Blue House with People Bill Traylor
I’ve been mulling over the term ‘Outsider Art’ since I saw ‘Great and Mighty Things: Outsider Art from the Jill and Sheldon Bonovitz Collection, at the Philadelphia Museum of Art’ a couple of weeks ago. Outsider Art is an accepted term in current artspeak, but there is something intrinsically troubling about it. It’s not that the label is politically incorrect or insensitive – although it is – but that it purports to sit in judgment on the art, not merely on the people who make it. In fact, if ‘Outsider Art’ were altered slightly to ‘Outsiders’ Art’ I’d have less of a problem with it.
3 VW vans Martin Ramirez
At face value ‘Outsider Art’ means art made by people outside the accepted world of art - no training, no galleries, no knowledge of the art world - simple folk making art free of ‘civilizing’ constraints. Outsider art is free of the knowing, educated intellect that adds a sophisticated gloss to ‘Insider Art.’ It is also, one needs to add, free of the cynical, ironic, arch bullshit that is all too often given pride of place in contemporary ‘Real Art.’
Man, Fish, Rooster David Butler
Outsider Art is the least cynical of art - it isn’t looking for a spread in a magazine or a grant or the approbation of fussy critics. Whether it’s good or not Outsider Art leads with the heart rather than the mind, celebrates the hand/heart connection, traffics in physical, sensual objects, and doesn’t care a whit what you think. It is the ultimate anti-Conceptual Art, the ‘who the heck is Marcel Duchamp?’ art.*
Assemblage/Painted Frame Simon Sparrow
Raw Vision, a publication devoted to Outsider Art, relates the history of the term. Beginning in the mid-19th c. and especially with the development of psychology, came the awareness of another kind of art - art by psychiatric patients, often done on random bits and pieces of paper, described as being ‘of unusual quality and power.’ French artists Jean DuBuffet and André Breton picked up on the importance of these untamed visions in the 1940’s and gave the work the name ‘Art Bru’ - Raw Art. The term Outsider Art was coined by a British critic in 1972, an unfortunate shift in meaning away from the power of the work to the diminished status of those who create it.
from Story of the Vivien Girls Henry Darger
Henry Darger, whose vast body of work was brought to light after his death in 1973, is one of the most emblematic of ‘Outsider Artists.’ His profile fits - childhood deprivations, time in institutions, lack of a secure place in the world – and his work is singular, visionary, obsessive/compulsive, with a haunting, compelling power and beauty. The show of his work at the Museum of Folk Art in New York (in their beautiful contemporary building, now under demolition threat from that neighboring haven of ‘Insider Art’ – MOMA) wowed the world and did much to put ‘Outsider Art’ on the official map. Darger poured his heart and his whole life into his limitless narrative full of drawings of beleaguered children in a hostile world, and now his obsessions inform other art forms, especially graphic novels and contemporary music.
Interior James Castle
Darger is not included in the PMA show but many of the artists in the show are important ‘Outsider’ names. James Castle, one of the most interesting for me, lived his life in profound silence because of deafness; it is not known how well, or even if, he could read or write. Using sharpened sticks, soot, and saliva applied to discarded cardboard and food containers, he created elegant, often highly refined scenes of interiors and landscapes. His knowledge of perspective, assumedly instinctive rather than learned, is impressive and the drawings show a masterful, confident hand. He also made collage/assemblage constructions with cardboard and string that appear careless but are in fact subtle and exacting.
Dancing Hog Whirligig David Butler
'Outsider' Artists often blur the boundaries between 2 dimensions and 3 dimensions, disregarding categories that are clearly defined in art classes but have no particular hierarchy when it comes to an artist’s vision. David Butler, a Louisiana artist featured in the PMA show, was a maker of energetic ‘whirligigs,’ fashioned from scraps of tin and wood and slathered with bright chalky colors – they enchant the eye and mind with their lively sense of movement even sitting quietly in the museum gallery. In Butler’s work there is something of the shaman, a calling out to spirits for help and protection, a reminder that in ‘Outsider Art’ spiritual and religious belief can be as much a part of the making as the paint and the scraps of cardboard. This unfettered declaration of faith is perhaps part of the attraction for an ‘Insider Art’ world of cynical, ironic detachment from any deeply held belief.
David Butler was a rare ‘Outsider Artist’ who received the acclaim of the Art World while he was still alive. Although he started making art full time only after a workplace accident at age 67, he was included in a major Smithsonian show of ‘Black Folk Art in America’ (more labels – Black. Folk.) in the early 1980’s. After that he saw his art come to demand fairly high prices. He didn’t always sell; he believed that God had given him a gift, and ‘if you have a gift then you shouldn’t be taking no money.’
The trouble with these labels, and with the PMA show (and others) is that it is all too clear that they serve the ‘Insider Art’ world, which speaks a language of hard cash, a language that is blessedly foreign, or at least obscured, in the heartfelt work of ‘Outsider Artists.’ It’s all too obvious that, with this exhibit, the PMA is courting the collectors in order to get them to leave this important work to the Museum, a gambit that is more and more common with big expensive-to-run museums. I’m not privy to the negotiations, but I hope it works. I’m inclined to think that collectors are delighted to see their collections go up in value as a result of such a show, making it possible to reap a robust harvest on the open market.
Meanwhile the art - which is neither ‘Outside’ nor “Inside, but truly Art - stands as testament to the human heart, the striving for sincere expression, faith and beauty. Try not to let that get lost in the labels. *Marcel Duchamp, although cited with other avant-garde artists who created a stir with art outside cultural traditions, did so for reasons that are the diametric opposite of Outsider Art intent. Duchamp is considered the father of Conceptual Art, a highly intellectualized approach to art in which the aesthetic object is far less important than the idea behind it. http://www.philamuseum.org/exhibitions/768.html
http://www.rawvision.com/what-outsider-artArtists included but not discussed - Bill Traylor, Simon Sparrow, Martin RamirezWhat do you think? Why is Joseph Cornell, who also isolated himself, was self-taught and created singular, obsessive work, considered an Insider instead of an Outsider? Why is Modigliani, who made his sculptures from stolen paving stones and couldn't give away his art for most of his life, an 'Insider' instead of an 'Outsider?' Do labels help or hinder our understanding and experience of artists and their art?