Current painting in progress: A view of the St. Lawrence River from Cap-a-l'aigle, Quebec. Pastel, 16" x 12".
When I moved to Quebec from the U.S., one of the differences I gradually noticed was that many people seemed to append a series of letters to their professional signatures. When I inquired about this, I learned that these are the acronyms for professional organizations - a kind of accreditation that is sought after, confers legitimacy, and seems to matter here. For example, in my field of graphic design, the professional association is the Société des designers graphiques du Québec (SDGQ), founded in 1972 to advance the profession, lobby, and help with professional development. In order to become an accredited member, a designer must have at least seven years of practice, and to submit work to a panel of jurists for professional review. Once accepted, the designer can use the letters DGA after his or her name. The same is true for many other types of work here.
As an American, used to competing for design work solely on the basis of the merit of our proposals, I found this odd, and I must admit it never occurred to me to either want or try for such a designation; in fact it felt to me sort of offensive, or exclusionary. I had no idea if the designation helped people get work or not. Was it an ego-thing, I wondered? Was it just "what you do" as a professional here?
Later I noticed that fine artists also join societies, and hope to achieve the status of "master", with the permission to add designations such as "RWCS" (Royal Watercolor Society) to their name. Perhaps someone can enlighten me as to how these organizations started - I know there is a long tradition of them in Britain and probably also in English Canada, but how about in Quebec? Is this a venerable tradition that came from France, or did it have something to do with protecting French Canadians in the professions at the time of the Quiet Revolution? Did Quebec historically have a Guild system?
I've been a member of PEN Canada for years -- and I had to have a book published by a recognized press to qualify -- but the main reason for that is that I believe in the lobbying that organization does on behalf of free speech, and imprisoned and oppressed international writers. I rarely mention it. The point of today's post is to say that, twelve years on, I've joined one of these groups as an experiment - the Pastel Society of Eastern Canada. I'm not sure why; it certainly isn't characteristic. I'm planning to try to participate in their exhibitions and meet other regional artists; it's a way of connecting in real time and space, as opposed to the internet, and here -- in a country where things move a little more slowly, and galleries and exhibition opportunities are few -- that seems potentially worthwhile. However, when reading the information, I saw that after a certain number of acceptances into juried exhibitions, one can become a "signature member;" the highest level is "master pastellist", which requires a certain number of years of successful submissions and then evaluation by a jury (for whose consideration you pay a $300 fee, whether successful or not); then one can append the initials "MPSEC" to one's name. How, I ask myself, do I feel about this? I tend to be dismissive and disinterested. Yet a very high level of professional achievement indeed is required to become a member of, say, the Royal Canadian College of Organists; it's a real mark of recognition, and I was very happy when an organist I know well finally received this honor. My own attitudes are, apparently, somewhat conflicted.
Personally, as artists I feel we are all searching for our best means of expression - something that is elusive and by definition unattainable. I'm bothered by titles, awards, accreditation, degrees and honors which seem to indicate and enshrine some sort of "arrival;" I feel these are irrelevant and unnecessary among real artists because the point of doing art is that we are always in process: we know that we have never "arrived," that each piece is merely a bridge to the next, and that our life in art involves risk, failures and many brand new starting points. So, in that sense, we are all perpetual beginners, necessarily so -- and recognizing this for oneself is actually far more important than achieving levels conferred by some sort of authority. No one would be quicker to point that out than the musician I just mentioned.
But is it ever so simple and idealistic? Taking my own case in point -- I have a liberal arts degree, never went to art school, never had formal training, am essentially self-taught as a designer, artist, calligrapher -- and this was never a drawback for me in the U.S. because no one ever asked for my artistic credentials or professional associations; they just considered my present work, my personality in an interview, my client list, and my ability to do business professionally. But did it make a subtle difference to some of those clients, in New England, that I had graduated from to an Ivy League school? If I'm honest, the answer is probably yes. To others, it may have been a point against me (or they may have liked and accepted me in spite of the fact.) Is it ever possible for merit alone to succeed, or are we all subject to some extent to the rules of our own culture, to the tribes and societies to which we belong, to the secret hierarchy of "who we know" or "where we came from?" Do any of us refrain from using connections (or lines on our resumes) that we think might give us a leg up?
Here, in a quite different society, then, a number of questions come to mind: are these professional associations/titles actually necessary or helpful for one's work? How much of it has to do with ego-gratification? Why do certain cultures ascribe to these behaviors more than others, and why do titles and credentials matter more to certain people? Are these societies/titles a particular feature of Commonwealth countries?
While professional societies may do very good work in helping set standards and educating both practitioners and consumers about best business practices and pricing guidelines -- that's true in America too -- it seems to me that we shouldn't need titles and letters beside our names; this smacks to me of old European systems that came out of the Guilds and later became a way of distinguishing certain artists above others in a way that I find difficult to accept, because I dislike and distrust hierarchies. But I'm willing to hear the arguments for or against, both from North Americans and Europeans. Do you have any experience with this?