What’s is an outsider artist anyway? asks Carrie Miller
‘Outsider’ art appears to be gaining currency in the mainstream art world in Australia. The collections of prominent art world figures such as Stuart Purves, Ray Hughes, and Peter Fay have been displayed in a number of recent exhibitions and the Self-Taught and Outsider Art Research Collection (STOARC) has been set up by Sydney University at the Sydney College of the Arts (SCA) as a research hub for this category of art. It includes a gallery as well as a collection and archival materials, all of which will support the study of self-taught and outsider art by scholars from a range of disciplines. The mainstream media have even picked up on the sub-culture, with the Sydney Morning Herald reporting last year that such work is “now collectable and steadily gaining in value” with some of the better known outsider artists “starting to appear in mainstream auctions”.
‘Outsider artist’ Adolf Wolfli
This begs the question: is outsider art becoming appropriated into the mainstream so that it will eventually become another one of its banal categories? It depends on how you define outsider art. The notion that self-taught artists are necessarily excluded from the art world is just not borne out by history. Sure, if you’re going to make pictures it’s generally a good idea to know what other pictures have been made and the place to go to find that out is generally art school. This hopefully minimises the risk of you making work that other people have already done well. It also connects you to a community that gives you more of an opportunity to go through the door marked ‘Art World’. Of course, there are downsides to formal education as well – it necessarily directs the mind in a certain way, and teaches you things that can take a lifetime to unlearn.
But there’s a long tradition of self-taught artists being elevated to the status of ‘genius’ precisely because of their lack of training. Moreover, there are a number of artists who have worked quite consciously in an untrained or naive style either for aesthetic reasons or as a political statement against the ‘system’. In Australia, these sorts of artists are being included in the ever-expanding category of outsider art. In the US, folk art is often seen as part of the outsider tradition, and the vague term ‘intuitive’ has also been employed to describe this type of work. In other words, a very diverse range of artists and styles are now often lumped in with the work of ‘conventional’ outsiders, making the category fairly meaningless, but much more commercially viable.
On a practical level, the notion of ‘authentic’ outsider art must be, by definition, at the very least art that can’t be understood by the set of institutionalised values which necessarily exclude it in the first place. The work of the profoundly mental ill constituted the original Art Brut genre that has morphed into the much broader category of outsider art as it is known today. Raw Vision, a leading journal in the field of outsider art, has defined it quite specifically against the broad definition it has taken on: “It is not enough to be untrained, clumsy or naïve. Outsider Art is virtually synonymous with Art Brut in both spirit and meaning, to that rarity of art produced by those who do not know its name.”
The question this raises is how do we, as insiders, establish an ethical relationship to this type of art in a way that allows it to be experienced in its own terms? Badly, is the short answer.
I became friendly with a guy in my suburb who wore headphones to keep out the noise of the CIA who was being directed to harm him by his brother. He used to ride on buses a lot and draw portraits of the people he sat next to. Some of them were great. After a while, he trusted me enough to show them to me; eventually he gifted me a few I’d admired. The last time I saw him he didn’t acknowledge me. I’d imagined some connection that wasn’t there, fooled by what I saw as a type of spiritual purity in the raw immediacy of his drawing. Perhaps he did have a direct line to the Art Gods, or maybe he was just off his meds.
Of course, while there will be middle-class anxiety about the potential for the vulnerable to be exploited, not many consider the other side of this coin. There is enormous potential for outsiders to take advantage of the well-meaning insiders who collect their work indiscriminately. And good on them.
Chopper Read – the ultimate outsider insider – took up painting a few years ago. As he concisely put in relation to his own practice: “It looks good up on walls, goes up in price, and fits good in the back of a BMW”. When asked for his expert opinion, Luke Morgan, an art theory lecturer, admitted that the commercial success of Read’s art career is probably based on his notoriety, but he also acknowledged that the images “do have a certain rawness and naivety that may appeal to some people”. Well, no, actually they don’t. Read’s pictures are just unbelievably awful – contrived, derivative, and over-thought. While it’s not possible to ever definitively say what ‘genuine’ outsider art is, Read’s shithouse work unwittingly reveals that it’s easy to spot the fakes.