Once Again, Art Insiders Co-opt “Outsider” Label

May 31, 2014


“Outsider” is back as an art world descriptor. Every so often, when the art wordsmiths, gallerists and curators run dry from dissecting current art trends, they revert to a newfound appreciation of so-called “Outsider” art.

Folk artists, like Grandma Moses and her myriad rural artistic followers, were the key outsider school for a while. Then it was primitive black artists from the deep south. Then street artists of the graffiti persuasion. Then ‘visionary’ primitive, then ‘spiritual’ folk, and so forth. It never ends.

According to Mr. Marcus Davies*, To speak of outsider art is to refer to one element in the creation of a highly personalized and individualistic visual account of the world, thus spotlighting a singular shared trait in an otherwise vast and disparate spectrum of object and image making. Outsider art is not oriented within a unified aesthetic or theoretical foundation in which shared cultural assumptions inform all aspects of the artistic process, from invention to eventual dissemination. …outsider art is typified by both the striking prevelance of self-referential visual language and a marked independence from overt influence by the codified conventions of market-sanctioned art.

“As with any effective artist, outsiders too must demonstrate the ability to select from their particular cultural context those elements and methods that best express their personal statements while simultaneously satisfying emotional and intellectual needs. In the case of outsider art this selection process… is characteristically shaped by intuitive virtuosity and typified by the free expression of inner voice. Extremely personal, outsider art tends to radiate a primacy of singular perception and elemental expression…”

Looking from my perch as a certified Outsider, there is no Outsider art. There is only the act of creation, be it good, bad or sublime. With his ridiculous, exclusivist emphasis on mental patients and criminals, Jean Debuffet did a disservice to the art world by starting the Art Brut conversation. In this view, only artists with zero training and zero engagement with conventional art could be pure enough to express trueOutsider art, which by his definition comes from the deepest creative recesses of the fevered, anti-social brain. What bull.

But like it or not, the critics and curators have returned to Outsider art as they inevitably do. When their sealed petri-dish of artful organisms gets stale, they start looking for a ‘refresh’ button. And as soon as they can find enough look-alikes to proclaim a new Outsider ‘school,’ whatever they are talking about will rapidly join the mainstream.

In his excellent essay titled Naïfs, Faux-naïfs, Faux-faux naïfs, Would-be Faux-naïfs: There Is No Such Thing as Outsider Art**, Mr. James Elkins begins by saying,

“The first thing that needs to be said about outsider art (and for the moment I will lump outsider art with naïve art, art brut, raw art, grass-roots art, primitive art, self-taught art, psychotic art, autistic art, intuitive art, vernacular art, folk art, contemporary folk art, non-traditional folk art, mediumistic art, and marginal art) is that it does not exist. At least I would like to say that, but actually I can’t: outsider art does exist, and it has been an object of continuous interest since the beginnings of modernism. In the scope of this brief essay I will say exactly why I would like to say outsider art does not exist.”

Mr. Elkins goes on to say, In practice, outsider art has proven to be impossible because of the pervasiveness of art-world influences. It is a possibly sad fact that virtually no twentieth-century artists worked entirely outside the western art world. There is always some hint of influence, some sign that the hermetically sealed artist has broken the seal and peeped inside. Bits of Picasso somehow find their way into Appalachian outsider art, pieces of German expressionism into Weimar Republic art made by mental patients, elements of social realism into folk sculptures in eastern Europeand Russia. Hence the dilemma: outsider art is an oxymoron, and its naïveté is seldom as pure as it appears.

Mr. Elkins takes issue with a current critical attitude, that“Outsider art is a symptom of modernism, nothing more.” He continues,The notion here is that modernism has always required an Other: Picasso required Rousseau, just as Duchamp and Breton enjoyed Raymond Roussel’s stage productions, or as middlebrow, midcentury American consumers loved Grandma Moses. Apparently primitive, apparently uneducated artists were discovered in many places around the world after modernism took hold.

“Part of modernism is the desire for something genuinely outside the academic European tradition, and naïve and self-taught art fill that desire perfectly. If you think of outsider art this way, it no longer makes sense simply to enjoy the art directly, “on its own terms”: the question has to become, “What sense of modernism do I have that permits me to find these examples of outsider art compelling or expressive?” The many different kinds of outsider art testify not to a diversity of practices that need to be conceptualized but to changing senses of modernism.”

Tying all forms of non-academic artistic expression to Modernism, and thereby handing aesthetic power over to the Modernist critics, is a neat trick, don’t you think? Actually, I don’t really understand what Modernism is, and never have. It makes no sense to me. Did the art world suddenly do a back-flip around the turn of the 20th century, or a little before, and all the good artists just became modernists? I doubt it. Art is a continuum. To me, Modernism doesn’t exist, at least as little as Outsider art doesn’t.

In this periodic spasm of Outsider embrace, you can see the unholy merger of Outsider and …. what? regular art? consuming critics on all sides. For example, Katherine Jentleson writes in Cracks in the Consensus: Outsider Artists and Art World Ruptures, that:

At present, scholars and curators who are interested in where self-taught artists stand in relation to the canons of modern and contemporary art—myself included—can agree that no label is neutral and whatever descriptor we choose has as much to do with ourselves as it does with the artists it is used to identify.

“The mainstream art world’s interest in work by untrained artists….is a recurring phenomenon of twentieth- and twenty- first-century art, especially in the United States. As curator Joanne Cubbs has explained, “The history of outsider art’s ‘discovery’ is really an account of its appropriation by the art world and its repositioning as an imaginative pawn within that world’s ongoing aesthetic protests, iconoclastic struggles and cultural debate.”

As the contemporary art world grows its commitments to outsider artists… the distinctions between outsiders and insiders appear increasingly dubious. Hazards that come along with the full incorporation of outsider artists include the diminishment of the extraordinary circumstances that often surround their art making… as well as the missed opportunity to pause and consider how artists …disrupt the art world’s normative value system.”

The outsider label may be a signpost of alterity [Duh! It means otherness; the quality or state of being radically alien to the conscious self or a particular cultural orientation], but it points both ways: not only to an artist who is perceived as marginal in some way, but also to an art world in crisis….today’s widespread institutional attention to self-taught artists is forcing discussions about what is to be gained and lost by the mainstream art world’s absorption of the outsider.”

Elsewhere, Mr. Chris Wiley, writing in the excellent Mousse magazine (Issue 40, http://moussemagazine.it), contends that Outsider Art’s recent efflorescence can be most compellingly read in terms of the unspoken desires that haunt the contemporary art world, and the uncomfortable truths that attend them.”Huh? I had to read further to try to figure that out.

“Perhaps the most common and seductive of these [analyses of the Outsider trend] is the assertion that Outsider Art provides an ostensibly “authentic” corrective to the crass and often cynical art that is relentlessly churned out to fill the gaping maw of the marketplace. However, the notion that Outsider Art is somehow birthed from a space of untrammeled, originary creative purity that is implicit in this argument is one that, without the benefit of proper elaboration and qualification, can easily slide into a form of fetishization similar to the West’s obsession with “primitive” art in the previous century.”

“More productive, perhaps, than diving into thorny notions of authenticity… would be to examine what the burgeoning passion for this non-traditional work says about our desires for art in general. …..In order to begin such an examination, however, it would be helpful to more thoroughly define what the nebulous term “Outsider Art” really means. Under the umbrella of this broader rubric, four relatively distinct subcategories emerge: art that is produced as a part of traditional folk practices; art made by the mentally ill; art made in service of the construction of idiosyncratic, often hermetic visual worlds; and art produced in order to channel spiritual energy or explicate a personal metaphysics.”

Okay, here we go again, the same old tired categories for Outsider: folk, mental hospital-crazy, nutty style-obsessions, and something about channeling spiritual energy or metaphysics. Why can’t we get beyond those categories? And I’m still waiting to see how Outsider Art revealsunspoken desires that haunt the contemporary art world, and the uncomfortable truths that attend them, as the intro states. So let’s continue with Mr. Wiley’s ideas.

“Too often today, one gets the sense that the principle urgency behind vast swaths of artistic production stems not from some deep internal need…. but from a pervasive production anxiety, brought on by the ballooning art industry. Cruising the carpeted convention centers that house a hundred soul-sucking art fairs, or picking through the icy, forbidding climes of Contemporary Art Daily, this fear is palpable. On a micro level, it is manifested by the creeping sense that the new task set before the artist is one of maintaining a smooth, coherent international brand identity, bolstered by work that is fast, fungible, and friendly.”

“Imagination. …I shudder to even write it, fearing thunderous vituperation. And yet, there are precious few words that more aptly describe the works of artists like Von Bruenchenhein, which, though they may bear some passing, frequently accidental resemblance to works of “professional” artists, or lightly touch the edges of popular visual culture, nevertheless radiate an unshakable feeling that they are fundamentally the product of an individual mind, fecund and sui generis. Such fervor for the work of the individual artistic genius, bidden by the whims of their inner voices and visions, was supposed to have been thrown out with Modernism.”

Mr. Wiley exhibits rare courage. He actually uses the word –imagination. Art writers hate that word, as he notes. Why? Is it because there is no consensus on what is, or is not, imaginative? Or is it that being imaginative has become so corroded, so devalued, that it no longer has a place in the conversation?

However, to continue with excerpts from Mr. Wiley’s essay:

“I, however, would like to propose a slightly more prosaic answer: in light of the pervasive presence of art works that function, at best, as savvy moves in an ongoing navel-gazing chess game of fashionable references, …it would appear that the imaginative works of world-making Outsiders have gained a mental foothold merely by dint of their nominally naïve attempts to make personally significant systems of meaning that fail to adhere to …what is often too generously called the “contemporary dialogue”. In other words, rather than indicating a return to some kind of absolutist notion of artistic genius, …this variety of Outsider Art can instead be read, in part, as an extension of a desire to step off the treadmill of our increasingly standardized and professionalized art world and allow ourselves to stroll freely through more weird and wild territories.”

What about the Outsider artist, if he or she exists? Is this artist ready to be appropriated by the art world? Does this artist feel “marginal in some way?” Most, I think, would love to be appropriated, but only if it means they can continue on their Outsider journey. I can only use my own example: sure, it would be great to get some broad exposure, but after 40 years of Outsider painting, in the same style (for better or worse), I can’t start painting alluring sunsets-over-Tuscan-vineyards or much in the way of pretty things. I can’t start painting abstracts (Can I? Maybe I can.) Not without some internal pain. If you have a personal vision and a style that’s yours (meaning people can tell yours from somebody else’s) and that you like, you want to stay on your track. You want to see where it leads.

For me, this means avoiding the imagery of popular culture as much as possible. I want my images to sneak past the visual cues of external culture. As soon as I feel culture images start to intrude, I try to replace them with something from inside myself.

*On Outsider Art and the Margins of the Mainstream[http://www.ibiblio.org/frenchart/] April 6th, 2007, By Marcus Davie

**James Elkins (www:jameselkins.com),originally published in: Inner Worlds Outside, exh. cat., edited by JohnThompson (Dublin: Irish Museum of Modern Art, 2006), 71–79.].