Wednesday, April 4, 2007

Outsider Art - the great misunderstanding

The debate on outsider art and the terms usage in auctions and the art world in general is about as interesting as two cars crossing the double yellow lines and careening into one another head on. No lie, I've seen that sort of mess and it's pretty damn ugly for a few minutes and then somebody realizes how stupid they were and sits in the middle of the road with their head in their hands shaking of shock and embrassement, hoping no one noticed their folly.

People get so offended when the term outsider is used - they think of themselves as "true" outsiders and people who have any sort of education pertaining to art certainly can't be "outsider" artists. Well, too bad these people who feel this way don't have that education or even the basic knowledge to back up their thoughts on the matter or they would see that in their literal take on the term outsider they fail to see the irony in the fact that they themselves can't be "outsider" artists either and are arguing moot points in reality.

In their fight to champion their "outsider" status they only reveal that their basic understanding of outsider art is non-existent. In the truest sense and definition, an outsider artist is either a recluse or locked away in a mental institution, devoid of any and all social contact. The synopsis of true outsider art maintains that the true outsider artist neither sells their creations nor has a real grasp on the fact that it is being sold in the first place.

Cast your mind: Mountain Man Joe scribbles and sketches flora and fauna in between sapping maple trees and shooting a pheasant for dinner with his trusty 22. His niece Daisy visits him every few months and good ole' uncle Joe gives her a sketch or two for the muffins she baked for him and so generously hiked 3 miles to give to him. Daisy reads in the newspaper a few weeks later that "Outsider" art is highly sought after by the aristocratic debutantes and eccentrics who long for conversational pieces for their foyers and dens and are willing to pay top dollar to wow their friends with such work. Daisy, who has found herself under a mountain of bills for *insert social dysfunction here* decides to sell the Mountain Man's work to a New York Gallery who in turn sells these poorly executed, childish creations to the above mentioned "social elite".

And the outsider artist is born.... At least by pure definition. Uncle Joe who owns absolutely no books besides his atlas and dropped out of school at age 13 without any art education to speak of (macaroni and glitter decorated holiday cards and clay ashtrays aside) continues to scribble cartoonish Bambis and Thumpers without the slightest idea that his work has been featured in Art in America twice. See what I mean?

Thus the outsider status has actually emerged as more a style than a lifestyle. And when people go on and on about those horrible artists with them there edjumacations they only illustrate further their lack of understanding of the history behind, and evolution of, outsider art. The interpretations of "outsider art" are as widespread and open ended as any debate that includes strong personal opinions and nothing more than a few facts lifted from here and there to validate a perceived understanding or lack thereof.

So, in keeping with this tradition, I will quote Michel Thevoz, Curator of the Collection de l'Art Brut in Lausanne:

"Art Brut", or "outsider art", consists of works produced by people who for various reasons have not been culturally indoctrinated or socially conditioned. They are all kinds of dwellers on the fringes of society. Working outside fine art "system" (schools, galleries, museums and so on), these people have produced, from the depths of their own personalities and for themselves and no one else, works of outstanding originality in concept, subject and techniques. They are works which owe nothing to tradition or fashion.

Now, if this is a generally accepted definition of "outsider art" then can anyone who sells their work through ebay or on the internet in general be defined outsider artists? If representing one's work and offering it to the masses in a realm surrounded by creations of all educational levels, isn't there an inherent influence obtained through marketing and selling around such works? So I guess the argument then becomes where the invisible boundary line exists between the culturally aware, highly educated and gallery represented artist and the weekend hobbyist whose artistic influences include Thomas Kinkaide tapestries and Norman Rockwell calendars at the doctors office. Is there a boundary to speak of? If both artists sell side by side in a venue such as ebay, are the distinctions between these too so clear? Are they black and white really? I would think that the hobbyist who sells on ebay would browse around and become subject to any number of works created by highly educated artists. And if we look back at the definition above provided by an individual who has obviously invested a good portion of his career in the attempt to understand and interpret outsider art, can we then deduce that the hobbyist has obtained a certain amount of understanding pertaining to art and sells in a virtual auction style art gallery and therefore can be no more categorized an "outsider artist" than the formally trained artist selling an auction listing away?

Have we not just spun around in a complete circle and ended right back where we started? Perhaps, but I have yet to pose the biggest question on my mind on the subject.

Why do people care so much about the keywords used by artists in an attempt to obtain the same goals as one another - sell the work and make a living at something they love? I guess it all goes back to perceived competition as I have mentioned time and again is the thorn in the creative side of the ebay arts community. No where else will you find artists debating so heavily and passionately about the implied and literal usage of a single term that has no clear cut definition anymore.

Artists themselves rearranged the clear cut definition eons ago as far as the internet and ebay goes and recreated the understanding of what outsider art is, and can be. Artists themselves defined it as more than the sterile thought that outsider art could only be created by a madman or hermit on the extreme "fringes" of society. Or what of the definition that states outsider art is nothing more than art created by those who do not recognize themselves as artists? Well, those that toot their own outsider status and poo poo on the educated who choose to associate their style with that of the "outsider" should take a long hard look at themselves and rethink whether they want to confront that catch 22 with a response....

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