Three American Artists at Midlife: Negotiating the Space Between Amateur and Professional Status

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2007-05-03

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This study examines the life histories of three creative artists who are negotiating the space between amateur and professional status. Using John L. Caughey's "cultural traditions model" in conjunction with other recent life history theory and ethnographic participant-observation techniques, I have created a cultural biography for each of my three informants that details how their artistic identity is influenced by the many cultural traditions they interact with, including national, ethnic, professional, educational, aesthetic, and spiritual traditions. Each informant took entrepreneurial steps to support their artistic identity shortly before the inception of this longitudinal study which follows the ups and downs of the realization of their creative vision over a period of several years. Additionally, in keeping with current ethnographic and life history practice, I discuss my own background as an artist and how that influenced the study, and I reflect on trends in life history and new ethnographic writing and how they impinge upon research on artists.

I argue that there is a tension between external and internal identity for artists, of which my informants were well aware. As I discuss this tension, I critique the work of Stebbins and Becker on artists, arguing that Stebbins' otherwise useful definitions of "amateurs" and "professionals" are ultimately too rigid, as my own informants often defy his categorizations both subjectively and objectively. I then suggest that Becker's "art worlds" approach is important in understanding the infrastructure needed for creative artists to flourish, but that it too neglects the significance of subjectivity and does not recognize that key individuals serve as "hubs" of activity.

I conclude that the individuals in my study made use of more flexible, related cultural traditions to maintain their internal artistic identities while establishing external ones. Having reevaluated their lives as they entered midlife, they later experienced a "legacy reassessment" following the realization of their original vision. Finally, I conclude that despite outside pressures that challenged and modified the subjective experience of their artistic identity, each of my informants embraced art as a "transcendent" frame which can integrate all other cultural traditions.

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