Saturday, 18 July 2009

Ruminations on outsider art

There are flaws in the concept of an 'art world', it is a fact of postmodern life that there exist many parallel, overlapping and contra-orbital art worlds.

The distinction of art from craft, or artisanship, has only been a recent invention. Art as a category only emerged in the past 200 or so years and has been the subject of constant re-negotiation since. In a celebrity-based culture, the artist’s biographical details often create the credibility, meaning, or sincerity of the piece more so than the piece in itself.

In the inauthentic world of the late-capitalist West, authenticity becomes something of an elusive commodity in a search for credibility. The field of outsider art has until very recently been one defined by collectors and curators rather than the artists themselves. That is, a set of class-based assumptions were applied to an economic and social underclass which lumped together collections of exotic artefacts typically produced by manual workers, the impoverished and the institutionalised insane. Outsider Art in its inception, was never a movement of self-organising groups of autonomous artists. Instead it has been marked by a set of aesthetic criteria applied by collectors (Dubuffet being the prime example). Being the physical product of people usually categorised as hermits, and social misfits, and members of an underclass, it only became art when placed in the context of an art collection.

In some cases it can be argued that the creator acted without any artistic intention, creating as part of a private personal belief system, rather than social reasons. For example, during his lifetime Henry Darger worked as a lavatory cleaner in Chicago hospital. He was never known as someone who wanted to be an artist. His work was created in secret, most likely for personal fetishistic reasons, and was only found by his landlord some months after his death. In divorcing his illustrations from their private functional context and placing them within a public gallery arena, the function of these objects is changed. Something which may have had personal religious or devotional meaning becomes secularised, as an item for bourgeois cultural consumption.

On the other hand, there is more self-conscious work of preacher Howard Finster, (recognisable from Talking Heads album cover artwork) who carried out his practise as much as a successful small businessman, employing his family members to mass-produce his stencilled art works with public consumption through New York galleries ever in mind. Another very self-conscious Outsider artist would be the sick and twisted, but highly articulate, Joe Coleman, who was a well-known New York punk musician and performance artist before he became known as an outsider artist.

Outsider art was never produced by outsider artists, or by gods and demons, but by complex social processes. In this way it can be seen as a secular form of shamanism.

Whatever the contradictions within this area of discourse, many have found it a fertile seam for exploration, both visually and philosophically. And somehow, it is the intense and fragmentary kind of self–definition, the blurring of boundaries between art and craft that often comes out as crap, that I personally find far more interesting than the sort of art that attracts grant funding.

Because of its fluid nature and because of its parallel concerns to those of 20th century avant-gardes (graphics from Campbell Soup Tin were appropriated by Adolf Wolfli many years before Warhol set up shop), I would argue that the methodologies and concerns of what is called art brut, outsider art, raw creation and visionary art should be re-assessed as central to postmodern art practice.

Nigel Ayers from

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