Tuesday, January 01, 2008

What is an "Outsider Artist", anyway?

Sometimes I can find myself in a long, drawn-out discussion after such a minimal prompt as, "Have you read anything good lately?" Last week I wrote about having read a book about outsider photography. The authors were very clear in stating that the subject has not had a long tradition of academic inquiry. Although I might not have expected it to be the case, it turns out that many people are still uncomfortable with the notion of "outsider art" in general. The phrase itself evoked a variety of responses when I brought it up at the Brillo Box the other night. It's not surprising that everyone I was with had an opinion, as they were all either artists or ardent fans of the arts. But I didn't expect the negativity I heard in some of the reactions.

Apparently there are still folks who think that the term "outsider artist" is pejorative. One friend of mine interprets the categorization as a dismissal of an artist's worth. She seemed to suggest that it's akin to an attack on the legitimacy of the work it is applied to. Her immediate associations with the words are a "lack of training" and condescension. I was taken aback by this interpretation, as it seems to me like "outsider art" has paradoxically entered the mainstream awareness of collectors, dealers and critics. This evolution of the concept has certainly made understanding the phenomena more confusing.

When people first began to discover (and take seriously) the artwork of creators who weren't traditionally thought of as "artists", the label may have been appropriate. These works were created by folks who were entirely divorced from the canon of art history. They weren't shown in museums, or picture books, or galleries. They originated in prisons, mental asylums, and other shadowy corners of society. For centuries art was the concern of an extremely rarefied segment of the population. In the early Twentieth Century, established artists such as Jean Dubuffet brought attention to the work of "primitive artists", but it would be decades before the acceptance of the merit of such work would be widely spread.

Really, it wasn't until the 50's and the beginnings of the Pop Art movement that art was truly democratized. On a grand level, artists like Lichtenstein and Warhol exploded the traditional definitions of what could be considered "art". The simultaneous advance of technology did its part to spread the new paradigm. Suddenly entirely new groups of people began to engage the art world, and brought with them irrevocable change. Not only could the masses appreciate a wider range of work, but they could also (on occasion) make it as well. This novel spirit of adventurous discovery became all-encompassing, and art connoisseurs started seeking out art in increasingly unusual places. The expansion of the market demanded a steady stream of product, and there was a place at the table for work that would have formerly been rejected.

But a strange thing happened as this process developed. The artwork of "outsider artists" was integrated into the marketplace. Soon it was appearing in galleries and museums, and established critics paid attention to it as well. Once academia appropriated the more famous examples within the expanding "genre", the lines of discrimination got blurred. The artists themselves (at least the ones who weren't dead) went through their own transformations as they became aware of their own value. Some of them were even being invited to host their own solo shows at prominent galleries. They had become "insiders", and prominent figures within a movement of "outsider art". Ironically, the success of such artists ultimately undermines the authenticity of their banner.

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Anonymous jefg99 said...

Only through art can we get outside ourselves and know another's view of the universe which is not the same as ours... (Marcel Proust)

I don't know what this has to do with your post; I simply saw it and liked it.

9:01 PM  
Blogger Merge Divide said...

Nice quote. It is especially meaningful in the context of what I wrote about today.

5:12 PM  

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