Notes on Clubs

At Dilettante Army, we believe that, in terms of ideal organizational structure, you can’t beat a book club. Book clubs allow you to get together with your friends and discuss something that you have in common (the book—you did read it, didn’t you?). There’s structure but not too much of it, and if you didn’t read the book it’s ok, just come hang out anyway.

Amateur associations are built on mutual enthusiasm. They create kinship and community around a common passion or interest, be it gardening or art or sports. A club is a convivial wonderhouse—not quite a group of strangers, not yet a hallowed hall; it provides solidarity without bureaucracy, learning without academia, association without loyalty oaths. Dilettante Army is named after one such club, the Society of Dilettanti, which was founded in 1732 by wealthy English men who met in Europe on the Grand Tour. Once they were back in London, they wanted to continue to discuss art history and drink wine together (an excellent reason to form a club). They’ve also done a lot of things that are not so excellent, like securing the Elgin Marbles for the British Museum. Membership in the Society of Dilettanti, which still exists, is limited to a maximum of sixty persons, all men–a choice of theirs that brings us to the other side of clubs.

While clubs build social ties, they can also function as informal networks of exclusion–gentlemen’s clubs, “old boys clubs,” and country clubs have often served as havens for the powerful and created insular peer networks between generations of the wealthy. Given previous models of clubs gone bad, how can we structure a club that builds networks while maintaining openness? Is such a model possible?

In the “Clubs” issue, thoughtfully and beautifully illustrated by Sirin Thada, we explore six organizations that use various club-like structures. First, Sarah Warren examines three counterculture societies, all founded in the 1960s in the Hudson Valley, that all rely on amateur craft practices for identity and economic sustainability. Chardavogne Barn’s members, followers of Gyorgy Gurdjieff school of mysticism, use labor and natural materials to practice “the Work,” and Camphill Village Copake provides craft shop experience and care for people with developmental and mental disabilities. Invested in the therapeutic benefits of craft practice, these groups also rely on the skill-sharing and community-based knowledge of amateur craft circles in order to develop their signature aesthetics. Gregory Sholette has called amateur crafters the “dark matter” of the arts: the people who constitute both the labor force and the enthralled audience of the art world, but who become invisible against the heroic narrative of the solitary artist. How do clubs like knitting circles or community wood shops form the foundation of both the discourse and the economy of art?

Looking to the future of clubs, Christine Elliott interviews Anayvette Martinez, a co-founder, along with Marilyn Holinquest, of the Radical Monarchs, a group designed as an alternative to traditional scouting groups. The Radical Monarchs curriculum is designed to center the experiences of young girls of color; it is social justice, rather than service, oriented. Christine and Anayvette talk about what it takes to maintain a radical space, why badges matter, and, of course, how to deal with the haters.

Urban archeologist Kelly M. Britt tackles the problem facing another New York clubhouse: the meeting place for the United Order of Tents in Bed Stuy, Brooklyn. The United Order of Tents, a Black women’s fraternal order, started in New York and dates back to the mid-19th century. Founded by two formerly enslaved African women (Annetta M. Lane and Harriet R. Taylor), the Tents have a long and mostly secret history of service, beginning with its role in the Underground Railroad. The Tents house in Bed Stuy, the meeting place for Eastern District #3, is in need of repair and restoration. Drawing on models for other recent efforts to preserve Black history, like Brooklyn’s Weeksville Heritage Center, the Tents hope to raise funds and support to fix their meeting house. Although the group wrestles with what to keep secret as they seek public engagement with their project, Tents member Essie E. Gregory has supplied information about the history and organization of the Tents for this essay. 

Ariel Yelen’s ekphrastic poem, “Obsidian (after Gala Porras-Kim),” investigates the use of pictographs and language in a series of sculptures by Gala Porras-Kim, currently on view in the Whitney Biennial. Stelae with pictographs are paired with tools for decoding them, asking the viewer to make a frustrated attempt at translation for this “secret” language. As Wittgenstein would tell you, there is no such thing as a secret language, because every language needs at least two people who can communicate. What, then, is the appearance of code without the function of code? Who belongs in a club that no one can decipher? We could also position this sleuthing against the “clubiness” of the Biennial itself, which aims to determine who belongs in contemporary American art and who doesn’t, and question the Whitney representatives who influence those decisions.

LJ Roberts’s photo essay, “liberation is never still,” concerns a gay and lesbian club that was a refuge for like-minded people, the Stonewall Inn. Now, fifty years after the Stonewall Uprising on June 28th, 1969, we examine the legacy of that night and the shifting histories that mark its location. The Gay Liberation Monument just outside the Stonewall Inn is both a marker of resistance and a whitewashed memorial in the center of a rapidly gentrifying neighborhood. How do we navigate the surveillance and criminalization that comes with shifting economics? Is it possible to make history static, or does its meaning move with us?

Finally, Annette LePique breaks the rule and talks about Fight Club. In its various formats (novel, movie, graphic novel), Chuck Palahniuck’s Fight Club expresses the 1990s “crisis of masculinity,” prompted by neoliberal policies in the US and the UK that gave increasing control to corporations and reduced individual agency. Confronted with economic hardship and the increasing uncertainty of cultural narratives about their rightful dominance, a variety of white male authors, including men’s movement founder Robert Bly, turned to Jungian mythopoetic archetypes to recharge their “Zeus energy.” As the fragility of white male masculinity continues to manifest a threat to the rest of us through violences like sexual assault and mass shootings, what do we do with the anger of white men? 

We all need to belong somewhere. Clubs give us the opportunity to join but the freedom to leave; a club is a place you always belong, because you constantly make the choice to be there. They allow us to organize together to explore common interests and reach common goals, in a structure that does not exclude membership in other clubs. How do clubs thrive?