“If the amateur did not exist it would be necessary to invent him.”

My research into the ‘rebirth’ of classical guitar-making in Britain (1947-57) has led me to read around the literature on the ‘amateur’ and ‘autodidact’. There is not much literature to work with, especially concerning the latter, but it has been useful to help understand that early period of twentieth century guitar-making and some of the key people involved.

That amateurs were at the heart of the early classical guitar world and, indeed, classical guitar-making, is evident from the literature of the period and has been asserted by John Huber (1994, 69) who wrote that “completely in keeping with its amateur legacy in performance, the guitar has proven to be without prejudice of any kind against amateur makers.” Huber makes the important point that many professional players, such as John Williams and Julian Bream, have performed on “instruments that would in any other profession be defined as amateur made.”

Reference to the role of amateurs can be found in BMG magazine, too. For example, in BMG November 1949, an unidentified author rejects the criticism of amateurs being ‘dabblers’ and argues that often the only difference between amateur and professional guitar players is the way they present themselves to the public and that the amateur can achieve the presentation of the professional through repeated practice and challenging themselves.

An extended defence of the amateur, written by Jacques Barzun, the French-American intellectual, was published in Guitar Review (1955 #18). In his essay, ‘The indispensable amateur‘, he argues how the amateur (a ‘lover’ of something) exists in “dialectical opposition” to the orthodoxy of the professional. He claims that the “The role of the amateur is to keep insisting on the primacy of style, spirit, musicianship, meaning over any technical accomplishment.” Yes, the amateur “wastes time, rediscovers what is known, and makes colossal blunders” but their achievements outweigh such characteristics; their faults are “harmless”. Yes, the amateur draws most of his knowledge from the institutions of professional society but he/she gives more than they take. He concludes by saying: “We may complain and cavil at the anarchy which is the amateur’s natural element, but in soberness we must agree that if the amateur did not exist it would be necessary to invent him.”

The relationship between the amateur and professional and the legitimacy of their respective knowledge is discussed by later writers, such as Pierre Bourdieu (2010) and Edward Said (1994, 82-83). Bourdieu categorises the self-teaching that takes place outside of the formal educational system as ‘legitimate’ or ‘illegitimate’ types of autodidactism, referring to whether the “extra-curricular culture” (i.e. autodidactism) is attributable to the individual’s existing academic qualifications or not. For Bourdieu, the cultural measure of amateur knowledge is accredited professional knowledge. Said argues that the amateur intellectual is motivated by “care and affection” rather than “profit and selfish, narrow specialization”. They have a different set of values and prerogatives to the professional intellectual, who would do well to adopt the “more lively and radical” spirit of the amateur; “instead of doing what one is supposed to do one can ask why one does it, who benefits from it, how can it reconnect with a personal project and original thoughts.”

This dialectical opposition between the professional and amateur is useful at a conceptual level, but in reality, as all authors recognise, we can find characteristics of the amateur in the professional and aspirations towards professionalism among amateurs. When studying guitar-makers and no doubt other artisans, the weakness of this dialectical opposition is quite evident to me and better explained by Robert Stebbin’s theory of ‘serious leisure’ (1992), which recognises the contribution the amateur makes both in intellectual and materials terms, without necessarily making it their livelihood.

The common distinction between the professional and the amateur is that the professional earns the majority of their income from the activity while the amateur does not. In my survey of over 100 classical guitar-makers in Britain, I asked:

“Is lutherie your main occupation? i.e. do you rely on lutherie for all, or the majority, of your personal income?”

Of the 60 luthiers who replied to the question, 43% said it was not their main occupation, suggesting that ‘amateurs’ have a significant role in British classical guitar-making. However, the number of individuals is probably less important than the number of instruments made and as we would expect, where it is their main occupation, luthiers make about ten-times more instruments (and this takes into account the number of years they have been making).

Finally, I want to add that the literature on amateurs vs. professionals frequently refers to the ‘freedom’ of the amateur, compared to the regulation of life that full-time work imposes on individuals. Andre Gorz’s distinction between heteronomous work and autonomous work offers a way of understanding how people could choose to spend their time, whether in professional or amateur pursuits. For Gorz, the objective is to reduce the amount of necessary, unavoidable, heteronomous  work as much as possible thereby allowing one to autonomously volunteer our free time to things that are socially fulfilling and that we love. For Gorz, and for Marx before him, wealth is not simply measured by money, but by how we spend our time. What is interesting to me is that among the 30 guitar-makers I have interviewed there seems to be an implicit understanding of Gorz’s distinction as many have chosen lutherie because it is a way of overcoming the exclusive distinction between regulated, heteronomous work and free, autonomous activity. Yes, professional makers depend on making an income from their productivity, but for the most part, they retain the amateur’s love of their craft and the relative freedom that self-employment and hand craft give them. They spend most of their time doing necessary work that they love and continue to learn from.

3 thoughts on ““If the amateur did not exist it would be necessary to invent him.””

  1. This post is intriguing on many dimensions. Another way of thinking about the dichotomous treatment of amateurs and professionals is to link it to the arguments about classification made by Mary Douglas in her book, Purity and Danger. Among her points are that dichotomous classifications do not, in fact, work empirically. They are as much moral distinctions as empirical ones. They also force the dichtomizers to focus heavily on the cases that do not neatly fit. Thus she argues that these classifications produce “dirt” which is “matter out of place” and the custodians spend their lives sweeping this direct into one or another of the classificatory boxes. So then what is the moral distinction that this dichotomy involves? The reference to Gorz gets at some of it but perhaps not all.

    My other reaction is based on the time I have spent doing ethnography and action research in industrial settings where collaborative and cooperative structures exist. In those cases, there is a recognition that people doing a job in some part of the production process have both expertise and experience and that this experience often has a craft dimension more like that we attribute to artisans and amateurs. Recognizing this and crediting it as an important part of the overall process of manufacturing not only seems to produce better quality goods but also less authoritarian and more solidary work environments.

    1. Thank you for this, Davydd. I knew the Mary Douglas quote but had not made the connection you have offered here, which is very helpful. The moral (rather than empirical) distinction is definitely implied in the writing I refer to in the blog post, especially Edward Said’s essay, where it is explicit. Your point about expertise and experience is useful, too, because many of the luthiers I have spoken to have professional training and experience in other areas (arts, engineering, cabinet making, etc.), which of course, they bring to their instrument making.

      1. Joss, I am glad you found the comment relevant. My fascination with the technical operations, thought processes, aesthetics, and experiential knowledge that goes into what many “professionals” consider to be mere skilled labor is lifelong. The contrast with much of the formulaic, paint-by-the-numbers activities of supposed professionals, many academic, and most academic administrators is striking. Driving artistry out of work in the interest of predictability and control seems endlessly attractive to pseudo-leaders.

Leave a Reply to Davydd J. Greenwood Cancel reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.