2. Thank you for interesting paper. I find interesting – and questionable – that an artist must have been formally educated as such. I guess it is part of the on-going “professionalization”. Along this line I Wonder if it make a difference where one has been educated, i.e. status of the school.


    Tatiana Fumasoli

    April 29, 2014 at 3:57 am

  3. What proportion of the “dissonance” group have multiple jobs? Does the questionnaire differentiates between primary and secondary jobs, and if so, what proportion of the dissonance group say their *primary* jobs are as musicians/artists/dancers? How is the question about jobs or work worded?

    What I’m getting at is that a regular gig as the weekend pianist at Nordstrom’s may mean that you have paid work as an artist and, technically, you are a professional artist. But, you may not consider yourself a “real” artist unless that’s the activity that pay the bills. In other words, the issue is the definition and interpretation of “work” or “professional [adj.]”, not the definition of “artist”.

    Tatiana: judging from the name, the survey is of graduates of art school. This doesn’t mean that the authors of the paper think that all artists have degrees. It just means that they don’t have any information about artists who don’t have art degrees. It’s a limitation, but not an unusual one for studies about small populations (relative to the adult population).



    April 29, 2014 at 5:02 am

  4. I still believe the definition of artist is one of the issues here. When it comes to Identity, you may well think you are an artist – and you do “art stuff/activities” – even though you do not earn enough and need another job. this has also some historical meaning Attached (i.e. being an artist was not considered a real/serious/profitable profession and bohemian life was related to it). In this sense the article focuses on one set of the artist population (and that’s fine of course) The emergence of the Professional artist as a formally educated, trained person getting paid in some kind of standardized way reflects the creation of a labor market and the growing importance of the organizational setting. finally it resonates With the on-going rationalization of work in theatres, opera houses etc., where it has become even more important to hire “certified” artists.


    Tatiana Fumasoli

    April 29, 2014 at 7:25 am

  5. @Tatiana Fumasoli: As krippendorf wrote, our survey includes graduates of arts programs; we know this is just a portion of the population who work as/think of themselves as artists. You might be interested in the front pages of the article, where we review several approaches to measuring the populations of artists, including both self-perception and social capital (both of which are referenced in your comment).

    @krippendorf: You can find a ton of information about our survey (including the questionnaire) at the website: The language of both the “professional artist” and work questions are also included in our paper. As we reported there, and as I mentioned in my first comment, people who work primarily outside of the arts are more likely to fall into the dissonance group, yes.

    And that leads me to a correction in my first comment: I shouldn’t have written “These were the traits that correlated with being in the dissonance group.”–that’s incomplete. If you look at the results, you’ll see that if you did not have a parent who was an artist, if you work primarily outside of the arts, and if you took an arts course within a liberal arts or research institution, or general education high school, you are more likely to fall into the dissonance group. Blerg. I know that’s a little twisted, but it’s leave it as-is or miss a deadline.


    Jenn Lena

    April 29, 2014 at 6:12 pm

  6. @Jenn Lena: In the conclusions section of your paper, you indicate that further fieldwork is required to understand more fully why some people who work in “artistic professions” nonetheless don’t self-identify as “artists.” I would particularly recommend looking at specific communities, both in an occupational and spatial sense. I’ve always been fascinated by the people who work in regional theater, traveling from one playhouse to another and only occasionally making it to “the big time.” Most of the people working as actors, set designers, lighting and sound designers, stage managers, and so forth barely make enough to live on. Indeed, many have to take multiple jobs to make ends meet. Nonetheless, many strongly identify with being a theater professional and fight fiercely for the survival of their crafts. I noticed in your survey that people currently working as actors had one of the lowest proportions of dissonance in your sample, and theater and stage directors and managers also ranked toward the bottom. Could it be that the physical theaters that are at the hub of regional theater communities anchor and amplify the social interaction that drives up the intensity of artistic identity among these artists? There is also a lot of movement between theaters, creating national social networks of artists. I’m thinking of the strong regional theaters in Chicago, Washington DC, and even Louisville Kentucky as great examples of places to do such ethnography. I hope someone takes up the challenge!


    Howard Aldrich

    May 5, 2014 at 6:44 pm

  7. @Howard Aldrich: A wonderful proposal! We’ve worked hard this year to make location information included in the survey tractable for these kinds of questions, but the problem we’ve run into is that we only have data on the location of R’s educational organization and their current residence. We’d have to convince subscribing schools to pay for (or find a grant to subsidize) gathering more detailed information on sequences of residences (or work locations).

    Within the confines of the data we have, we might exploit information on graduates in jobs that didn’t have members in the dissonance group (and which are, accordingly, not included in the table you referenced). We know enough about career/job types that we could frame a hypothesis around contrasts between jobs or careers with strong hub-and-wheel structures and those that are decentralized, and see if there’s a relationship to dissonance.

    That said, I would just love it if an ethnographer (or many!) were interested in working with us to provide a more granular exploration of these questions. If you’re interested in artists, artistic careers, or arts training in formal organizational contexts, please contact me (or someone at SNAAP) and we’ll guide you through the process of gaining access to these data. We’ve worked hard to establish “peer institution” groups (in collaboration with the school administrators who contract us) and so a multi-sited ethnography based on known contrasts between schools/graduates would be possible and promising.


    Jenn Lena

    May 6, 2014 at 12:37 pm

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