Robert Stebbins - Amateur - Greg Sholette

RELATED POST: Gregory Sholette - Creative Dark Matter - Carlos Basualdo

We're going to bring together a couple of scholars whose work operates in quite disparate arenas - Greg Sholette and Robert Stebbins. Specifically, we're going to frame the general field of Stebbins' research with an essay by Sholette (which was called to our attention by Temporary Services): "Dark Matter, Activist Art and the Counter-Public Sphere: MAVN Conference, and the Battles Lost"

Stebbins is known for his work on Serious Leisure which outlines the features of serious leisure, project based leisure, and casual leisure. These summaries are borrowed from the site linked to in the previous sentence:

Casual leisure involves immediate, short-lived, pleasurable activity requiring little to no effort or training.

Project based leisure may require planning, knowledge/skill, and effort, but it is carried out in finite or occasional instances.

Serious leisure is the systematic pursuit of an activity that is substantial, interesting, and fulfilling. It is distinguished from casual leisure by these six features:

"1) need to persevere at the activity, 2) availability of a leisure career, 3) need to put in effort to gain skill and knowledge, 4) realization of various special benefits, 5) unique ethos and social world, and 6) an attractive personal and social identity."

Those who engage in such serious leisure are amateurs. This term, along with dilettante, is something we here at LeisureArts embrace. We have been actively seeking to overturn the negative cultural connotations of these terms. The book 21st Century Leisure, which we've mentioned before, summarizes Stebbins' description of the characteristics of the amateur (from his book Amateurs: On the Margin between Work and Leisure which we haven't been able to track down yet) as follows:
  • A long-term commitment to developing appropriate skills
  • A high standard of performance
  • Devloping the skill for the experience rather than to make a living
  • Having a "career" of participation
  • Constructing a set of values, resource expenditures, and schedules around the activity
  • Employing symbols of commitment in social environments
  • Becoming involved in communities engaged in the same activity
  • Identifying the self with the activity, sometimes even more than with occupation
  • Always accepting the challenge of increasing one's skill level
This leads us to Sholette's essay which analyzes the political and economic dimension of the "creative dark matter" created by various kinds of amateurs relative to the institutions of "high culture."

"Like its astronomical cousin, creative dark matter also makes up the bulk of the artistic activity produced in our post-industrial society. However, this type of dark matter is invisible primarily to those who lay claim to the management and interpretation of culture - the critics, art historians, collectors, dealers, museums, curators and arts administrators. It includes informal practices such as home-crafts, makeshift memorials, amateur photography (and pornography), Sunday-painters, self-published newsletters and fan-zines, Internet art galleries -- all work made and circulated in the shadows of the formal art world. Yet, just as the physical universe is dependent on its dark matter and energy, so too is the art world dependent on its shadow creativity. [emphasis ours] It needs it in much the same way certain developing countries depend on their shadow or informal economies."

Sholette, in a move we strongly support, thinks through the impact of flattening the hierarchy of value between professional and amateur practice. Despite the rhetoric around the collapse between pop and high culture, the reality is that pop culture, and by extension, amateur practices, are not on an equal playing field in art discourse. Such practices have been accepted as source material for "real" cultural activity, but the work of amateurs in and of itself is still relegated to the backwaters of kitsch and irony. Sholette points to this privileging and cuts to the heart of the matter:

"...without an army of allegedly lesser talents to serve as a contrast, the few highly successful artists would be impossible to privilege. A class conscious and materialist analysis begins by turning this equation on its head and asks: what would become of the economic and ideological foundations of the bourgeois art world if this larger mass of excluded practices were to be given equal consideration as art? Nor should this question be dismissed as the domain of sociologists and anthropologists. Radical scholars and artists must take that inversion as a starting point and move to the next stage of analysis: the linking of dark matter to those artists who self-consciously work outside and/or against the parameters of the mainstream art world for reasons of political and social critique."

We have a minor quibble with Sholette here. It might just be a problem of ambiguity of interpretation - is the emphasis of his question regarding excluded practices that they be given equal consideration as art? or is it that excluded practices be given equal consideration as art? We at LeisureArts prefer the latter, wanting to consider these practices as thoughtfully and seriously as one would when considering something framed as art.

Sholette moves on to a rather extensive analysis that is beyond the scope of a blog post, but moves toward calling for, via Oskar Negt and Alexander Kluge, the construction of a "counter-public" sphere :

"Where then are the historians of darkness? What tools will they require to move beyond a mere description of these shadows and dark practices and towards the construction of a counter-public sphere?"

LeisureArts, a subdomain of Dilettante Ventures, a staunch advocate of everyday practices and embracing the amateur, seeks to answer this call.

For a recent example of amateur/professional struggles with regard to arts criticism, you can look to the hostilities exchanged between bloggers and mainstream media arts critics:

Where it all started.
The Art Fag City perspective is here, here, and here.
Art Soldier's take.
High Low & in between's thoughts.