The professional art world necessarily functions by a principle of exclusion. Though the line between professional and amateur art may be a fine one, the politics of galleries and exhibitions magnify that line until the distinctions appear to be clear and intrinsic. In a February 24 talk at the Carpenter Center, New York-based artist Gregory Sholette discussed his theory of artistic “dark matter,” the vast creative output produced by hobbyists and amateurs which will never grace the walls of a gallery. According to Sholette, also Visiting Assistant Professor of Visual and Environmental Studies, the professional art world is dependent upon the excess of amateur art lying just outside its boundaries.
Sholette borrows the idea of “dark matter” from modern astrophysicists “who,” he said, “basically make a point that most of the universe is invisible. It’s made of some unknown material, but without it, the universe would actually fly apart.” With this metaphor he characterizes the state of the professional art world: without the critical mass of artwork provided by unacknowledged amateurs, whose art is labeled “redundant,” professional art could not exist. Such a direct dependence follows from its exclusionary nature. “Why do we need those gatekeepers of the art world to tell us what we’re doing is interesting?” Sholette asked. “What we have is an excess that museums would never be able to recognize. Otherwise, the very concept of valorization in art would collapse.”
This situation has been complicated by the intrusion of modern technologies like the internet, which present new channels of dissemination and visibility for historically marginalized artists. “In part due to these new technologies, the dark matter is spilling out,” he said. In this way, though still perhaps amateur in quality, art which was previously obscure is able to reach a wider audience.
Fittingly, Sholette has made a career of exhibiting historically underrepresented perspectives through his artwork. After beginning his career in an East Village artists’ collective that spurned the gallery world for guerilla tactics, Sholette began executing public art projects that more closely resembled political demonstrations than painted canvases. “Part of it was around history and representation, part of it was around issues of class,” he said. One of his projects entailed making signs and placing them around New York. The signs didactically presented forgotten or suppressed historical information relating to issues of racism, sexism, and the woes of capitalism. “Our idea was to be the ‘repo men’ and the ‘repo women’ of history’s forgotten, and go around and steal back those histories and put them back up in public places.”
Sholette’s public art projects were met with particular interest by the audience, eliciting several questions during the question-and-answer session. After the talk, audience member Zhonghe Li expressed her approval of Sholette’s work. “I wasn’t sure whether I was going to come to the event, but I’m really happy I did. I feel like I have a better understanding of what public art is,” she said. David Rodowick, Department Chair of Visual and Environmental Studies and Interim Director of the Carpenter Center, offered a perspective as to why Sholette’s work and ideas are particularly resonant. “Lots of students are interested in public art these days, and I think Greg engages with some very important questions about it. What is public, for example? What is a ‘public place?’ Is it public before the introduction of public art, or after?” Rodowick admires the “blurry line” between Sholette’s art and political activism, which suggests that any protest can be reinterpreted as a creative act.
Blurring lines and overcoming exclusionary boundaries are crucial parts of Sholette’s work, both as an artist and a theorist. However, he makes it clear that he is not interested in serving as an advocate for amateur art: “I don’t want to drag the dark matter into the light; I want to drag the light into the dark matter. I’m more interested in shaking up the real estate of the art world.” Ever the artistic muckraker, Sholette seeks to highlight, criticize, and ultimately change the structure of the professional art world through his words and works.