Thoughts On The “Outsider” Art Fair

Robert Morgan - "Island Of Lost Souls"

Robert Morgan – “Island Of Lost Souls”

Well, I suppose the first thought I should address is “why does she keep putting that in scare quotes?” Because like an increasing number of afficianadoes, I’m finding what falls under this umbrella term increasingly nebulous. Not to mention getting kind of weirded out by a lot of the existing definitions, which often smack alternately of things like classism and ablism, and other times of things like romanticization and more bluntly, fetishization.

(Then again, that type of romanticizing may be the bread and butter of La-La Land, at least to some degree. I wouldn’t say blanketly.)

I can also say that much of the work at the Festival did possess the sort of urgency, humor, imagination and vision that seems missing at the local hipster galleries where everyone is trying to out-ironic and/or out-conceptualize one another. I’m guessing the Bruts and Outsiders have as little use for sparse minimalism and CIA-introduced “art for art’s sake” as I do. Which is a bit…well…I guess I do have to say “ironic” as an actual term and not a stance, given that Jean Dubuffet’s original definition of Art Brut is so fixated on notions of a creator so completely removed from, well…anything at all that they would be making art simply for it’s own sake, if such a creature ever existed. An excerpt of Dubuffet’s writing can be found on the Lausanne site:

“By this [Art Brut] we mean pieces of work executed by people untouched by artistic culture, in which therefore mimicry, contrary to what happens in intellectuals, plays little or no part, so that their authors draw everything (subjects, choice of materials employed, means of transposition, rhythms, ways of writing, etc.) from their own depths and not from clichés of classical art or art that is fashionable. Here we are witnessing an artistic operation that is completely pure, raw, reinvented in all its phases by its author, based solely on his own impulses. Art, therefore, in which is manifested the sole function of invention, and not those, constantly seen in cultural art, of the chameleon and the monkey. “

Michael Patterson-Carver

Micheal Patterson-Carver

 Raw Vision Magazine, some of the foremost chroniclers of this sort of thing, also talk of Jean Dubuffet’s (is this a good time to mention he collected art works done by psychiatric patients?) use of words like “pure”, “uncooked by culture”, etc. to describe such artists, who apparently weren’t supposed to even think of themselves as such. Dubuffet’s mad saint adult-child lives as ascetically as Zarathustra on the mountaintop, or rather in the psych-ward cell, but unlike Zarathustra would never sully themselves by descending. (The doctors probably wouldn’t let ’em anyway.)

I dunno, does the picture on the left look like it was made by someone lacking cultural awareness of the modern-day mental patient’s predicament?

Davida Adedjouma-"Ginny Bottle"

Davida Adedjouma-“Ginny Bottle”

Then again, maybe “modern day” is key here. Psychiatric care in the present day is not the same as it was when Dubuffet formulated these ideas. In modern hospitals, we had a TV and access to a book-cart, dammit! Is it possible to even harbor such a notion of complete cultural removal in the “Information Age”? Still, there’s this notion of mentally ill being interchangeable with imbecilic that doesn’t ring true to me.

One of the times I was brought to a psych ward–this was 2001. I caught a glimpse of a phrase the doctor had written on his clipboard. “Atypical perception”. Not “no perception”. I may not think of “hard-world” reality the way I’m told to. My personal symbols and inner syncretisms
may not be how you’ve been taught to view various things, and for that matter, they may not be the same way the next schizo-affective over reads them. But to say there’s no perception of input whatsoever???

Even the solitary Henry Darger (speculated more likely autistic) incorporated elements of his religion, harsh schooling, children’s book and advertisement illustrations, and one news story (the murder of a child named Elsie Paroubek). These cultural events and things were woven into an elaborate mythology of his own design, which would probably merit an entry all it’s own.

Henry Darger 001

Henry Darger

Of course there are other qualifiers for “Outsider” Art, though I’m naturally biased to look at the connection between the genre and mental health. “Self taught” is a big one. Not sure what happens if you take an art class before you have your breakdown or incarceration or move to the Ozarks. Not sure if the fixation on “self-taught” is a way for people in the art industry proper to look bemusedly down their noses at someone who hasn’t had their opportunities, but can match or surpass them in talent. (I know it’s become fashionable for overcompensating wankers to claim “talent” doesn’t exist, but they’re full of shit.) Personally, I feel that even if they have the benefit of years of schooling, an artist needs to be willing to at some point break off and explore things that can’t be passed along by an instructor. And I have seen a few instances where no amount of schooling could salvage a marked lack of talent.

All in all, I’m really happy that we got to go, I’d gotten a pass in email,and Eric was handed an all-access pass by a journalist as we approached the building. Much of what we saw was inspiring, even if it didn’t all adhere to definition–Roger Ballen works professionally, most notably having shot a recent video for Die Antwoord. JT Dockery has had some comic work published by someone other than a photocopy machine. And people such as Darger and Adolf Wolfli have over time become significant art figures shown in galleries and museums. Which is fine. Nobody with talent should have to be forever pigeonholed into one rigidly defined little space in the world, be it because of mental illness, location, lack of “formal” training, or what have you.

Adolf Wolfli

 UbuWeb has an archive of Adolf Wolfli reading poetry and spoken word compositions. It’s in German:

Raw Vision has a breakdown of sub-categories, if you grapple with the definitions as much as I have here:

Here’s the complete set of photos I took:


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