Dark Matter is a book on ‘Art and Politics in the Age of Enterprise Culture’ by the artist and writer Gregory Sholette. With impressive knowledge Sholette archives art activism, mostly in New York. Accounts of said activism and art which either rejected the mainstream or were simply denied are interjected with polemics against the workings of the art world and a call to arms to tear down the hierarchies of exposure surrounding art and culture in general.
Sholette is keen on metaphors. The title Dark Matter itself uses the invisible dark matter of physics, necessary to exist for our current understanding of gravity to work, as a metaphor for all that is created under the broad umbrella of ‘art’ that never exists in the mainstream. Dark matter, in Sholette’s terms, is that which is not generally well known, or considered successful, both in critical and monetary terms, but nevertheless makes up the bulk of art production.
The book is something of a catalogue of under-the-radar art projects, events and individuals of which Sholette has an archival knowledge; ranging from internet battles over collective ownership of intellectual property, to figures from marginal groups who have died in strange circumstances without full investigations.
He picks up on some important issues, such as the necessary exclusivity of the art market in order to generate a large amount of revenue for the selected few, and the murky waters of intellectual ownership in an increasingly online and un-authored world, but his ideological speculations and calls to arms sometimes jar with his otherwise well-informed account of an alternative art world and art history.
The following passage is from the introduction:
What would happen for example if the hobbyists and amateurs who purportedly make up a billion-dollar national industry in the US simply stopped purchasing art supplies or no longer took classes with “professional” artists, or ceased going to museums to see what bona fide artists do?
Statements such as the above make you feel uneasy, in that even in Sholette’s writing, all art seems to be regarded in the same spectrum, with a few at the top being ‘successful’ and everyone else failing. The likely answer to ‘what would happen if the hobbyists stopped?’ would be that, well, a lot of people wouldn’t be doing what they like doing, a lot of art supplies shops would fold in, but the elite would carry on, and some museums and galleries would close . . . which would be a bit of a shame to say the least.
Statements of this like also imply that the ‘hobbyists’ and ‘amateurs’ are in some way being forced to do something they wouldn’t otherwise want to do, that they are being duped and exploited, created for the profit of those at the top. This fails to recognise that for the ‘amateur’ and ‘hobbyist’, seeing what bona fide artists do is, on the whole, great; taking classes and receiving education is generally very fulfilling and the growing availability of art supplies makes amateur artistic endeavour increasingly possible. All this comes with a fee, but the power imbalance between those that pay and those that profit is endemic of capitalism, not solely to art supplies, lessons and exhibitions.
Though Sholette’s intent is clear and no doubt coming from the right place you sometimes feel that he misses the target he should be aiming for by substituting the complex, vague, faceless and intractable politics of exposure that surround art with the symptom of the complex, vague, faceless and intractable politics of exposure. In this case people being sold a consumable ‘amateur’ or ‘hobbyist’ version of a more complex whole, the heights of which they cannot possibly reach by engaging with it on the level of the ‘amateur’ or ‘hobbyist’.
He rallies the majority of artists to see that their “seemingly natural condition of underdevelopment is contingent, constructed, and that its invisible status renders the efforts of most artists no different from that of the joyful labour of the hobbyist, amateur, or Sunday painter.” The special status of the select few is of course a construct created through the exclusivity of the art market, but to put the general body of artists and the general body of hobbyists on the same ladder is detrimental to both the underdeveloped artist and the hobbyist, neglecting as it does the very different dialogues they are both in.
Despite these political speculations that sometimes lead you to question his thinking, a lot of what the book is about is an alternative history of culture and politics, largely in America, which is commendable. Sholette brings to the fore covered-up and forgotten political and cultural struggles that usually left the vulnerable more vulnerable, although there are some victories here and there, often in the form of social uprising and organisation. Sholette sums this up best:
Inevitably we are reminded that history, rather than being read as a string of inevitabilities, might be thought of as so many lost opportunities, and that a certain kind of cultural activism may be conceived as a process of recovering these other memories, regardless of whether they are orphaned or suppressed, real or imaginary.
Sholette’s book is in fact an exercise in ‘recovering lost opportunities through cultural activism’, and this is perhaps its greatest strength. We can presume that a lot of this comes from his involvement with REPOhistory, whose goal is “to retrieve and relocate absent historical narratives at specific locations in the New York City area through counter-monuments, actions, and events” (http://www.repohistory.org/who.html).
It is from these historical accounts that the book gains substance, offering as it does the tragic and unjust alongside the sometimes witty, irreverent tactics of the art activists. The accounts also revive unexpected fragments of history that would no doubt otherwise be forgotten, such as the Black Panthers, usually depicted as militants, helping children cross roads in a neighbourhood with no traffic lights; and Rudolph “Rudi” Giuliani, the twice elected mayor of New York, dressing up in drag on more than four occasions as Rudia, ‘a female alter ego he once described to reporters as “a Republican pretending to be a Democrat pretending to be a Republican”’ while at the same time blocking an anti-discrimination law aimed to help transgendered people. It is these inversions of the normative representation of history highlighting the absurdity of those in power, which make this book ultimately worth reading.
Dark Matter is available in hardback and published by Pluto Press.