Nine Current Issues in the Field of “Outsider Art”

Some interesting thoughts about the current status of the “Outsider Art” movement.
Lecture by Jane Kallir (College Art Association, February 2007)
Link to the text here

1. The first issue that comes to mind is the fact that our so-called field doesn’t have a wholly satisfactory name. Experts and aficionados alike agree that none of terms used to designate this type of art—“outsider,” “self-taught” and “folk” being the most common—is entirely accurate or adequate. This problem is more than semantic. Naming and defining are inextricably linked, and the lack of a broadly accepted definition has led to heated arguments about which artists do or do not belong in the field.

2. There is, furthermore, some doubt as to whether this is a field at all. The artists in question are said to create beyond the reach of mainstream culture. As such, they are defined not by what they are, but by what they are not. Intrinsically, they have nothing in common that could provide a common framework for studying them. Is this, then, a field?

3. What we call the art world comprises a number of players: artists, critics, art historians, dealers, curators, and collectors. The interactions among those players create the dialogue that moves the art world forward. The outsider field is the only genre of modern or contemporary art in which the artists are, by definition, excluded from participating in that dialogue. Again one must ask, what then makes this a field?

4. We can frame this question another way: what, exactly, distinguishes these artists from the mainstream? Among the claims that have been made on behalf of outsiders are the contentions that they are “purer,” more original and more “authentic” than their trained colleagues; and that they are untouched by “received” culture and its attendant commercialism.

But is this true? It’s almost impossible to gauge the purity of an artist’s intentions, and the perceived need to calibrate an artist’s remove from received culture has led to a distasteful emphasis on lurid biographies. Additionally, no artist is truly removed from all cultural influence, and as more formerly low-culture influences (comics, illustration, television, and so on) are admitted into the high art canon, the gap that once separated outsiders’ influences from the mainstream has all but vanished.

5. Nor does remoteness from received culture necessarily guarantee creativity. We can all think of examples of self-taught artists who seem to paint the same picture, over and over and over again. No artist, once embraced by the art world, is immune from the temptations of commercialism, and self-taught artists may actually be more vulnerable to outside pressures than trained ones. On the other hand, commercial reward & public recognition can function as positive incentives, for both trained and untrained artists. All people crave respect and appreciation. It’s cruel to suggest that any artist is better off for being scorned and ignored.

6. Inevitably, we find that there is a tug-of-war between quality and authenticity. A work can be “authentic” in the sense that it was created by a genuinely marginal artist, but that doesn’t mean it’s any good. The abundance of second-rate “outsider” art has historically prevented even the best work from being fully accepted by the mainstream.

7. And how do we judge quality? The doctrine of purity traditionally held that the true outsider’s creation should be spontaneous and seemingly effortless. For a long time, this canard kept scholars from studying these artists’ working methods and development. But we now know that many of the best self-taught artists consciously struggled for mastery of their chosen medium, systemically taught themselves, and did change and develop.

It’s my belief that, if we are going to treat outsider art as equal to any other kind of art, we should judge it by the same standards. Great art entails an ongoing, never satisfied quest and a constant struggle with materials & form; an artist who doesn’t evolve withers. We judge art in part by the skill with which form and content meld. How well does the artist’s mastery of his or her medium express his or her underlying vision? The depth and originality of that vision are what distinguish the great from the merely competent.

8. However, there are those who believe that outsider art should not be held to the same standards as mainstream art, because true outsider art is fundamentally different.

Again here we touch upon the thorny issue of intentionality, which as previously noted, is almost impossible to assess. Some champions of outsider art nevertheless contend that its makers can be distinguished by the fact that they did not intend to make art. But can you make art without intending to? Without on some level, consciously or not, engaging with issues of composition, color, line and the sundry other nuances that distinguish a compelling image from an incoherent mess? At some basic level, either a work is art, or it’s something else: an artifact of mental illness, an object of anthropological but not aesthetic significance.

If we concede that at least some so-called outsiders create works that do qualify as art, then these artists aren’t really all that different from any other kind of artist; it’s just their relationship to the mechanisms of mainstream culture that differs.

9. The outsider art field as such was originally a product of the modernist obsession with “the other.” Untrained artists were plucked from obscurity and heralded by the modernist mainstream because those artists confirmed the mainstream’s aesthetic agenda, thereby anointing that agenda with the aura of the outsiders’ ostensible “purity.” At the same time, because untrained artists weren’t allowed to participate in the mainstream art-world dialogue, their position remained subordinate and inferior. Trained artists poached from their work, but outsiders were never admitted as full equals to the modernist canon.

Today we live in a postmodern era. Globalization and multiculturalism have introduced a multitude of equally valid cultural strands into the formerly Eurocentric realm of “high” art. Within this context, outsider art can potentially take its place as an equal at the cultural table. It can be studied on its own terms—that is to say, in terms of the idiosyncratic motives, methods and contexts that characterize each individual artist. But as this happens, the field as it was formerly constituted is pulled apart in two ways: The artists become further differentiated, and therefore less easily massed in a common category. At the same time, the boundaries that once separated the untrained artist from the mainstream become increasingly irrelevant. This poses a major conundrum: for if the boundaries between “our” artists and the mainstream truly disappear, might not the so-called “field” disappear as well? Could we be destroyed by our own success?

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