Text Patterns - by Alan Jacobs

Tuesday, September 15, 2015

a public amateur's story

There is so much that’s wonderful about Sara Hendren’s talk here that I can’t summarize it — and wouldn’t if I could. Please just watch it, and watch to the end, because in the last few minutes of the talk things come together in ways that will be unexpected to those who don't know Sara. Also be sure to check out Abler.

One of Sara’s models is the artist Claire Pentecost, who sees herself as a public amateur:

One of the things I’m attached to is learning. And one of the models I’ve developed theoretically is that of the artist as the public amateur. Not the public intellectual, which is usually a position of mastery and critique, but the public amateur, a position of inquiry and experimentation. The amateur is the learner who is motivated by love or by personal attachment, and in this case, who consents to learn in public so that the very conditions of knowledge production can be interrogated. The public amateur takes the initiative to question something in the province of a discipline in which she is not conventionally qualified, acquires knowledge through unofficial means, and assumes the authority to offer interpretations of that knowledge, especially in regard to decisions that affect our lives.

Public amateurs can have exceptional social value, not least because they dare to question experts who want to remain unquestioned simply by virtue of accredited expertise; public amateurs don't take “Trust me, I know what I’m doing” as an adequate self-justification. But perhaps the greatest contribution public amateurs make to society arises from their insistence — it’s a kind of compulsion for them — on putting together ideas and experiences that the atomizing, specializing forces of our culture try to keep in neatly demarcated compartments. This is how an artist and art historian ends up teaching at an engineering school.

There are two traits that, if you wish to be a public amateur, you simply cannot afford to possess. You can’t insist on having a plan and sticking with it, and you can’t be afraid of making mistakes. If you’re the sort of person whose ducks must always be in a neat, clean row, the life of the public amateur is not for you. But as the personal story Sara tells near the end of her talk indicates, sometimes life has a way of scrambling all your ducks. When that happens, you can rage vainly against it; or you can do what Sara did.


  • I like the idea of the public amateur very much, though with such a close resemblance to the liberal arts major or the polymath, I wonder whether a new term is really necessary. I consider myself more a public intellectual, an archetype almost no one else has interest in anymore. Operating in public view as either an amateur or an intellectual is more complicated these days because of one’s identity being more fluid and accessible. In some venues, I adopt a screen identity, which often results in my being discarded out of hand, whereas in other venues, using my real name is typically accompanied by interrogations as to my credentials and/or authority to speak or write on various subject matters. Both miss the point of evaluating ideas themselves and instead promote biography to the forefront. It’s a form of disenfranchisement.

    One point Sara Hendren doesn’t quite make in her presentation but is worth noting is that how artists’ perspectives on the world are always not some pointless, disembodied exercise in personal expression. (Sometimes they are pointless and vainglorious.) The best artists reflect upon the world, and in her case, act upon the world in ways frankly unavailable to technocrats. That also has value, though it’s difficult to quantify.

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