Say you're an up-and-coming contemporary art enthusiast and you're trying to spot the Next Big Thing. What to do?
Well, you could bone up on your connoisseurship - sharpen an expert eye for line, color, etc. But maybe you've done that; the next best thing might be to look for "dark matter."
FOR THE RECORD - In a column Tuesday about Cram Sessions, a series of exhibits at the Baltimore Museum of Art, the admission price was incorrectly given. General admission to the museum is $7. The Sun regrets the error.
Artistic "dark matter," like the celestial kind astronomers search for through their telescopes, is that 90 percent of the whole enchilada we can't see, even though we know it's got to be there.
It's what Baltimore Museum of Art contemporary art curator Chris Gilbert calls the welter of images, objects, performances, happenings and collective projects by mostly younger artist-activists that lie just under the radar screens of mainstream institutions like art museums and galleries.
And it's at the BMA in the second installment of Gilbert's experimental exhibition series, Cram Sessions, which invites museum visitors to participate directly in the art-making process.
On Saturday, a few dozen people, many of them students from area high schools and colleges, sat on tiny folding stools near the museum's second-floor lobby listening to New York-based artist and critic Gregory Sholette talk about the origins and influence of artistic "dark matter," an idea he invented.
Meanwhile, displayed in booths that lined the walls were half a dozen mini-exhibits of prospective "dark matter": Zines (self-published magazines), graffiti, impossible musical instruments (guitars made from pool cues, a "melocipede" constructed out of circuit boards and an old bicycle frame), even a politically correct pasta stand that used recycled bottle caps to punch out thimble-sized tortellinis.
Neither Sholette nor Gilbert made any claim about the artistic value of the objects (which was just as well, because they had none).
Rather, their point was that this stuff, which the established art world doesn't look at twice, constitutes the potent but invisible cosmic background radiation out of which the real art of our time eventually emerges.
"This is not a show about art, and there is no claim made that what we are presenting is art or should be considered art," Gilbert wrote in an e-mail.
"What I am interested in is the space of art and the permissions that space provides" - in other words, the show is an opportunity to explore the relationship between the visible art world of museums and galleries and its invisible but influential doppelganger of pop culture, activist politics and underground production.
Gilbert and Sholette's proposition is in some ways a startling hypothesis: To understand where contemporary art is going (or coming from), don't look at the art itself - look instead at all the junk artists were looking at, and being influenced by, even though they may not have been consciously aware of it.
Because all of us are immersed in an ocean of media images, Internet connections and social relations that tie us inexorably to the political and economic ideologies of our era, we also feel the huge but invisible gravitational tug of artistic "dark matter." It helps shape our ideas about what art is, if only by default.
Of course, the definition can change unexpectedly, as when graffiti art suddenly starts showing up in mainstream galleries (or, for that matter, when Impressionist paintings finally made it into the Louvre more than a century ago).
In fact, there's a reasonable argument to be made that what Gilbert and Sholette call artistic "dark matter" in today's context has always been around in one form or another.
In the last decade of the 19th century, avant-garde artists like Toulouse-Lautrec, Pierre Bonnard, Odilon Redon and others side-stepped the gatekeepers of mainstream art institutions by creating colorful posters and prints that allowed them to reach their public directly.
During the 20th century, art created by African-Americans long occupied "dark matter" status, and in fact only now is finally shedding its invisibility to emerge as a subject of major museum and gallery exhibitions.
Today's artistic production is of a different order, of course, one in large part shaped by the radical practices of Marcel Duchamp and Andy Warhol, which encourage artworks that are little more than plastic embodiments of philosophical ideas.
To be sure, there's plenty of fancy French post-structuralist theory standing by to serve as intellectual gloss for this show, if one were so inclined.
On the other hand, artworks have always been embodiments of ideas on some level, so the Cram Sessions' thesis that an art experience may consist of considering the possible influence of non-art objects within the context of the museum may not be that shocking after all.
The Saturday audience certainly didn't think so.
"It's definitely something we need to talk about," said Alyssa Dennis, a 24-year-old Maryland Institute College of Art graduate. "I'm all about incorporating daily life into art rather than having them separate and letting the media drive everything."
And Hopkins undergraduate Jessica Begans loved the experimental musical instruments ("They increase your heart rate," she said after listening to a tape of the music they produced) but hated the Zines: "The people who make them are so boring! Why do they think anyone would be interested in their dull lives?"
Love it or hate it, the artistic "dark matter" in this show is so quirky, unconventional and capable of producing strong reactions that one shouldn't be too surprised if one day it turns out that what was once invisible is actually the wave of the future.
Cram Sessions: 02 Dark Matter runs through Nov. 28, with public programs Saturdays at 2 p.m. The museum is at 10 Art Museum Drive, 31st and Charles streets. Hours are Wednesday-Friday 11 a.m. to 5 p.m.; Saturday-Sunday 11 a.m. to 6 p.m. Admission is $12 adults, $10 students and seniors. Call: 410-396-7100 or visit the Web site www.artbma.org.