If our society holds together, the 2000's may well be, as far as arts and entertainment are concerned, the century of the amateur. Amateurs do what they do not for extrinsic reward but for its own sake. If they get paid substantially for it, beyond the level of most honoraria, they are no longer amateurs but professionals.
The standard of financial recompense is no longer, however, a dependable gauge of quality. It never was very dependable, considering the number of trade novels that bomb both critically and commercially, the number of songs that disappear without a trace, and the number of serious dramas in cinema and live theatre that are remembered as jokes instead of as works of art.
So unpaid amateurs are not necessarily amateurish, any more than people who are paid for their work are necessarily any good; payment may be the simple result of a lapse in editorial or directorial judgment.
Amateurs have the advantage in the number of opportunities offered them to do their stuff. In the huge number of performances and publications that result, there are some remarkable pieces of work. I still remember with admiration some of the stories and poems that came in when I was co-editor of our college literary magazine, and continue to admire the work in this internet journal, which is an infinitesimal slice of what is produced daily on the Web. Add all the live performances by schools, amateur theatres, choirs, orchestras, bands, and athletic teams, and it becomes clear why everyone is not paid. There isn't enough money. No one expects there to be. Amateurs expect their art to be avocational. They get their living from other work, but they get a big chunk of their lives from their amateur efforts.
The degree of commitment is remarkable. My examples are from the stage, but you may draw other examples from ice rinks, basketball floors, and so on.
I remember four actors in one community theatre who turned themselves into a credible barbershop quartet in order to be the River City school board in The Music Man. In that same community theatre, twenty or so young people learned to tap dance in order to form the chorus for 42nd Street.
For me, the definitive production of The Diary of Anne Frank was by a rural high school in Nebraska. In Canada, the Saskatoon Symphony Orchestra was largely professional, as were the soloists, but the University Chorus that joined them for wonderful performances of Messiah was composed of amateurs.
For a few years in one church there was a small group of people, from children to senior citizens, who seemed to love performing the short plays I wrote for them, tailoring the plays to the talents available.
These were humble efforts. We had access to a real stage very seldom. But there was nothing small in the achievement. Art gives people the opportunity to transcend their own skin. It was great to hear these "amateurs" nail my own lines better than I could.
Then there was inspired invention. In one rehearsal the script required a twelve-year-old boy to pick up a football before going outdoors for a game of catch with an uncle. The stage was full of people, an extended family, but instead of simply leaving as the dull playwright-director imagined, the boy signaled the uncle to "go out for a pass" across the crowded stage. The uncle picked up on it, and the boy threw to him. The receiver bobbled the pass before securing it, causing the nearest woman on the stage to duck and cover her head. As uncle and nephew ran past her, she did a bit of improv herself by planting an accurate backhand on the boy's retreating backside--the natural response of someone who had nearly been brained by an unauthorized football. "Leave it in," I hollered. "Do it exactly that way!"
And they did. It was the biggest laugh in a show that as written was short on laughs.
I love amateurs who try their very best because the work is its own reward. I love working with amateurs, and I love being one myself.