Friday, April 6th, 2007
Following its introduction in 1972 by the British art historian Roger Cardinal, the notion of ‘outsider art’ has been subject to equally passionate waves of acceptance and opposition. For some, the term continues to serve as useful critical shorthand effectively encompassing a wide range of unconventional artistic production, including work by autodidacts, religious visionaries, the mentally ill, and a host of obsessive personalities. For others, to label someone an ‘outsider artist’ is frequently seen as a gesture of restriction that places these individuals, already alienated by their wildly divergent artistic practices, into aesthetic ghettos. Despite the ongoing and often circular debate over the appropriateness of these views, it must be acknowledged that they share a common belief in the existence of an eclectic visual record beyond the orthodoxy of ‘high art’. Like it or not, each of these perspectives is premised on the perceived dichotomy of that which stands firmly within the realm of academically oriented visual culture, and that which has been barred, for whatever reason, from wholesale acceptance into this rarefied territory. In the end a division remains between art that is ‘inside’ and art that remains ‘outside’— an awkward distinction at best, but one that is impossible to ignore.
Loved or loathed, this binary appraisal of outsider art remains pervasive, permeating critical discussions within both museums and the marketplace. The amount of published material addressing the subject continues to grow, with each scholarly endeavor flanked by enough glossed monographs to make your coffee table [and bank account] tremble. Even a quick search on the Internet reveals the degree to which outsider art has seized the public imagination, with links ranging from announcements for the next Outsider Art Fair in New York City to personal web logs documenting collections of anonymous scribblings salvaged from garage sales and street corners. Clearly, use of the term outsider art is here to stay. But what, exactly, does it mean? As outlined below, this will be the central question explored in this thesis.
Inexact by nature, establishing a fixed and authoritative definition of outsider art as a unified genre is a daunting task. Because the term does not refer to any overarching movement typical to the Hegelian, art-historical model, to speak of outsider art is to refer to one element in the creation of a higly 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. Often the product of individuals who are socially marginalized either through total immersion in a fantastic perception of an inner world, or by circumstantial factors such as age, educational and economic disadvantage or pyshical disability, 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.
This is not to say, however, that all artists to whom the label ‘outsider’ may be applied operate in ignorance of their cultural surroundings. 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, informed by neither formal training nor the justification of theoretical presupposition, 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 brought together by the compulsive manipulation of the materials at hand.
Rarely, if ever, is the work of the outsider created with the motivating intention of ensuring its place within a canonical order, nor is it aimed to appease the whims of the marketplace. Outsider art is not the product of self-conscious dabbling in alternative expressive strategies, nor does it constitute a formulaic approach in which an artist labors to convey the much sought-after commodities of originality and authenticity. In comparison, outsider art is the occupation (in many cases, the preoccupation) of a lifetime spent in search of transcendent means by which to overcome adversity and alienation. Whereas a great deal of mainstream art provides a kind of recreational outlet for the intellect, the outsider tends to engage in the construction of an entire cosmology. Driven by emotional necessity, these artists become, in essence, architects of what John MacGregor, a scholar in the field identifies as a “vast and encyclopedically rich alternate world, not as art, but as a place to live in over the course of a lifetime” (Rhodes 2000:104).
As assured as these criteria may appear, without the strong evidence of unified convention or tradition it is tempting to forego any real effort to bring together such a myriad of tenuous associations under the shelter of a singular and seemingly superficial label. When addressing work by the likes of Martin Ramirez (1895-1963), a Mexican American who spent the later half of his life institutionalized due to crippling schizophrenia, or the creations of J. B. Murry (1908-1988), a farmer from Georgia who felt that his calligraphic renderings contained revelations received directly from God, the forging of cohesive and relevant comparisons is easily dismissed as a project whose difficulty is only overshadowed by its uselessness. Indeed, given such unique and intensely personal visions, it would seem to make sense to allow these creations to drift alone beyond the margins of the mainstream where their inherent discord carries little gravity and poses no threat to the implicit ordering of high art’s status quo.
Despite this initial inclination to disregard these works as curiosities and contradictions to accepted artistic tradition, it must be acknowledged that it is precisely this reaction to their “radical otherness” that binds these marginalized artists to one another (Russell 2001:21). Viewed in contrast to long-established assumptions regarding the role of art, artists, and the transmission of dominant values, outsider art may be understood as a genre born of negation. By separating the outsiders from predominant cultural, creative and aesthetic standards, they have been incorporated by default into an alternate, composite cultural framework that demands recognition on the strength of its productions and in deference to the sheer volume of its participants.
This said, the question is begged: how do we, a critical audience, go about looking at, and speaking of outsider art in a way that honors the desires and intentions of its creators? Put another way, how do we approach the task of respectfully examining outsider art from the unavoidable position of insiders? In the following study, I will explore these issues at length, first by delineating a historical precedent for the occurrence and evolution of the public’s awareness and perception of outsider art, then through a careful examination of the terminology employed in the discussion of art existing beyond the boundaries of academic tradition. Finally, I will identify four useful curatorial models by which outsider art may be successfully contextualized within the museum environment with the intention of ensuring engaged public interaction and invested stewardship in the preservation of outsider materials.
Friday, April 6th, 2007
Essentially ahistorical, it is challenging to trace the origins and evolution of outsider art with the same precision employed in general art-historical practice. Viewed in contrast to the institutionalized aesthetic and intellectual principles that serve as impetus for the great bulk of the Western canon since the advent of the Renaissance, it becomes understandable why few early examples of outsider art survive today. Born of obscurity and primarily intended for the satisfaction of private urges rather than the dictates of the academy, so much of this art has never seen the light of day. That which was not destroyed on the basis of its perceived worthlessness and pathological deviance remained for the most part unnoticed and undocumented, left over time to litter the periphery of acceptable visual production.
Bearing this in mind, it is still possible to cobble together a loose outline of outsider art, delineating its relationship to the mainstream and articulating the emergence of a critical recognition and response that has sought to legitimize the phenomenon of the outsider as a subject meriting scholarship, preservation and respect. In doing so, perhaps the most effective and accessible organizational approach to compiling a relative history of outsider art is to undertake an examination of how the work of outsiders— of those creating beyond the conventions of their time— has been received and processed by the mainstream, noting in particular the changes in attitude that have ultimately informed the way in which outsider art is viewed today.
Friday, April 6th, 2007
A suitable beginning for this project may be found in Foucault’s theory of what he terms Europe’s “Great Confinement,” an era of widespread social reforms during the last half of the seventeenth century (Foucault 1988:38). In Madness and Civilization Foucault asserts that up until this time insanity was met with an air of tolerance within Western society. Perceived as “a life more disturbed than disturbing,” madness was commonly understood as a necessary allegorical foil to pervasive, idealized notions of truth and beauty, thus elevating the madman to the role of the visionary and imbuing his insanity with the power to straddle the line between corporeal reality and the spiritual realms that lie beyond (Foucault 1988:37).
However, Foucault argues that this attitude towards abnormality underwent a drastic reorientation over the course of the next two centuries. Citing the Age of Reason’s preoccupation with the struggle to forge a society in which “moral obligation was joined by civil law,” he notes the emergence of a sweeping culture of confinement in which decisive and lasting boundaries, clearly demarcated by asylum walls, were drawn between the assumed productive elements of society and those found lacking due to poverty, infirmity or mental illness (Foucault 1988:46). In this division it becomes possible to glimpse the origins of a pervasive value system responsible for creating a residual schism between the participatory, and thereby valuable members of a given population, and the remaining few who do not fit the prescribed guidelines for an industrious, and thereby normative existence.
While increased industrialization eventually forced the reintegration of the able-bodied and sound-minded back into the labor force, those to whom the accepted template of reason and rationality could not be applied remained shuttered within the asylums and sanatoriums that were becoming a prominent feature among the European and American landscape. Removed in this manner from conventional society during the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, the insane became an undeniable archetype for the very notion of the outsider. As a result of this wholesale banishment, a new subculture of alienation was created comprised of individuals given unprecedented license to fully indulge in the demands of their afflictions.
Compounded by concentration and isolation, an art capable of responding to the needs and desires of overwhelming psychoses began to emerge. Documented in the final vignette of Hogarth’s The Rake’s Progress, as well as in the etchings of his contemporaries, the image-making activities of the mentally ill was at last exposed (MacGregor 1989:17). Although employed by the artists of the time as a rhetorical device marking the inevitable unraveling of a life ungoverned by the temperance of reason, the creative endeavors of the insane were beginning to come to light. Scratched upon walls or cobbled from scrounged materials, the gestation of a visual record particular to the experiences of the disenfranchised and dispossessed became increasingly acknowledged and referenced by the mainstream, and with this recognition the burgeoning reality of the artist-outsider was finally illuminated.
Friday, April 6th, 2007
Far from a recognition based on its own merits, the visual production of outsiders (namely that of the mentally ill) served to illustrate and reinforce the Platonic ideals of creative possession implicit in the Romantic orientation of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. Neatly dovetailing with Arthur Schopenhauer’s pervasive notion of madness as the root of all true genius, the work of the insane sparked widespread interest among physicians and theorists alike (MacGregor 1989:72-73). No longer viewed as the mindless scribbling of hopeless psychotics, the art of the madman was now regarded as an elemental key to the mapping of transcendent artistic brilliance.
Among the many professionals engaged in the study of the art of the mentally ill, the work of Cesare Lombroso (1835-1909), a prominent Italian psychiatrist and anthropologist, stands as the first fully engaged attempt to systematically prove the relationship between genius and insanity. Working with a collection of artifacts culled from inmate populations throughout Europe (now housed in the Museum of Criminal Anthropology in Turin), Lombroso sought to prove his strangely antagonistic theory that “genius was a form of moral insanity,” and therefore, “all geniuses should be diagnosed as suffering from a degenerative psychosis” (MacGregor 1989:94). Regardless of the shadowed motivations backing such venomous ideas concerning creativity and the origins of talent, Lombroso’s work remains influential in its groundbreaking attempt to address the art of the mentally ill in the same systematic fashion employed by art historians. By elucidating thirteen fundamental tendencies commonly recognized in the art of the insane (these being originality of materials, uselessness, repetition, imitation of imagery, degeneracy, minuteness of detail, absurdity, ornamentation, atavism, eccentricity, insanity as subject matter, obscenity and symbolism) Lombroso established the first unifying criteria for work that had previously existed beyond the accepted realm of art historical language and theory, thus legitimizing the work of the outsider as a phenomenon worthy of aesthetic discourse (MacGregor 1989:95-99).
Although Lombroso’s scrutiny did little to penetrate the specific meanings inherent in the imagery of his subjects, he was the first to note the connection between images and the specific pathologies of their creators. This revolutionary idea of a symptomatic link between image and illness would eventually come to enjoy reciprocal influence with predominant theories of the unconscious during the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Influential in their own right, these newly articulated connections between art and insanity eventually proved to be particularly susceptible to corruption in the hands of the Fascists. Manipulated by the Nazi agenda, the scientifically oriented association between aesthetic practice and physiology quickly degenerated into indignant justification for the wholesale condemnation of modernist practice and rationale for its ultimate obliteration.
Friday, April 6th, 2007
While the hard-line approach of scientific inquiry came to a tragic head during the 1937 Entartete Kunst exhibition in Berlin, a more interdisciplinary, humanistic, and ultimately successful appraisal of the art of the outsider is evident in the career of Dr. Hans Prinzhorn (1886-1933). Trained in both psychiatry and art history, Prinzhorn’s approach to the art of the mentally ill, while still influenced by the diagnostic tendencies of his peers, bears the mark of an individual genuinely in awe of the “beauty, originality, and expressive intensity” underscoring the breadth of art works found within the clinics, hospitals and asylums of the time (MacGregor 1989:193). In his seminal book, Artistry of the Mentally Ill, first published in 1922, Prinzhorn strives to cast off the dominant paradigms equating genius with madness, arguing that, if a work may be said to constitute genius, judgment “by any fixed, outside standard” should have little bearing on its intrinsic and lasting value (Prinzhorn 1972:6). In light of this, Prinzhorn strives to examine his subjects, a vast collection of patients’ work from Europe and America held in the Heidelberg Psychiatric Clinic, on the basis of their own merits, “as free of prejudice as possible” (Prinzhorn 1972:6). To do so is Prinzhorn’s challenge to both his contemporaries and the field of art history as a whole. Sensitive to the long-standing habit of the academy to perpetuate “a distinction between one class of objects and another very similar one which is dismissed as nonart,” Prinzhorn set about discovering a common ground between the mainstream and outsider production, finding it in what he considered the single, elemental purpose of all art-making activity: “to actualize the psyche and thereby build a bridge from the self to others” (Prinzhorn 1972:1,12).
With the assertion that “the most sovereign drawing by Rembrandt [and] the most miserable daubing by a paralytic” are both valid “expressions of the psyche,” Prinzhorn (1972:xviii) manages to level the playing field to the point where the work of the outsider may be examined using the same methodology as applied to the masters. Once this is achieved, the author formulates a series of universal “tendencies of pictoral configuration” by which an individual may achieve “configurative power,” meaning the “ability to translate whatever moves him into a picture in such a way that a viewer may participate in the experience” (Prinzhorn 1972:15,33-34).
Significantly influenced by the inward gaze of German Expressionism, Prinzhorn’s theories allow for the existence of variable approaches to the configurative process. In fact, Prinzhorn likens the art of the avant-garde to the very “nature of schizophrenic configuration,” citing a synchronistic preoccupation with a “decisive turn inward upon the self,” coupled with the “free treatment of the outside world [as] raw material” to be reordered according to individual intentions (Prinzhorn 1972:264,271). Alluding in this manner to the “schizophrenic outlook” of the art of his day, an art caught between wars in a time of massive social and political upheaval, Prinzhorn ultimately posits the revolutionary hypothesis that art, by its very nature, can never be truly pathological (MacGregor 1989:205). Despite its origins, he concludes, it is the intention of the artist that must be considered, and because this intention is essentially an effort to communicate the contents of the psyche or soul, it is the responsibility of anyone serious about the existence of art to set aside their prejudices in order to perceive the innermost expressive essence of a given art work.
Prinzhorn’s writings, as groundbreaking and influential as they were, did not arise as an intended manifesto meant to destabilize long-established art historical practices. Rather, Artistry of the Mentally Ill served to model an integration of ideas and ideals already effecting great change within modernist sensibilities. In keeping with Franz Marc and Wassily Kandinsky’s call for an art of “internal truths” unconcerned by the restrictions of “external form,” Paul Klee was fully immersed in the exploration of elemental sources of creativity (Kandinsky 1977:1). Writing in his diary in 1912, Klee (1964:266) focuses his attention on the work of children and “the mentally diseased” as inspiration for sweeping reformation in an art world that had, in his eyes, degenerated into “the very incarnation of exhaustion.” For in these “primitive beginnings,” Klee insists, one may glimpse “instructive examples” of pure expression existing independently of the dictates of cultural expectations (1964:226). Recognizing the invigorating potential of these peripheral sources, including African and Oceanic cultures, Klee speaks with a passion devoid of irony regarding the need to spare the ‘primitive’ from the aggressive corruption of the art world. Perhaps Klee was reacting to widespread appropriation of the Japanese woodblock (itself a product of Western influence,) or Picasso’s Les Demoiselles d’Avignon. Regardless, he makes little mention of a proactive, preservationist approach. But by the time Klee and his contemporaries had forged an articulation of their shared sense of ‘otherness’, more often alluding to physical or generational, rather than pysiological distance, the notion of the outsider was sufficeintly planted in the thinking of the twentieth century.
Friday, April 6th, 2007
Undoubtedly the most vocal advocate of this ideal of an art impervious to cultural contamination was Jean Dubuffet, a struggling painter in postwar Paris who, having steeped himself in Prinzhorn’s writings and the avant-garde’s fascination with primitivism, traveled throughout Switzerland in 1945 to witness firsthand the unusual art work being collected within the country’s progressive psychiatric hospitals. What was revealed to Dubuffet during these initial visits was to become a lifelong project to which the artist dedicated a great deal of his time, energy and financial resources. Immediately taken in by the startling originality and emotional profundity of these patient collections, Dubuffet embarked at once on a mission of aggressive acquisition, exhibiting select works to a largely indifferent public in the basement of a Parisian art gallery.
Despite the cool reception of his newfound charge, Dubuffet (bearing Klee’s torch) remained adamant that this art, sprung from the depths of the psyche, possessed the ability to revitalize a pictorial tradition increasingly stifled by modernism’s cerebral preoccupations. Uniting this loosely associated body of work under the banner of ‘art brut’— roughly translated as raw art— Dubuffet set about establishing three stringent characteristics essential to inclusion into the genre. First and foremost, Dubuffet insisted, those that create art brut must be somehow distanced from society, typically as a result of mental or social constraints. Secondly, the work of an art brut artist “is conceived and produced outside the field of fine arts,” meaning the usual “network of schools, galleries [and] museums,” and is created “without regard for any recipient” beyond the immediate and private use of its creator (Thevoz 1995:11). Lastly, “the subjects, techniques and systems of configuration” employed in a work of art brut should “stem from personal invention” rather than any prescribed artistic convention (Thevoz 1995:12).
Endorsed by the Compagnie de l’Art Brut, an organization founded in 1948 by Dubuffet and several leading figures from Dada and Surrealist circles, the above criteria were strictly enforced in the continued assemblage of the collection, resulting in occasional breaches of tact and ethical practice. While most acquisitions were the result of donations, the Compagnie did not hesitate to purchase works from doctors and psychiatrists, occasionally without the consent or knowledge of the artist (Peiry 2001:147).
Eventually, irreconcilable philosophical differences among the founding members forced the Compaigne to disband in 1951. Taking the opportunity to focus on his own painting, Dubuffet shipped the collection to the United States where it was housed for the next deacde in the Long Island estate of Alfonso Ossorio. In the fall of the same year Dubuffet delivered a lecture at the Arts Club of Chicago entitled Anticultural Positions, in which he expanded upon his theories of contemporary culture, lamenting its ongoing “drift from daily life” and absence of “real and living roots” (Dubuffet 1988:92). The antidote, according to Dubuffet, was to be found in an art “which would be a very direct and very sincere expression of our real life and our real moods,” in essence an art premised on the tenets of art brut (Dubuffet 1988:93). In this assertion Dubuffet inadvertently articulates a problematic contradiction that has become part and parcel of the art brut project: whereas Dubuffet was eager to share his exciting discoveries with the world in the hopes of inspiring a vast rethinking of the functions of art, the ideals of art brut, by their very nature cannot withstand the inevitable cultural contamination inherent in mainstream assimilation.
Torn between the desire to unleash art brut on the stale climate of academic art and the overwhelming need to protect it from corruption, Dubuffet reformed the Compagnie de l’Art Brut in 1962 in Paris, allowing the collection to be exhibited in New York that same year and again in 1967 within Paris’ Musée des Arts Décoratifs. Finally, as a kind of farewell to the limelight, a comprehensive catalog of the collection was published in 1971, listing some four thousand works by 133 artists. The following year Dubuffet was able to strike an awkward but tolerable compromise by dissolving the Compagnie for the last time and donating the collection to the municipality of Lausanne, Switzerland, where it was permanently installed in the Château de Beaulieu. Presently the collection remains open to the public, but in keeping with Dubuffet’s wishes works are no longer loaned to outside institutions and access for the purpose of research is strictly limited.
Although the great bulk of the collection remains encapsulated within the historical context of Dubuffet’s cultural politics, an ancillary collection was established in 1982 for the purpose of exhibiting work straddling the line between art brut and more culturally informed production. Known as ‘Neuve Invention,’ the addition of this recent collection allowed Dubuffet and his organization to engage in the active and ongoing reconsideration of the very notion of art brut, a bold move for a man driven by the tenacity of his ideals. By acknowledging the potential fallibility of what Michel Thévoz, the former director of the Collection refers to as “the polar concepts of art brut and cultural art,” the Neuve Invention strives for the suggestion of “guidelines rather than watertight categories” in the determination of how far removed an artist or artwork must stand in relation to the mainstream in order to be considered brut (Rhodes 2000:14). With the emphasis remaining on work posing a significant challenge to governing cultural values and assumptions, the Neuve Invention guarantees a fluidity of ideas essential to maintaining the Collection de l’Art Brut as a viable alternative to mainstream tastes and trends.
Friday, April 6th, 2007
Following Dubuffet’s declaration and defense of art brut, the radical notion of visual production free from cultural influence began to take hold within critical circles, thanks in part to the timely efforts of the British scholar Roger Cardinal and his publication of Outsider Art in 1972. Essentially a survey of art brut and its artists, the book remains highly influential to this day and is credited with the first use of the term ‘outsider art’, intended by Cardinal to serve as a functional English approximation of Dubuffet’s poetically imprecise terminology.
While the book is primarily intended as a summary of the theories of art brut as supported by a detailed examination of a representative selection of qualified art brut examples, Cardinal devotes its first chapter to the forging of a critical approach appropriate to the particular demands of outsider production. Wary of Prinzhorn’s eagerness to cite archetypical motifs linking the “art of schizophrenics [to] the art of primitives or children,” Cardinal argues that such generalizations, grounded in the superficiality of formal comparison, lead to little more than “cliché[s] of thought” rife with “the inadequacies of comparison” (Cardinal 1972:49). Rather, Cardinal posits that in dealing with the work of outsiders in which “autistic attitudes” are responsible for “an aggravation of individualism and the consequent concentration of creativity,” it becomes “far more useful to stress the distinctness [and] independence of the artists” themselves (Cardinal 1972:47, 51). As far as Cardinal is concerned, it is only through engagement with the individual lives and circumstances of each artist that the essential nature and intention of their work may be accessed.
Putting this theory of “creative empathy” to the test in the latter half of his book by carefully regarding the work of twenty-nine artists within a biographical context, Cardinal attempts to enable a response to outsider art that is premised on a genuine “feeling of personal involvement,” a response that he hopes will eventually “provide a healthy alternative to cool aesthetic appraisal” (Cardinal 1972:53). While it is impossible to measure the ultimate success of Cardinal’s attempts to reorient the viewer towards a more personalized response to the work of outsiders, it may be said that his emphasis on biography as a means of reinforcing the notion of marginalized creativity has remained the most pervasive and popular approach to outsider art.
Friday, April 6th, 2007
Over the course of the next decade outsider art began to enjoy widespread recognition and support from galleries and museums willing to contest the orthodoxy of the academy. In America, groundbreaking exhibitions such Naives and Visionaries at the Walker Art Center in Minneapolis (1974) and Outsider Art in Chicago at the Museum of Contemporary Art (1979) introduced a curious public to the country’s vast range of self-taught artists existing beyond the boundaries of mainstream tradition. In Europe, exhibits such as the 1979 Outsiders, held at London’s Hayward Gallery and co-curated by Roger Cardinal and the collector Victor Musgrave, in conjunction with the Arts Council of Great Britain, helped cultivate the public’s growing taste for the eccentricities of outsider art. In the accompanying exhibition catalog for Outsiders, Joanna Drew, then the Acting Director for the Arts Council, dramatically declared her city “invaded, at [its] own invitation, by outsiders” (Cardinal and Musgrave 1979:7). True to these words, the popularity of outsider art continued to swell, permeating the boundaries of those cultural institutions from which it had long been bared.
Lent as much newfound credibility by the activities of the art market as the interests of scholars and artists searching for fresh insights into the nature of the creative impulse, outsider activity quickly gained a legion of dedicated enthusiasts and conservationists. Generally regarded as a fragile and tenuous phenomenon under constant threat of sterilization through mainstream appropriation (resonance of Dubuffet’s conservasionist rhetoric continues to permeate the discourse to this day), outsider art was quickly tagged as a rarefied commodity, justifying a flurry of collecting activity throughout the 1980s, particularly in the United States where the work of artists such as Bill Traylor (1854-1947) and Martin Ramirez quickly acquired rarefied status, fetching prices at auction on a par with the work of well known contemporary artists.
During the 1990s many private collections in possession of outsider art made their public debuts, including the Anthony Petullo Collection of Self-Taught and Outsider Art at the Milwaukee Art Museum (1993), the Collection of Dr. Kurt Gitter and Alice Rae Yellen at the Birmingham Museum of Art in Alabama (1995), and the Musgrave-Kinley Outsider Art Collection at the Irish Museum of Modern Art (1998). Several museums dedicated to the representation of outsider forms appeared at this time as well, chief among them the American Visionary Art Museum in Baltimore and the Contemporary Center at the American Folk Art Museum in New York. In addition to these new venues, high-profile museums such as the Smithsonian’s National Museum of American Art, the Pompidou Center and the High Museum in Atlanta sought to include sterling examples of the genre in their permanent collections.
As for current trends in the field of outsider art, new waves of interest are constantly reinvigorating critical and aesthetic assessments of the genre. At odds with historically pervasive doubts surrounding the sustainability of an outsider voice in the face of increasing cultural homogeny, many innovative organizations invested in the promotion of marginalized art-making are actively engaged in furthering the discourse surrounding the very notion of ‘outsiderness’. Periodicals such as Raw Vision, and groups akin to the Chicago-based Center for Intuitive and Outsider Art are working to increase visibility and public awareness by showcasing classic examples of outsider production alongside contemporary instances from around the world. In addition, many recent publications attempt to address the forging of a systematic critical approach to a well-defined outsider aesthetic (Weld 2001). Others concern themselves with ethical issues raised by collection and curatorial practices that serve, either intentionally or inadvertently, to perpetuate the social and cultural isolation of the individual (ten Berge 2000:87-89). Taken together, this wealth of recent resources serves as ongoing acknowledgment of the underlining premise of outsider art: as long as dominant cultural assumptions are present and actively intersecting the process of creativity, there will always be a marginalized, but no less important faction of individuals deeply inspired by the persistence of inner voice and driven to create by the overwhelming urgency of individual expression.
Friday, April 6th, 2007
As evidenced in the previous chapter, an ongoing fascination with non-mainstream aesthetics has distinctly marked the advent and evolution of the modernist agenda throughout the twentieth century. Parallel to the myriad appropriations of the avant garde, countless attempts have been made by both artists and scholars to identify and unite forms existing beyond dominant academic tradition, often employing ill-fitting and inappropriate terminology in the process. While certain unpalatable distinctions, the most offensive being ‘primitive’, have fallen from grace, others such as ‘folk’ and ‘self-taught’ continue to clutter the critical discourse. Having become disassociated over time from their original social and historical contexts by market-driven misappropriations and the mutability of postmodernism, these terms tend to do little more than spark charged reactions among those interested in the field.
While this multiplicity of jargon allows room for the recognition of a wealth of non-traditional visual production, it becomes increasingly difficult to speak of ‘idiosyncratic’ art in overarching terms without becoming bogged down by highly individualized, case-by-case deliberations. As a result, much of the study and public exhibition of this kind of art is aimed at establishing neatly compartmentalized, conveniently static categories. With the promotion of such far-reaching sub-genres as ‘naive’, ‘intuitive’, and ‘contemporary folk’, an overwhelming preoccupation with minutiae has become instrumental in the creation and perpetuation of a polemical debate that frequently escalates into outright “term warfare” (Kallir 2003:38). Sadly, these disputes tend to overshadow the artwork in question. All too often the content and expressive voice of a particular artwork is muted by the chatter of whether or not it reflects the narrow criteria of one genre or another: should a painting executed in house paint on salvaged metal by the Mississippi artist Mary T. Smith (1904-1995) be considered ‘vernacular’ based on its imagery and use of materials, or does its allegorical subject matter, combined with the evangelical convictions of its creator, elevate the status of the work to ‘visionary’ art?
Voicing her frustrations on the futility of such an argument, Tessa DeCarlo, a contributing art critic for the New York Times and Raw Vision, laments that “billions of keystrokes have been expended on topics such as [this]” (2002:24). Circular and without resolution, the debate over an established lexicon has become a distraction from the central issues pertaining to an art world beyond the mainstream. Rather than continue to struggle with the defense of definitive and unwavering categories (a project that tends to ignore its own highly subjective nature), DeCarlo suggests that the term ‘outsider art’ provides an accessible and useful compromise. When compared to the alternatives, ‘outsider’ functions to cut to the heart of the matter, acknowledging the biographical circumstances and unorthodox processes of its makers while simoultaneously emphasizing the artful qualities of a given work (DeCarlo 2002:24).
Perhaps it is precisely this ability to assert both the object and the individual that is responsible for the pervasive use of ‘outsider art’ as a kind of catchall for a wide range of non-academic expression. Admittedly, the term carries with it a degree of sensationalism, appealing to romanticized notions of `a life unfettered by social conventions and intellectual expectations. Images of the mad genius and visionary hermit inevitably come to mind, ingrained as they are as stock characters in a highly marketable pantheon of ‘outsiderness’. While there are certain individuals whose biographies may serve to re-enforce such stereotypes, it is ultimately more accurate to think of the creators of outsider art as simply those who make art indifferent to the typical workings of the art world, i.e. intellectual and aesthetic affiliations and dependency on the critical and financial response of the market (Danto 2001:63).
Once this distinction is made it becomes essential to ask what DeCarlo (2002:24) considers to be the “central question” at the core of any discussion pertaining to outsider art: how the work “make[s] sense as a separate art category.” Like mainstream art, it requires careful consideration of the artists’ intentions and the context in which they create. As is the case with any art object, aesthetic choices directly impact the overall effect of a given artist’s vision. How then, in light of these similarities, can outsider art be so far removed from the characteristics of the mainstream art world? In an attempt to address this elemental issue at length, the next three chapters will explore the work of individuals widely regarded as classic examples of the outsider paradigm. Concentrating on the epic creations of Henry Darger, the ground-breaking textile art of Judith Scott, and the other-worldly architectural renderings of A. G. Rizzoli, it is my intention to elucidate the elements of their highly individual output that mark them as true examples of outsider artists. With the following case studies I hope to offer reasonable justification for use of the term ‘outsider art’, while at the same time liberating them from the confines of overextended, and often erroneously applied distinctions.
Friday, April 6th, 2007
Any insight into the life and work of Henry Darger (1892-1973) must begin with two images, images that have become iconic in the study of outsider art. The first is a black and white photograph of Darger, taken near the end of the artist’s life by his neighbor, David Berglund. In the photo Darger sits on a flight of wooden steps, his shoulders stooped beneath a frayed jacket. His gaze is cast downwards and his eyes reveal the weariness of a life lived beyond its purpose. In his left hand he holds a pair of glasses, their heavy frames held together with a thick wrapping of black electrical tape. The second image, again a photograph by Berglund, is of Darger’s home: a cluttered room in the Chicago tenement where Darger spent the majority of his years in isolation, laboring over what has come to light as an incredibly unique and vastly influential grand opus of raw psychology.
The tragedy that would come to characterize Darger’s life began in early adolescence when, shortly after the death of his mother his younger sister was given up for adoption by their father. Suffering a shattered youth, Darger retreated into the role of a school yard bully whose fondness for starting fires eventually landed him in a home for wayward boys. Over the next few years the severity of his behavior increased until, in 1904, he was placed in the Asylum for Feeble-Minded Children near Lincoln, Illinois. Throughout his five-year stay at the asylum, public allegations of abuse and misconduct on the part of staff doctors ran rampant in the local press (Bonesteel 2000:9). While Darger never spoke openly of his life there, it can be assumed that such an environment left a lasting scar on his psyche, not to mention his work to come. Fortunately, in 1909 he managed to escape to Chicago where he quickly found work as a janitor at St. Joseph’s Hospital, a job he would hold for the duration of his working life.
In 1917, living alone and supported by a salary that was modest at best, Darger began the process of reconstructing his shattered family by attempting to adopt a child. When his repeated efforts were met with an almost predictable string of rejections Darger’s desire for love and companionship began a decisive turn inwards. Still searching for the child to which he was denied in reality, a richly symbolic substitute was found in a newspaper clipping from the Chicago Daily News depicting the photograph of a five-year-old murder victim, Elsie Paroubek. Part of a growing personal archive of clippings gathered by Darger, there is no indication that the event or the subsequent article held any particular significance for him until he somehow misplaced it. Writing in his journal at the time, he begins to process this forfeiture of yet another family member, lamenting that “the huge disaster and calamity” of his loss “will never be atoned for,” but “shall be avenged to the uttermost limit” (Bonesteel 2000:10).
So begins Darger’s descent into the fantasy life that would sustain him for the next fifty years, ultimately producing one of the most involved creative endeavors ever executed: a fifteen thousand-page illustrated epic entitled The Story of the Vivian Girls in What is Known as the Realms of the Unreal of the Glandeco-Angelinnian War Storm Caused by the Child Slave Rebellion. Recasting Elsie Paroubek as Annie Aronburg, the martyred leader of the eponymous slave rebellion, Darger himself is transformed into Captain Henry Darger, president of the “Children’s Protective Society,” sworn enemy “of all those who do the children any kind of harm” (Bonesteel 2000:12). Based loosely on the events of the Civil War, and incorporating biblical themes throughout, the story follows the trials of a race of children enslaved by adults who are led to freedom by the Vivian Sisters, nine girls with pure hearts and courage enough to stand up to the tyranny of their oppressors.
Strangely, the narrative is punctuated by frequent episodes of violence in which the author appears to revel in the details of the brutalities inflicted upon the children. Indulging at length in descriptions of strangulation, disembowlment and various scenes of torture, Darger’s work reveals certain sadistic tendencies at odds with his protective inclinations. This conflict is carried over into the vast body of illustrations accompanying Darger’s writing. Executed in crayon, pencil, and watercolor on horizontal scrolls of newsprint up to twenty feet long, Darger’s drawing are often populated with images of naked, cross-gendered children, bayonette-wielding soldiers and winged, serpent-like creatures. Adapted from tracings taken from a variety of salvaged sources, characters are frequently depicted against landscapes alternating between the Edenic and the apocalyptic: in panel after panel, lush foliage thriving beneath vibrant blue skies gives way to vast wastelands of scorched hillsides and dismembered corpses. In this world the artist is both creator and destroyer, capable of bringing about either heaven or hell according to his whims. At odds with both his reality and the deeply religious convictions that helped to shape it, Darger transforms himself through his work into a force of total control over a world of his making. “God is too hard to me,” he rages, “I will not bear it any longer . . . I’m my own man!” (McGregor 2002:23) His is a soul at war with itself, its battles waged within the tight walls of a one-room apartment.
The solitude of Darger’s life behind these walls was finally breached shortly before his death in 1973 when his landlord, the photographer Nathan Lerner was charged with organizing Darger’s belongings in preparation for Darger’s move to a nearby nursing home. Lerner and his wife Kiyoko had purchased the building in which Darger lived in 1955. As Darger kept to himself Lerner’s recorded recollections of their interactions tend to be peripheral, describing the old man as “odd at the very least, and maybe crazy” (MacGregor 2002:4). As the building’s caretakers the Lerners were permitted the occasional glimpse at the inside of Darger’s apartment and the work that filled it— exposure enough to recognize that something remarkable was taking place. However, only when Nathan Lerner and his assistant David Bergland began their work in the apartment after Darger’s move did the sheer magnitude of its contents come to light. Among the disarray and detritus of Darger’s belongings, the pair began to uncover scrapbooks filled with collage and drawings, as well as numerous volumes of writing, carefully typed, “bound [and] bundled, seemingly awaiting and audience” (Anderson 2001:11). In all, the tiny room yielded a six-volume illustrated weather journal containing ten years’ worth of daily entries, numerous personal diaries, a five-thousand page autobiography, the fifteen-thousand page Realms and its sequel, Further Adventures in Chicago: Crazy House, three handmade folios containing drawings measuring twelve feet long by two feet wide and a massive archive of proofs, test drawings and source material scrounged from sidewalks and garbage cans. Perplexed by their discovery, Lerner and Bergland asked Darger what he wanted done with his creations. “It’s too late now, throw it all away,” ” the old man reportedly replied,“ (MacGregor 2002:19).
One can only imagine the experience of finding such work buried deep within Darger’s apartment. John MacGregor, having devoted much of his career to the study of Darger and his work, captures the essence of the discovery when he “compare[s] the excavation of the chaotic contents of [the] room to an archaeological dig” (MacGregor 2002:9). Even more so, peering into Darger’s universe for the first time must have paralleled something akin to the first descent into the caves at Lascaux. Walking into the darkness of a place whose secrets have been hermetically protected from the outside world, what was revealed must have been entirely strange, yet completely compelling in its radiance. Imbued with a tangible tension between urges revealed and longings concealed, Darger’s creations continue to invite participation but refuse to disclose their primordial meanings. Fortunately, Lerner and Bergland recognized the immense value in what they found. Following Darger’s death on April 13, 1973, they set about the sorting of his possessions, carefully photographing his work in situ as they worked. Accepting their role as stewards of Darger’s legacy, the Lerners spent the next few years documenting and preserving his artwork and the great body of support material accompaning it.
In 1977, Darger’s illustrations made their public debut in a small exhibition at the Hyde Park Art Center. In response to seeing his work for the first time, the art critic Jack Burnham proclaimed that “no European collection has a naive artist with the lyrical inventiveness of Henry Darger” (Bonesteel 2000:16). Indeed, by the time a traveling exhibit of Darger’s work was organized by the the Iowa Museum of Art in 1996, academics and eager collectors alike had begun to express an increasing interest in Darger’s vision.
Despite the difficulty of its subject matter, little girls depicted with penises and the violent treatment of children being obvious and often cited examples, the work has been included in both public and private collections, among them the Collection de l’Art Brut, the Musgrave Kinley Collection of Outsider Art at the Irish Museum of Modern Art in Dublin, and the Robert M. Greenberg Collection. In addition, the American Folk Art Museum in New York opened the Henry Darger Study Center in 2000, comprising the most comprehensive collection of Darger material to date. Made possible by a series of gifts and purchases, the Study Center’s holdings include the complete writings of the artist (over 30,000 pages), twenty-six large-scale illustrations, and an archive of Darger’s source materials. In keeping with the Center’s “key objective [of] making the artwork available to students, scholars, and people from the creative community,” access to the archives is granted for a variety of research projects, and ongoing thematic exhibitions of Darger’s work are displayed in the museum’s galleries (Anderson 2004:80). Given the sheer volume and immeasurable originality of Darger’s output, efforts to unravel and interpret his methods and intentions continues. Inspiring the engaged response of scholars and artists alike, Darger’s unique visions are invoked in literature, theater, and most recently, in the feature-length documentary by Jessica Yu, In the Realms of the Unreal: the Mystery of Henry Darger (Anderson 2004-2005:78).