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  • Writer's pictureMadeleina Kay

Confessions of a “Professional Troublemaker”

The discussions during our last Thursday MA teaching session about “professionalism” clearly touched a nerve – I was awake most of the night ruminating over what we discussed. Due to my personal experience as an artist, but also through my work as a communications professional for an art charity whose mission is to support and champion “professional” artists – this topic is something I care passionately about.



For years, in my Twitter bio, I jokingly described myself as a “professional trouble-maker” – I had adopted the strategy of taking my work seriously but not taking myself too seriously. But after I was challenged during a Sky News interview in 2019 about what exactly “professional troublemaker” meant (my response was that I wanted to disrupt things to bring about social change), I began to doubt myself and changed my bio soon after. I was disturbed by the confrontational and accusatory nature of the entire interview, where they also accused me of being “undemocratic” for using my art and music to speak out for what I believed in (make it make sense) - and so, I switched to ‘Jeanne d’Arc of Post-Modernism’ instead. This title had been given to me by a journalist from Handelsblatt (the German equivalent of the Economist) and it seemed suitably compelling yet also vague enough that I could evade any requests to justify it. I still don’t know what it means but I like the ambiguity of its interpretation. More recently I removed the #EUsupergirl from my social media profiles in a vain attempt to shake off the nickname which continues to follow me everywhere I go (just yesterday a video interview I recorded for a German Foundation has been published on Instagram with “EU SUPERGIRL” emblazoned on the cover image. Surely, I’m a woman by now? To make matters worse, it wasn’t even a nickname I chose, it was permanently attached to me by the media (after I gate-crashed a Brexit negotiations press conference in Brussels in my supergirl costume). When I speak at events, I am frequently introduced as the ‘Young European of the Year in 2018’ and ‘EUsupergirl’ – two titles which will always be unique to me – but which are also not considered a profession.



For years, I have been trolled on social media by randoms telling me to “GET A PROPER JOB!” or words to that effect. This was always triggering for me because, as a child, I was drip fed the belief by certain people in positions of authority that art isn’t a “proper subject” and that I should do a “proper job” and keep my art as a hobby. At seventeen years old, teeming with self-doubt and insecurity, suffering from 3 different mental illnesses and terrified of the future – I did what I was told. When my art teacher found out that I didn’t apply to study Fine Art at BA (the seemingly obvious choice) and had instead applied to study PPE (the preferred degree of future politicians) – he was crestfallen. Is politician even a “proper job” anyway? The joke was on me; despite achieving 45 points (full marks) on my international baccalaureate diploma, I was rejected by 3 out of 5 of my university choices, and 4 out of 5 the following year when I re-applied – including both Oxford and Cambridge after interview. I felt like a hopeless failure, incapable of studying a “proper subject” or getting a “proper job” – I believed that no matter how hard I tried, nor how organised and diligent I was, I would never achieve anything of note.  Occasionally, these intrusive thoughts return, despite everything I have achieved since, with no degree to my name.



The random people (and bots) on the internet were trolling me because of my creative campaigning against Brexit. They were furious that I could devote so much time, effort and imagination to a campaign with which they vehemently disagreed. I tried to just shrug off their malicious comments, to laugh at them and ignore the abuse – but words matter, and words hurt.



For the 4 years I was campaigning, between 2016 and 2019 – I was technically “unemployed”. No organisation was paying me a wage – the work I was dedicating my life, heart and soul to wasn’t what most people would consider a “proper job”. But many people thought that it was important enough work, that they were willing to crowdfund me to do it. I was being invited to perform at events across Europe, usually the organisation could fund only the travel expenses but not a fee, so my crowdfunders made up the shortfall in my living expenses and other costs (which were substantial; recording studio fees, costumes, printing and postage, equipment, other travel and accommodation which wasn’t covered, etc). In total, I have raised around £80,000 through different crowdfunder projects – including the 2-week Bollocks to Brexit bus tour. I also received a 'Democracy Needs Imagination' grant from the European Cultural Foundation to fund my tour of the EU27 in 2019. Sure, it may not have been a “proper job”, but I was working incredibly hard on a wide variety of creative campaign projects, self-publishing books and performing at (sometimes very high level, prestigious events) across Europe – all the while being savagely and relentlessly trolled, on a daily basis. It was no wonder that I hit burn out in 2020, neatly timed with the pandemic – I doubt many people can earnestly claim they were grateful for the lockdowns.



 So, the line between what constitutes “professional” and “unprofessional” has always been very blurred for me. Nowadays, I have sold enough artworks, received enough paid commissions and gigs, that I feel comfortable saying "I am a professional artist / musician" – but for a long time I did not, despite doing work which was quite impressive by objective measures and receiving a lot of press attention (especially in Germany).

·      If you’re performing at an event but not being paid a fee, is it “unprofessional”?

·      If people crowdfund your creative work does that count as “professional”?

·      If your work is delivered with blue hair, wearing a fancy dress costume – does that make you “unprofessional”?

·      If your creative work is featured on Sky News, Channel 4 and the BBC – does that make you “professional”?

I don’t have answers to these questions – the area is grey and messy. And this was one of the reasons I felt so uncomfortable with the value judgements which were being written on the post-it notes on the Miro board, during our teaching session, equating; “unprofessional” to incompetence, tardiness and bad behaviour; and “professional” to politeness, competence and organisation. Donald asked me directly why I doubted whether my work was “professional” when I was clearly highly organised – but I think this is a conflation of two separate things. Yes, it’s true, I have to be exceptionally organised to do the work (and travel) which I do – but there is plenty other professional work which does not necessitate this level of organisational skill. Furthermore, I am not always that organised - as I discovered recently, I can't even manage to keep my paints in the right boxes - which requires a very basic level of organisational ability. If the definition of “professional” work is that it is paid, then this label frequently does not apply to what I do, despite being highly organised. Vast swathes of the internet deem my creative practice to be “unprofessional” and “not a proper job” – despite the fact that I am always on time, polite and deliver work to the highest standard that I can. This was why I wrote “Who is the judge of this?” on my post-it note under the word “Unprofessional” – I find these labels to be unhelpful.

 

Conversely, I have encountered many a “professional” who I found to be rude, arrogant and incompetent – most recently a member of staff at KLM airlines who thought it was appropriate to aggressively shout at me that it wasn’t their problem when I tried to explain that because of their delays I had missed my connecting flight and as a result I would not be able to reach my accommodation that night. I also have to work with people (sometimes directors of organisations) who I can only describe as arrogant, egotistical, disorganised and misogynist – who consistently cause total chaos and leave others to pick up the pieces. But, because they have a title, power and influence, show up wearing a suit, use flattery to appease the disgruntled and have an incredible ability to bullshit - people respect (or at least fear) them and nobody confronts them about their incompetence, poor judgement and obnoxious behaviour. If that’s what being a “professional” is – then thanks, but no thanks; I’d rather treat people with kindness, show up in ripped jeans, with blue hair and a massive smile on my face, guitar in hand and spread some joy and hope in the world.



That’s not to say that everyone I have encountered through my “unprofessional” work, has behaved like a decent human being. I have been emotionally blackmailed into doing (unpaid) work that I didn’t want to do, verbally abused by people who saw me as competition to their own status and influence, sexually harassed and assaulted by other campaigners (with no systems of redress to reprimand them or safeguard me) and left pulling my hair out over completely incompetent organisation. The point that I am trying to make is that value judgements can be applied to both “professional” and “unprofessional” contexts. I am also questioning whether work has to be paid in order to be considered “professional”. I recently co-wrote a song for the Centre for European Volunteering, titled ‘Volunteering We Grow’ (ironically this was paid work). But, I wanted to support this initiative because I have done a lot of volunteering throughout my life and still undertake voluntary positions alongside my “unprofessional” and “professional” work, which I think are worthwhile. If you accept all the value-judgements which were written on the post-it notes, you would want volunteers to behave in a way which was “professional”, despite the fact they are not paid.



 Whilst I was questioning the nature and legitimacy of my creative practice, my greatest source of validation came from my social media following; around 45,000 across platforms. Nowadays, social media following has become a social currency in its own right – speakers are frequently introduced at events as having X number of followers. It matters how many people follow you and not just because it has the potential to be monetised, but because it means you have influence. It’s true that nearly all of my artwork sales and commissions, and certainly the crowdfunding I have achieved, has come from my social media following. But equally, the engagement that I receive on some of my posts, including music videos which have gone viral (over 100,000 views), several reaching over 300,000 views, are also of huge value to me. Ultimately, I have come to realise that I don’t value monetary wealth very highly; yes, it’s important to earn enough money to meet your needs, but once those needs have been met, money doesn’t bring me happiness. Money is not an end in and of itself. I will often choose to undertake unpaid or poorly paid work because it has an alternative value, such as: the opportunity to travel to somewhere I have not been to before; to perform at a prestigious event; to see friends who I miss and rarely get to meet in-person; because it is in some way interesting or exciting; I think I will learn something from the experience; it supports a cause which I care passionately about. If “professional” work means “paid” work, then being “professional” is not that high on my list of priorities.

 

One of the issues I had with the discussion around “professionalism” was the discriminatory nature of some of the value judgements being placed on “unprofessional” and “professional” work. For example, the association of being late with being “unprofessional” is particularly problematic in light of neurodiversity. Conditions such as ADHD, often lead sufferers to be frequently late for meetings and events – labelling someone with “unprofessional” because of a symptom of neurodiversity seems intolerant to me. My two best friends are frequently anywhere between 30 minutes and 3 hours late when we arrange to meet, and it doesn’t really bother me because they have many other positive qualities which I value far above being on time. Presenteeism is a practice which irritates me in the workplace, I would much rather deliver work to a high quality in a flexible manner. So long as I turn up to meetings on time, does it matter if I work in the middle of the night when I can’t sleep or during “normal” working hours? For some organisations it seems to matter imperatively that work is done between 9am and 5pm, for others, it doesn’t matter at all. This leads me to question whether the decision-making process on this issue is arbitrary and relates more to control and trust than to competence and skill…

 

During the session a lot of the criticism of the article seemed to be ad hominen attacks on the author’s white, male privilege rather than engaging with his argument. Don’t get me wrong, I hate privilege and entitlement as much as the next woke, culture-war warrior. But I think his critique of capitalism and whether the art sector is suitable for a capitalist system is worthy of consideration. I have long believed that the subjective nature of the monetary value assigned to art is ill-suited to our current economic model because, unlike other sectors, it is no way meritocratic and easily manipulated by actors in positions of power. Capitalism is based on free markets and the trade of capital and it bugs me that the artworks which seem to sell for the highest sums are generally by dead artists, because when a commodity is finite, the scarcity drives up its value. In this case, no money is going to the artist to fund their practice because they are already dead – it is instead lining the pockets of collectors, gallerists and auction houses who speculated on this artist’s work. I think the greatest tragedy of the current art market is that the huge sums spent on artwork generally isn’t benefiting living artists; the average working artist is earning £2.60 per hour. I think this is one of the reasons I am fascinated by artists who advocate/d for or propose/d alternative economic models or systems for structuring society, such as Solomon Nikritin. If I am honest, I think Communism and Socialism have become dirty words, and Capitalism is probably here to stay, whether I like it or not – but I think it needs to be better regulated. Just like democratic systems, checks and balances are required to keep the system functioning healthily and prevent abuses of power – the art sector seems to have been ignored in this respect, and there is little political will to ensure that artists are treated fairly. For example, is it fair that wealthy patrons or auction houses can sponsor exhibitions to happen at titan institutions of the art world – thereby increasing the exposure of certain artists and presumably driving up the value of artworks which they have collected or intend to sell? The trope of the “starving artist” has long justified and glamorised the circumstances in which most artists find themselves working and this will remain the case until politicians intervene to deliver greater equity in the sector. The “hyper-professionalisation” of the working artist discussed in one of the articles is a direct result of this ill-suited economic model and lack of checks and balances – “Hyper-professionalisation” is a desperate attempt to make an artist’s practice economically viable within their lifetime by “playing the game”.


The reality for most working artists is that they have neither the means nor the will to do this. According to Arts Council England’s Livelihoods report ‘Just one third of the income earned by visual artists comes from producing art’ meaning that ‘68% artists have to take on additional jobs to make ends meet’. On average artists earn ‘£16,150 each year, of which only £6,020 (ie. 36% of their income) comes from their art practice and two-thirds earn less than £5,000 from their art’. In light of this, my main criticism of the first article we discussed is that it presented a rather narrow image of an artist – most artists are “professionals” but they have other professions alongside their creative practice. These professions can vary hugely, but the point I wanted to emphasise during the session was that a lot of roles will allow workers to bring their creative skills and imagination to the job. For example, I work in communications and for two years I was employed as a “social media campaigner”. The person who did this role before me delivered campaigns with a focus on video editing and animation, whereas I was allowed to bring my illustration skills to this role – so long as we delivered on project outcomes and KPIs, the organisation was willing to embrace our specific creative skills. I also organised an open call and art exhibition at the University of Westminster which turned out to be a great way of amplifying the campaign’s impact and gaining social media followers (my main task). So, I delivered on my role as a communications professional whilst also developing my artistic practice – this example shows that the narrow view of what “professionalisation” of an art practice presented is not the reality for most working artists.

I think if I learned anything from these discussions it is to be true to myself and not let other people’s value judgements (especially those of internet trolls) dictate who I think I am and the esteem in which I hold the work which I do. Labels like “professional” and “unprofessional” seem arbitrary and subjective at best, and I refuse to let my self-worth be dictated by them.

 

At the end of the teaching session the conversation led to the inevitable discussion of remuneration and whether money could buy “happiness”. I will not deny, I was triggered by this conversation having just ended a long-term relationship (in part) because of my former partner’s unrealistic expectations of financial income (recently increasing from an aspired individual income of £100K to £200K). The other part of this decision was his frequently obnoxious, narcissistic and bullying behaviour, which he excused with “the stress” of trying to achieve his ambitions. I decided I wasn’t prepared to live under the weight of these expectations nor tolerate the associated behaviour any longer.


I appreciate that my views on money come from the privileged position of owning my own flat, having no dependents and (at least recently) not struggling financially, but I fervently believe that money doesn’t make people happy, above a certain threshold where your needs are being met. Above this threshold, more money just buys you more stuff which you don’t need and access to “elite” venues, services, and peers who share the mentality that they are better than everyone else. The problem with having access to these peer groups of wealthy individuals is that there will always be someone who has more than you. I think there is some truth to the adage, ‘there is enough wealth in the world to feed, clothe and house the poor, but there is not enough wealth to satisfy the rich’. This greed inevitable leads to bitterness and resentment and until people learn to value something other than money in their lives, they will always feel like they don’t have “enough” and that they “deserve” more. I genuinely believe that people who have few excesses in life, but share what little they have, are generous with their time, and show others genuine kindness and empathy are far happier than the 1% who have far more material wealth than everyone else, yet will always crave more.

 

The jury is out on the income threshold which achieves “happiness”, but this BBC Science article makes a compelling argument that the wealthy are not kinder people; ‘A study in Psychology Today showed that the children of wealthy parents had a higher risk of experiencing depression, anxiety, eating disorders and substance abuse. Researchers also found that, as we get richer, we may become less ethical and less empathetic, since wealth instils a sense of freedom and the wealthier we are, the less we care about other people’s problems and feelings.’ If I could choose between having a “professional” job which earns £200,000 per annum, that involves exploitation, working under constant pressure and stress with no opportunity for creativity; and having an eclectic mix of “unprofessional” freelance jobs which earn around £25-30,000, but gives me meaning and purpose in my life, opportunities to travel and the time and flexibility to have an art practice – I would absolutely choose the latter every time, and I think I am a happier, (and hopefully) kinder person for it.


During the session I used a hypothetical example of a butcher commissioning an artwork from me, which, as a Vegan, I would feel morally obligated to decline (regardless of the amount of money being offered). This is because, integrity, autheticity and animal rights, are values which I prize far above financial wealth. Capatlist societies constantly tell us to value our worth by numbers; grades, degree class, wealth, age, years married etc. Most people never question these value systems and how they dehumanise us, but ultimately we have a choice whether to let numbers and other people's judgement define and limit who we are.

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