‘The amateur’ is an unstable figure across geographic contexts that have shaped an extraordinary range of activity, from non-remunerated, self-organised, non-official, anti-ruling class, insurgent artistic efforts, to programmatic State efforts to marshal ‘folk’ production into national narratives of authentic belonging. With this special issue, the authors argue that an examination of this topic will benefit from the adoption of a global perspective from the outset, as well as a keen attention to the diverse circumstances of amateur making – in architecture, painting, music, poetry, television, video, film, photography and archiving. Amateurism can be fostered not only by the love of an art, but also by the will to survive economic and social precarity. Any attempt to periodise the amateur yields multiple chronologies built around distinct moments of significance. Yet the authors suggest that we are in a new age of amateurism, indicated by the wave of emerging scholarship on this topic, as well as an omnipresent general antipathy to the expertise of professional technocrats.
In the summer of 2006, during a popular uprising in the Mexican state of Oaxaca, a group of Oaxacan women occupied state television and transformed it into TV by and for the people in just twenty-one days. Engaging with the amateur and fugitive aesthetic of the women’s self-produced media, this article examines the ways in which the broadcasts helped build The Popular Assembly of the Peoples of Oaxaca (APPO) as a model of decolonial democracy. I argue that through the recuperation of foreclosed public space, the women used the instruments of state power to develop forums for political deliberation and debate that re-articulated and reframed issues of gender, class and indigeneity in the social movement. They prefigured APPO’s proposed democratic model by visualising the popular assembly as a dynamic work-in-progress, and in turn helped to manifest it by inviting broad public participation and support to realise APPO’s democracy ‘to come’.
While the images traditionally associated with the amateur visual archive of the black experience were primarily everyday photographs taken by black communities in diaspora, more recently it is the moving image, rather than still photography, to which these communities turn to capture the vicissitudes of black life. Their repository is no longer handmade albums or scrapbooks; it is Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, and numerous other self-curated online collections. Focusing on the work of cinematographer Arthur Jafa, this article explores the ways black amateur digital archives are used by contemporary black artists like Jafa to create an emergent new ‘black gaze’ that renders the borders between fine art and popular culture porous and unstable. It is a gaze that resuscitates and revalues the amateur visual archive of black life in radical ways and with radical possibilities for imagining a different kind of black futurity.
Though their cultural births coincided, punk and rap musicians performed in New York City for at least seven years before they endeavoured any substantial creative interactions. Musicians, critics and fans referred to both punk and rap as ‘primitive’; however, this article compares the acceptance and celebration of punk as ‘primitive’ with inverted judgments of shared qualities in rap music. Specifically, this article considers New York punk in the 1970s as a white racial project. Persistent stereotypes in white music media, particularly rock criticism, constructed the discursive meanings of punk and rap, while institutional and political segregation structured this distinction. Artistic ‘amateurism’, thus, functions as a celebratory term only when we give such art the benefit of the doubt – that it is not mere ineptness, that it is fruitful, that it is intentional, or that it is subversive. This benefit, in this case, is a white privilege.
Current conditions of global climate change, fossil fuel exhaustion, economic precarity and political unrest may be indicators that modern industrialised society is on the verge of Collapse. What will happen to digital and digitised media – files of images, text, films, television series, audio recordings, video games, and so on – in the event of Collapse? The author argues that individuals who exchange such files online via peer-to-peer protocols, who are deemed ‘pirates’ by the culture industries, are in fact amateur archivists whose personal caches of digital media will be the most likely to survive catastrophic change. Indeed, catastrophic change will not be catastrophic for all parties: Collapse may put an end to capitalism, which optimises for the rapid obsolescence of cultural commodities and combats the unpaid exchange of goods in myriad ways, thereby preventing official archives and libraries from implementing strategies for the legal preservation of digital culture.
This article explores notions of amateurism in relation to story-gathering, primary source classification, and other archival practices. Particularly, the author’s path to his role as National Collector at the Smithsonian’s Archives of American Art is traced from his familial, art historical and intellectual roots in West Texas. Arguing that cultures of West Texas place an exceptionally high value on retaining and generating stories particular to the region’s history, Franco points to examples from archaeology, Texas history, art history, and contemporary art. Substantial scholarly work has been committed to the complex relationships between professional fine artists and untrained outsiders. Franco takes methods from these explorations in order to approach the equally complex relationship between professional state-sponsored archival practices and similar endeavors undertaken by individuals and smaller, homegrown archival projects from a specific American region.
In Latin America and the Caribbean, the historical audiovisual and audio-recorded ethnomusicological archive is being recycled under different political and aesthetic imperatives. Indigenous and Afrodescendant peoples reappropriate and transform the archive through strategic decolonising practices that recast the political and aesthetic conditions of audibility for which ethnographic sounds were originally produced. In colonial and postcolonial settings, the distinction between the colonisers and the colonised in terms of their knowledge about sound is not between amateurs and professionals. Rather, the political invention of rationality as a key to professional labour simply deems the knowledge of sounds by the colonised irrelevant, irrational or non-existent. This article explores the contemporary intensification of the labour of recycling sound archives as decolonial strategy, where so-called non-professionals often work at the techniques of sound design necessary for the reappropriation of the sound archive. This is often lived as an amorous process of reinstating the audibility of such sounds into the designs of life.
Focused on modern and contemporary Iranian visual culture, this article traces the shifts from an institutionalised high art ethos under the Pahlavi dynasty to a hegemonic, yet populist-amateur cultural environment after the Iranian Revolution of 1979. By raising questions about the (dis)position of populism, amateurism and people-made art in the streets, cemeteries and public parks of the Islamic Republic, it proposes that, however defined and labelled, contemporary Iranian art cannot be properly understood without addressing the art historical and dialectic co-dependence of street kitsch and closeted avant-garde. In Iran, subversive art can hardly be grasped without the beauty of fake flowers.
This article considers Jane Arden’s 1972 film ‘The Other Side of The Underneath’, a neglected work of British feminist experimental cinema that focused on experimental group therapy. Building upon the theatrical productions of Holocaust, a short-lived feminist group that Arden started in 1970, Arden’s theatrical and cinematic projects from the early 1970s involved both professional actors and untrained participants in a strange admixture of theatre exercises, group therapy and feminist ritual. Illuminating overlooked cross-currents between the women’s liberation group-work, the anti-psychiatry movement, and the post-1960s avant-garde embrace of amateur modes of aesthetic expression and production, Arden’s work from this period refuses to accede to the tyranny of professionalised expertise – whether of the artist, actor, filmmaker or psychiatrist.
This article considers the imbrication of labour and painting in the work of John Kane (1860–1934), one of the preeminent ‘self-taught’ painters of the 1930s. Over the course of nearly five decades, Kane worked in Pittsburgh’s mines, railroads and steel factories, and as a paver and housepainter. By tracing the commonalities of facture and materiality in Kane’s labour and painting, this article demonstrates Kane’s challenge to conventional divisions of art and labour and aesthetic hierarchies, and illuminates the fraught status of amateurism in American art of the 1930s.
Walking around any Brazilian neighbourhood built around the mid-twentieth century one cannot avoid noticing the prevalence of modernist aesthetics in the facades of the majority of the houses. Even more unique is the fact that those houses were not designed by architects but were conceived by the owners themselves with the help of untrained construction workers. In this article I call them ‘amateur architects’ and I analyse this singular phenomenon. This article also goes beyond the Brazilian case to problematise the issue of architectural dissemination. How does it take place? What are the vectors of information? How are stylistic and spatial trends disseminated? How do non-professional architects such as house owners, inhabitants and construction workers participate in fabricating architectural aesthetics? In sum, how could a modernist proposal become vernacular? Such a vernacular modernism becomes an interesting appendix to the broader revaluation of amateurism in the arts.
In this interview, the members of Abounaddara, a collective of self-taught and volunteer filmmakers from Syria, discuss their work in relationship to their commitment to an artisanal mode of production. Topics considered include self-teaching versus professional training, Syrian histories of craft production and of film, and the limits of amateurism as a model.
Moments of deep crisis destabilise artistic autonomy, as such autonomy usually relies on arts’ submission to the laws of the markets. When markets collapse, like they did in Argentina in 2001, artistic production is emancipated from the duties of money-making. This is the moment when original, ‘amateur’ artistic practices emerge that find another social and political function, in which writing is not contained by the rules of business. In contemporary Latin America, trespassing the limits of artistic autonomy is not a decision of the artist but rather a material condition of production. This article analyses three moments in which a post-autonomy literature emerged as a formation of a minoritarian, queer language of the ‘locas’: Brazilian ‘poesia marginal’ (1970s), the Argentinian independent publishing projects Belleza y felicidad and Eloísa Cartonera (early 2000s), and the recent global feminist activist movement Ni una menos.
This article makes use of the notion of amateurism to reframe our understandings of Mexican contemporary art of the late 1980s and early 1990s. I look specifically at Sarah Minter’s 1991 feature length video piece ‘Alma Punk’ to suggest that its deployment of an aesthetics of amateurism indexes the oft-forgotten intersection between punk subcultures and the contemporary art scene of the period. Countering dominant discourses in art historical discussions that subsume Mexican contemporary art to macro-political and economic developments, I situate ‘Alma Punk’ as an object that allows us to recognise the marginal spaces from which this art emerged. I locate amateurism in this article in close relation to Manny Farber’s idea of ‘termite art’, an aesthetic mode that favours the reach of minor gestures against the will toward mastery found in ‘white elephant art’. Thus, Minter’s work chooses amateurism as an aesthetic mode that approximates the everyday experiences of her marginal subjects.
THIRD TEXT is published in print and online by Routledge, Taylor & Francis Group