Thursday, January 7, 2010

A Better Approach to Outsider Art

Ken Johnson of the NY Times reviews an exhibition a the American Folk Art Museum, Approaching Abstraction. He sees this exhibition as an example of a trend towards mainstreaming outsider art by not ghettoizing the artists. Engaging the works' formal qualities seems to help the viewer to resist the temptation to marginalize the artists.

Though according to Johnson, there may be a problem to this approach. He says, "It is very difficult — practically impossible — to separate the formal, nonrepresentational aspect from less tangible qualities." And he correctly argues, "There is not a single artist in the exhibition who tried to make something strictly nonrepresentational."

I agree that approaching these works formally is a good though difficult exercise, but not to the goal of making them "seem more 'normal.'" A formal approach to Outsider Art does not make it less fascinating, but adds to the fascination of the work of a self-taught or outsider artist. The viewer's tendency to ignore the formal elements is the challenge these artists face. As with all works of art, the formal approach is a wonderful first step to appreciating not mainstreaming Outsider Art. Approaching Abstraction is right to demand viewer to address the artwork first.


Alcoholic Outsider Artist said...

our blog.

Keith Banner said...

Thanks Kathy for blogging about this issue. I wrote about this issue on my blog for Thunder-Sky, Inc. ( back last summer. Here's a blurb from that post:

We're tired of "outsider art," and all the baggage that comes with it. The notion of "purity," of artists not wanting to seek profit from their works, of the isolation and ghettoization entrenched in the outsider art narrative just gets in the way of discussing and enjoying the art that we consider "unconventional." This art can be made by an art-school dropout in Nebraska, a doctor in Paris, a housewife in Canada, a busboy with developmental disabilities in Ohio, a wannabe construction worker... It's a choice to make unconventional art, not a destiny or predicament. And this art should be given the same respect, and scrutiny, as any other "genre" or "school." The main "qualifier" to be included in a definition of "outsider art" seems to be something about the fact that the artist has chosen not to be a part of art-school training, or has been excluded from this and other aspects of a "professional" narrative. And yet this artist has created his/her own aesthetic, and has executed this aesthetic authoritatively.

Here's a good example of an "outsider artist" who is not really cannonized as one: Joseph Cornell was born in Nyack, New York in the early 20th Century. He lived for most of his life in a wooden frame house on Utopia Parkway in a working-class area of Flushing, along with his mother and his brother Robert, who had cerebral palsy. Mr. Cornell spent most of his life supporting his mom and brother through part-time work as a door-to-door salesman, defense plant worker, gardener, and a designer of magazine layouts. He stumbled into the artworld in New York City as an adult, going to exhibits of Surrealist and other works, and then showing his collages and shadow-boxes to gallery owners. Slowly his reputation grew, but he remained shy and reclusive. In the end, Cornell became a highly regarded artist towards the end of his career, yet remained out of the spotlight.

Mr. Cornell's life and work can be represented in a number of ways: as the bio and art of a lucky outsider, an eccentric genius, a working-class Matisse, a visionary, self-taught isolate functioning on the fringes of mainstream culture, etcetera. But as Mr. Cornell created his works in isolation and obscurity something inside him urged him to break out of the isolation. It was proximity to the NYC artworld, the times he lived in, and his own personal ambition. He wanted his work to be seen, and while he did not profit a lot from the sales during his lifetime, he did sell his work, and he did at times take time out to celebrate his achievements. Part of his artistic journey was about the social aspect of what he was doing: marketing, explaining, showing, and gaining small pleasures (and some annoyance) from the way the work was received.

What we are getting at with all this is the fact that labeling an artist "outsider" may increase the chances of some marketing potential, but it also ghettoizes the art and artist, connects it too explicitly to an identity politics that probably in the end does not matter. Whether you are seen as someone with a disability, or poor, or African American, or gay, or homeless, or whatever, that identity connects you to a complex system of assumptions. You usually can't escape all of these assumptions of course, but art can help you to escape some of them by allowing you a brief respite from orthodoxies.

Me said...

Keith, thank you for your comments. This is a very sensitive topic and on one which I wrote last year on this blog:

or you can search my blog for "Artworks."

It is a post of which I am most proud, perhaps because of the importance of the topic.

Thanks again for your on the blog as well as your work in Cincinnati.

Keith Banner said...

I read that blog back in the day and totally agreed with it... Art has to have some kind of demarcation, doesn't it? Outside/insider -- whatever. Some kind of sense of an exhibit's own style and sensibility has to come out in the way it's presented and delivered to people. APPROACHING ABSTRACTION is a gorgeous show. So glad to see Judith Scott, an artist who attended Creative Growth until she passed away in 2005, is represented, and her work is seen as an AESTHETIC product, just just a product of her "condition." Sometimes the biography of outsider artists can prohibit an entrance into their aesthetic worlds. Often people are so overcome with sympathy or lack of sympathy that the work just becomes documentation of a case. Scott, by the way, originally hailed from here... Her work has a danger and whimsy and tenacity to it that reminds me of Rauschenberg, someone else who took abstraction into a personal/mythological zone... Except Scott hides all the things she appropriates within skeins of yard and flags of burlap...

Thanks for your blog...