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Thursday, August 8, 2013

Outsider Art–But Is It Art?

The current definition of outsider art is that it is art made by people who, through mental or physical isolation, live beyond the reach of cultural conditioning.  An editorial in The Guardian (8.8.13) praises such art and two new exhibitions of it this summer in London:
Admiration dates back to the mid-19th century when psychiatrists became aware that some of their patients were producing paintings and drawings of powerful intensity. In turn, the works influenced the avant garde of the early 20th century – artists such as Paul Klee and Jean Dubuffet who relished its "uncooked" nature, and started searching for it outside Europe's asylums.
Artistic creation has always been a product of individual insight and creativity and history. Most art has either been based on past tradition or rejected it outright.  The Impressionists were representational in theme – outdoor picnics, walks by the Seine, landscapes – but changed perspective.  Seurat’s pointillism helped point the way to a deconstruction of familiar scenes and a forced new perspective. Chuck Close is a beneficiary of those new visual insights.



Expressionists rejected any representational art and turned to abstraction, like Motherwell.



Other modernists like Jackson Pollock rejected the ordered abstraction of Motherwell and his school, and completely released the artist from cultural convention.



So where does ‘outsider art’ come in, and is it really art?  In one way, an artist who roams mental institutions for products of fevered brains is no different from Picasso who was very influenced by African masks.



The ‘art’ of a schizophrenic is as primitive as one can get, for it is the product of no artistic tradition, and although no one grows up immune to cultural influences, the delusional patient lives in a very separate, unique world.  It is not surprising that recognized artists troll asylums for new insights and ideas. Whether these outsider drawings and paintings are really art is another story altogether, and raises the issue of the nature of art.

Postmodernists will insist that there is no such thing as art; that all expressions are art and equally valid.  The crazed scratchings of the patients of Bedlam or St. Elizabeth’s are no better or worse than the paintings of Titian or Sargent.  The scribbled writings of a clandestinely-literate slave in Georgia are the value equal of Faulkner.  Most critics disagree.  Great art is a deliberate, schooled effort on the part of the artist to decipher his world, analyze his own reactions to it, distill this comprehensive vision, and represent it .  Jackson Pollock did not wake up one day, throw some paint on a canvas and call himself an artist.  He could draw and paint, and progressed through many intellectual and artistic stages to reach his abstract expressionism.



Artistic endeavor is a conscious intellectual effort which links the artist to society.  Although his creations may be personal and unique, they reflect his own origins, history, inner dynamics, and outward perceptions.

Without that disciplined context, anything can be art.  Why are children’s crayon drawings not art?



There is a difference between ‘unschooled’ and random.  Grandma Moses, for example, took up painting in her 70s, but obviously had observed her surroundings for years.  She had not been influenced by the streams of classical art, and her ‘folk’ paintings reflect the simplicity of an ingénue, but nevertheless are conscious, deliberate efforts to translate her vision – interior and exterior – into visual images.

Why is she, therefore, considered an ‘artist’ compared to the unschooled smudges of a mental patient? Because, although she did not ground her art on historical tradition and could not claim historical antecedents, she learned how to paint in classical terms.  Her perspective might have been a bit ‘off’, and her human figures primitive, but she acquired enough painterly convention to be recognized.  This painting is very reminiscent of Breughel, but Moses apparently had no contact with his work.



In other words, Grandma Moses, either by serendipity or design, mimicked great art, and therefore was considered an artist, although only a ‘folk’ one – that is still not in the inner circle of real artists who did not simply depict, but create.

Is there really any difference, then, between Grandma Moses and a random asylum inmate? Not really, and the traditional painter who trolls the halls of loony bins is definitely going to stop and notice the most expressive and consistent work.  As the old adage goes, an infinite number of monkeys typing on an infinite number of typewriters will eventually produce the complete works of Shakespeare.  One ‘special’ drawing of an inmate means nothing, but a series of creations that reflect the same articulation do.

Because the below inmate drawing resembles Guernica, is the outsider artist a Picasso?



Under a strict interpretation of art, the answer is ‘No’.  The inmate simply cannot draw, and this image is the product of inability and mental illness.

If one happens to find a unique talent inside the crazy house, one that conforms to a conventional view of art (as above, either traditional or traditionally anarchic) and who produces not one but a series of paintings according to this unique vision, then he/she deserves recognition, just like Grandma Moses.

I dismiss exhibitions of outsider art, however, for more often than not they collect individual paintings of random inmates or the isolated amateur painter and praise the opus.  This is akin to trolling kindergartens to find the most ‘artistic’ drawings and putting them together in an exhibition.  Viewers may ooh and ah over the similarities to Picasso and Pollock, but they are, by and large, admiring randomness.  While some of these 5-year olds may eventually turn out to be artists, most will never progress beyond coloring within the lines.


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