Oh! the public amateur is not afraid to let on that she just figured it out.

It started in an effort to theorize a paradigm of the artist, which is well under way in practice. Under this paradigm the artist serves as conduit between specialized knowledge fields and other members of the public sphere by assuming a role I have called the Public Amateur.

In such a practice the artist becomes a person who consents to learn in public. It is a proposition of active social participation in which any nonspecialist is empowered to take the initiative to question something within a given discipline, acquire knowledge in a noninstitutionally sanctioned way, and assume the authority to interpret that knowledge, especially in regard to decisions that affect our lives. The motive is not to replace the specialist, but to augment specialization with other models that have legitimate claims to producing and interpreting knowledge.

The idea is to pursue knowledge with very transparent stakes in a space where the interest of the parties involved can be exposed to scrutiny. Artists are well placed to initiate this because the role of the artist is very much up for grabs at this moment, the artist never commands large resources, and art is made in a way appropriately open to public interrogation.
Specialization has brought about incredible achievements. However, under current conditions of increasing complexity and fragmentation the need for overviews of how areas of knowledge overlap and how vectors of power-knowledge intersect has become a new imperative. Our culture asks too high a price of the individual when it demands narrow professional specialization. Conforming to this demand divides our intellects from our emotions, our imagination from our efforts, our pleasure from our contribution, our verbal and analytic capacity from other creative talents, our ethics from our daily lives. The result is frustration and disempowerment for the individual and short-sightedness for society as a whole. Artistic practice, in this time of historical transition, is an excellent place to model a new authority for the amateur, and to use his or her trajectory as a path to make connections between realms of experience usually sequestered within deforming boundaries.

Why amateur?

We propose this category as one of the lover and the learner.

The amateur has transparent relations to his/her object.

She/he approaches and ultimately appropriates the object of knowledge out of enthusiasm, curiosity or perhaps a personal need.

She learns outside the circuits of professional normalization and reward.

She or someone she cares for might have food allergy requiring that she learn more than most want to know about how and of what our food is produced.


She might have had a bad experience of childbirth and want to educate herself so as to her alternatives.
In the relatively new field of ecology the amateur continues to make significant contributions because the sheer amount and complexity of information required to tracks changes in the environment demands a phalanx of observers beyond what the profession can supply. People who are willing to stand in a wetlands for hours and tape the mating calls of frogs to chart the population status of amphibians. People who regularly observe birds residing in their own yards, or migration numbers in their location.

Why public?

The public amateur exposes the risks, pleasures, mistakes and insights of an autonomous learning process.

In public this process has a chance to be collective, thereby deeper and finally more subversive.

In public the amateur stands to learn much more; there her efforts are ponderable to specialists and non specialists, and amenable to contributed experience.

Shared knowledge is the deepest, broadest, most complex, up to date, relevant, astonishing knowledge.

Why artist?

Historically the realm of expertise for the visual artist was making the world visible through representation. This task has been thoroughly assumed by a vastly distributed range of industries, so much so that, in the period we call postmodern the artist has been called upon more to dismantle regimes of the visible than to render them. The other territory of authority ceded to artists in the modern period has been that of selfhood. Gratifying the ethos of individuality and ideologically compensating for mass economic instrumentalization of identities, the artist presented a paragon of elevated autonomous selfhood, more symbolic than genuinely enfranchised.

The world being visualized by artistic means, whether a material reality, a spiritual one, or both, is and always has been freighted with values. These normative investments, whether under the rubric of truth, beauty, power, status, natural law, divine law, or everyday life, again and again, these values have been located or dislocated in the broad shouldered, soft-featured evasive figure of beauty. Recurrently critics and audiences would like to simplify the problem of the purpose and criteria of art by narrowing it to the pursuit of beauty. But this simplifies nothing. Often assumed to be a universal, beauty, whether narrowed to an idea of visual pleasure or expanded to the essence of the good and the true, is as culturally determined as any other value. The aesthetic properties of a work of art are sometimes referred to as beauty. Beauty is still talked about as though it solved the thorny issue of discerning the value of works of art. When people talk about a return to beauty, no matter what else they are saying, the message includes a wish to dissociate aesthetic evaluation from other questions of social value. None of the many transient forms of beauty can spare us the further work of evaluating how the concomitant values in any concrete example of beauty position different makers and audiences in relation to power: access to material and symbolic resources.

As power is increasingly wielded via access to knowledge and legitimation based on claims to expertise, the reward of enfranchisement, is also more and more clearly a quotient of participation in proliferating fields and forms of knowledge, it is beyond question that knowledge should be a concern of art. Even as pleasure, access to knowledge and self-directed self-transformation is part of what every human deserves to enjoy.

As traditional criteria of art become increasingly displaced by new technologies and cultural influences, it becomes more and more a matter of course that the work of an artist includes establishing the parameters of artistic practice and signification as well as the criteria to evaluate it. Relative to most other professions this furnishes a wide range of autonomy, potentially combined with established venues from squats to museums, sometimes with considerable resources and visibility, and including an established audience which is in fact by most accounts growing.

In general the artist is a figure not only allowed but encouraged to publicly express dissent. It would seem that one reason the relative autonomy of the artist is still nominally intact is that few artists actually enlist this license to attack the ugliest contradictions between the symbolic order and real conditions of existence. Rather, the most publicized controversies arising through artworks remain within the bounds of already divisive “social” issues: sexuality, decency, and religion, issues which have proven to serve the interests of elites by effectively distracting the populace from the distribution of resources. In the last american presidential election, an overwhelming number of eligible voters testify that they are basing their decision on issues like partial-birth abortion, faith-based (christian) friendliness, and gay marriage and not on policy determining health care, trade, education, labor, environmental degradation or social security, even when they admit that these things concern them. Consequently, the candidates and their cronies are not pushed to articulate creative and rigorous solutions to these growing problems.

4 Responses to “Oh! the public amateur is not afraid to let on that she just figured it out.”

  1. sarah carlson Says:

    thoroughly in accord and interested!

  2. ryan haselman Says:

    Hi Claire,

    I like the idea of public amateur. It’s inviting.


    Ryan Haselman

  3. Iola Says:

    Nice knowledge! I have been looking for something such as this for quite a while these days. Many thanks!

  4. place i kadry Says:

    Very intreresting blog. It was very relavant. I was looking exaxtly for this. Thank you for your effort. I hope you will write more such useful posts.

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