What Ever Happened to the Dilettante?

A spot of bird-watching. From markdionbartram on flickr.

In June, the contemporary art podcast Bad at Sports (and regular columnists on this site) featured an interview with artist Mark Dion. Dion said something in the interview that has stuck with me since I first heard it, a nagging little idea, one that has the potential to undercut the relevancy of great swaths of contemporary art. Reflecting on his experience as an artist-in-residence at the Museum of Natural History in London, Dion said:

[T]here were some scientists who really could not communicate to me what it is that they do. And I’m not a scientifically illiterate person, I know a thing or two. And yet there’s some people whose specialties are so precise that it’s really hard for them to communicate to anyone but people in their field. … That creates a very complicated situation for a society that has to make things like public policy around issues like genetics technologies. …We’re no longer able to have a shared language because the fields of knowledge are so great.

Elsewhere in that interview Dion’s installation practice, steeped in natural history and appropriation, is described as an “anthropology of -ologies,” a catalogue of ways to catalogue. He describes himself, paradoxically, as a “professional dilettante,” making his living as an amateur who’s interested in everything. Dion’s work is successful in bridging gaps between the way science and art order information, but the destructive power of the idea he brings up goes far beyond what a single practitioner can repair. If there are scientists that cannot describe what they do to an informed amateur like Dion, how much worse must it be for artists? At least the diverse disciplines of science all share the basic assumptions of the scientific method. Artists, on the other hand, are not only diverse in what they investigate and produce, but also in the foundational methods and motivations for doing art in the first place.

Mark Dion, "Summum Bonum Quod Est Magia, Cabalae, Alchymae et Artis," 2004. Lithograph, 31 x 24 3/4 inches, Edition of 20. Collaboration with Robert Williams. Courtesy Tanya Bonakdar Gallery, New York.

Dion morns the death of the dilettante, the armchair intellectuals of yesteryear that dabbled in art, science, and philosophy with equal enthusiasm. While we’ve gained a lot by deepening specialization, something is slipping away, as well. If an intelligent amateur cannot have a working understanding of the zeitgeist of both the arts and the sciences, are the futures of each discipline doomed to exponentially shrinking audiences of super-specialists?

I don’t think things need to be so dire. I don’t think each discipline is trapped atop its own Tower of Babel. One project I greatly admire for cultivating the contemporary dilettante is Geoff Mauagh’s BLDG BLOG. BLDG BLOG describes itself in three phrases, “ARCHITECTURAL CONJECTURE / URBAN SPECULATION / LANDSCAPE FUTURES.” At first glance it appears to be an architecture blog, but it’s much more than that. Daily Meh calls it a “lens blog,” as opposed to a “niche blog.”

You might say it’s an architecture niche blog, but is it really? There are practically no limits on what kinds of subjects might appear on the blog. Everything is open to Geoff Manaugh’s investigation. What binds it all together is this: every subject is analyzed through the lens of architecture.

As an aspiring 21st century dilettante, I can attest that this strategy works. My knowledge of architecture is completely amateur, yet I’m enthralled by BLDG BLOG. Reading it, I never feel talked down to, I never get the sense that I would better understand what’s going on if only I’d studied architectural theory. The remarkable thing is that he does this without dumbing down his ideas at all. Instead, he turns ideas into open questions and mind-tingling speculations. Having read the blog for a few months my main takeaway is this: thinking critically about built environments is important.

I also believe that art is important. You probably do too, if you’re reading this blog. But I’ve had a harder time finding art blogs that process the world the way BLDG BLOG does (if you know of any, please drop a link in the comments).

Another success story, going back to science. When I’m not listening to Bad at Sports or reading BLDG BLOG, I’m probably listening to WNYC’s Radiolab. The show is about the big questions being tackled by science, but it has found an enthusiastic audience far outside the scientific community. In his article “The ‘Radiolab’ Effect,” Jonathan Liu investigates this broad and loyal audience, consisting of many artists and designers. He also uncovers this curious fact about the show’s origins: it was never meant to be a show about science. Founder and co-host Jad Abumrad set out to make a show that investigated really big ideas, and research scientists happened to be the most relevant interviewees. The show uses science as a lens to look at everything else. And again, it works, listen to a few episodes and you can’t help but have a profound sense that science matters.

Why should artists care about dilettantes? What does it matter if interested amateurs can’t understand what we’re doing? Dilettantes, as opposed to the apathetic masses, are smart people who want to know what you’re trying to say, but they don’t know the language you’re speaking. If they begin with that desire and are unable to penetrate a wall of jargon or prerequisite knowledge or dense art historical references, something is seriously wrong.

An acknowledgment that a lot of contemporary art is marooned on a Tower of Babel can lead in two directions. One, you can assume that it’s the artist’s responsibility to court receptive outsider audiences. Or two, you can leave it entirely up to other art world players, such as educators, museums, galleries, critics, etc. I don’t think a wholesale adoption of one or the other is the answer; I think there needs to be a blend. What the popularity of Radiolab, BLDG BLOG, and other smart collections of miscellany like the TED Talks show are that the dilettante is making a comeback. There are hordes of people out there who are smart and interested in everything. It’s up to artists and art workers to show them, in a compelling way, that art matters.