Tracing the Narrative of "Outsider" Art
Humans are a story-telling species. From carefully selected fragments of information, we construct narratives that give coherence and meaning to our lives. "Modernism" is the name of the story we invented to describe the disparate aesthetic responses to Western industrialization. "Outsider Art" is one of several names (others include "Art Brut," "folk," naïve," "primitive" and "self-taught") that we gave to the creations of people who, though not part of the modernist mainstream, nevertheless produced work that the modernists considered germane to their own efforts. The creators who were assigned these various labels had almost nothing in common. They included farmers and circus performers; mental patients and spirit mediums. The artists, for the most part, neither knew each other nor of one another, and their works shared few, if any, stylistic characteristics. United only by their relative ignorance of the art world's ongoing discourse, this group constituted a shape-shifting, all-purpose "other."
Throughout history, the "other" has generally been viewed in negative terms. War was often justified by a belief that the foreign enemy was subhuman. Colonialism was rationalized as a mission to bring European civilization and Christian salvation to barbaric pagans. Closer to home, Freud descried what he called the "narcissism of minor differences": a tendency for people to feel threatened by, and therefore to demonize, neighboring groups that are, in all but a few respects, very similar to themselves. Freud believed this phenomenon to be the root cause of anti-Semitism, and also of the deep-seated hatreds afflicting border territories like the Balkans. The concept of the "other" is fundamental to personal identity: we define ourselves, to some extent, in terms of what we are not.
There can never be parity in an us-versus-them dichotomy, but as industrial capitalism gradually undermined the religious and socioeconomic structures of the pre-modern era, Europeans began to project onto the "other" the virtues of an idealized past. These allegedly primitive "others" were believed to embody humanity in its primordial, uncorrupted state. The British poet John Dryden hailed the "noble savage": a being "free as nature first made man/Ere the base laws of servitude began." The Romantics preferred the work of the fifteenth-century Italian and Flemish "primitives" to that of the more technically sophisticated Renaissance masters. "You will always find vital sap coursing through the primitive arts," observed Paul Gauguin. "In the arts of an elaborate civilization, I doubt it!" Kindred values were ascribed to children, who like "noble savages," were thought to retain a spontaneity and authenticity lacking in fully socialized adults. "The child sees everything in a state of newness," Charles Baudelaire wrote in his 1863 essay, "The Painter of Modern Life." "Genius is nothing more not less than childhood regained at will."
The early modernists were at best ambivalent toward modernity: they loathed capitalistic materialism and the ascendant bourgeoisie. Around the turn of the twentieth century, artists began to wonder whether primitivism might offer a formal as well as a conceptual antidote to the stultifying aspects of contemporary civilization. Academic training was increasingly viewed as an impediment to true creativity. "The academy is the surest means of ruining the force of the child," Wassilt Kandinsky observed. "An academically educated person of average talent distinguishes himself by having learned the practical-purposeful and by having lost the ability to hear the inner resonance. Such a person will deliver a 'correct' drawing which is dead. If a person who has not acquired artistic schooling--and is thus free of objective artistic knowledge--paints something, the result will never be an empty pretense." Artists did not bother to distinguish among the various forms of primitivism. Paul Klee studied drawings by children and the mentally ill. Picasso collected tribal sculpture and encouraged the contemporary self-taught painter Henri Rousseau. The Blauer Reiter Almanac reproduced the work of Rousseau alongside Egyptian shadow figured, votove paintings by European peasants, children's drawings and the paintings of the composer Arnold Schoenberg (who as an artist was more or less self-taught).
Rousseau was the prototypical "naif": a grown man who ostensibly saw the eyes of a child. Before long, other similar talents were discovered: amateur painters who, chiefly for economic reasons, had been denied access to formal training but who, thanks to the primitivist vogue, were given an unexpected shot at recognition. In the 1920s, the dealer and art historian Wilhelm Uhde pulled together a group he dubbed "Painters of the Sacred Heart." These included, in addition to Rousseau, André Bauchant, Camille Bombois, Séraphine Louis and Louis Vivin. By 1927, there was an "American Rousseau," the Pittsburgh housepainter John Kane, who on his third try gained admittance to the prestigious Carnegie International Exhibition. Sidney Janis's 1942 book They Taught Themselves, profiled no fewer than 30 such artists, amon them Kane, Morris Hirshfield, Horace Pippin and Grandma Moses. These painters, Janis wrote, "retain an untouched quality, a spiritual innocence. They rarely learn from a developed painting culture because it is far removed from their perceptions and, being removed, cannot touch them. Each creates his own world." Uhde described the "Sacred Heart" painters in similar terms: "Their work is the expression of heart and soul, uncomplicated by mind, and thus akin to the wisdom of nature."
A virtually identical primitivist narrative was appplied to folk art and the art of the mentally ill. Holger Cahill, who in the 1930s curated several groundbreaking folk art exhibtiions at the Newark Museum and New York's Museum of Modern Art, wrote that the material was "simple, unaffected and childlike." It was, the scholar Alice Winchester later concurred, "characterized by the qualities belonging to the original state of man." Hans Prinzhorn believed that the mentally ill artist taps into "the original process of all configuration, pure inspiration, for which alone, after all, every artist thirsts." In his 1922 book, Artistry of the Mentally Ill, he wrote that, "The configurative process, instinctive and free of purpose, breaks through in these people without any external stimulus or direction." Walter Morgenthaler, whose study of Adolf Wölfli, A Mental Patient as Artist, was published in 1921, opined that Wölfi's drawings were "raw and clumsy, but they are primordial, too. In these works, part of the powerful and fundamental artistic foundation lies uncovered, elements of which certain modern artists, through their conscious demolition efforts, had been the first to search for."
Primitivism elevated the stature of many creations that had never before been taken seriously, but the intention was not necessarily to place these works on the same footing as "real" art. Picasso's circle considered Rousseau something of a joke, and the German Expressionists aped "primitive" art primarily to certify the authenticity of their own work. When Kane was admitted to the Carnegie International, trained artists (many of whose submissions had been rejected) were furious. Similar protests greeted the Museum of Modern Art's 1943 Hirshfield retrospective. Nevertheless, in the interwar period institutional support of self-taught art was far stronger in the U.S. than it was in Europe. Not only the Newark Museum, the Carnegie and MoMA, but the Brooklyn Museum, the Whitney and the Phillips Collection, among others, routinely exhibited and acquired the work of untrained painters during this period. In the preface to the catalogue of MoMA's 1938 survey of American and European self-taught artists, "Masters of Popular Painting," the museum's director, Alfred Barr, identified the subject as one of three"major movements of modern art," along with Abstraction and Surrealism.
From the outset, the American version of the primitivist narrative differed slightly from its European prototype. In the United States, there was no aristocracy to overthrow, no reviled bourgeoisie. Americans had always embraced their middle class and extolled the virtues of hard work and individual initiative. Primitivism therefore took on a populist slant, made all the more timely by the exigencies of the Great Depression. Untrained artists were said to represent core American values like egalitarianism, self-made success and resilience in the face of adversity. The artists, Barr declared, express "the straightforward, innocent and convincing vision of the common man. In 1941 MoMA even devoted the first installation of its permanent collection exclusively to the so-called "Modern Primitives." The Museum Bulletin at the time put forth the premise that these painters were both more "international in character" than their trained American colleagues and more democratic. Barr thought the new display was an ideal way to introduce the American public to the broader tenets of modernism. This was "modern lite."
Modernism and primitivism were closely intertwined, and their storylines naturally evolved in tandem with one another. Like many contemporaneous political "isms" (nationalism, fascism, communism), the aesthetic narratives of the early twentieth century attempted to impose cohesion and coherence on a world perceived as hopelessly fragmented and senseless. Some of the earliest modernist "isms" (Impressionism, Fauvism, Cubism) were pejorative, invented by hostile critics; other terms, like Expressionism, were never fully embraced by the artists to whom they were applied. Nevertheless, as the twentieth century progressed, art historians found the various "isms" useful in bringing order to an ungainly welter of new styles, and in explaining these developments to a skeptical public. In 1935, Barr drew a famous diagram in which he charted the interactions among some two-dozen distinct modernist trends. All of them, he concluded, led to only two possible outcomes: "non-geometrical abstract art" and "geometrical abstract art." This attempt to turn a web of diverse artistic manifestations into a neat linear progression was taken up and decisively advanced by the influential postwar avatar of abstraction, Clement Greenberg. "Content," Greenberg decreed, "is to be dissolved so completely into form that the work of art or literature cannot be reduced in whole or in part to anything not itself."
Greenberg's credo was more than just a theory; it was used as a prescription for American cultural dominance in the Cold War era. By appropriating and fulfilling the abstractionist mandate, it was believed that America's artists could take the lead from Europe. This revised modernist narrative left almost no place for primitivism. Folk and tribal art largely reverted to the domain of anthropology. But contemporary domestic self-taught painters, while beloved by the general public, were exiled from both academia and the art establishment. It was not just that trained artists resented them (although this resentment was fierce enough to cost Barr his job in 1943). The realism favored by most of the Modern Primitives was deeply out of sync with the art world's abstractionist ethos. When a Grandma Moses exhibition toured Europe to great acclaim, some Americans were embarassed. The Europeans, wrote one such critic, "praise our naïveté and our integrity, but they begrudge us as a full sophisticated artistic expression. Grandma Moses represents both what they expect of us and what they are willing to grant us."
Nevertheless, modernism's growing acceptance--its commerical success and academic institutionalization--exacerbated the need for a pristine, cleansing "other." Even as primitivism faded from the official art scene in the United States, the concept was being reformulated by the French artist Jean Dubuffet. Echoing the prewar modernists' contempt for contemporary civilization, Dubuffet averred that, "Creative invention has surely no greater enemy than the social order, with all the appeals to adapt, to conform, to mimic." He advocated what he called "Art Brut" (raw art): art that evokes "humanity's first origins and the mose spontaneous and personal invention; works which the artist has entirely derived from his own sources." These were the same idealized values that had earlier been projected onto folk art, tribal art, children's drawings and the "naïfs," but Dubuffet ultimately decided that none of the forgoing genres qualified as propert Art Brut. He was looking for work that was completely untouched by "received culture" or preexisting tradition. This work was more driven by inward-looking visions, less connected to a commonly shared reality, than the art of the prewar Modern Primitives.
Although Dubuffet began collecting Art Brut in 1945, it was really only in the 1960s that the material began to reach a broader audience. Clearly Art Brut, with its counter-cultural stance, appealed to the antiestablishment mentality of that period. In 1964 Dubuffet began publishing a series of detailed monographs on each of the artists in his collection, and in 1967 the Musée des Arts Décoratifs in Paris mounted a major exhibtion of the work. However perhaps the mose singularly influential event, in terms of popularizing Art Brut, was the publication, in 1972, of Roger Cardinal's book Outsider Art. Cardinal's book was the first English-language study of Art Brut, but the title (chosen by his editior) was not a literal translation. Whereas the French term placed its emphasis on the object, "outsider" implicitly referenced the creator. Dubuffet had always been at pains to explain that Art Brut was not an art of mental illness, even if many of the works were created by socially marginalized individuals. Outsider Art, nonetheless, was often viewed largely in terms of biography.
Outsider Art eventually developed a wide following in the United States. As in Europe, awareness of this sort of work--by whatever name--had been growing since the 1960s. When the Museum of Early American Folk Art was founded in New York in 1961, it was commonly believed that all legitimate folk art had been eradicated by the industrial revolution. Nevertheless, Herbert Waide Hemphill, Jr., a voracious collector who was also a co-founder of the museum and its first curator, blithely ignored this premise. (The adjective "early" was dropped from the museum's name in 1996.) Not only did Hemphill collect contemporary work and present it at the museum, but he also stretched the definition of folk art itself. Whereas folklorists insist that folk art is communal (often utilitarian) in nature and traditional in form, Hemphill delighted in the idiosyncratic and the personal. In his 1974 book Twentieth-Century Folk Art and Artists (coauthored by Julia Weissman), he featured an array of works that ranged from conventional folk objects, such as duck decoys and weathervanes, to drawings by artists like Martín Ramírez and Joseph Yoakum, who fit more comfortably into the "outsider" paradigm.
In keeping witht he populist stance adopted by Cahill and Barr in the 1930s, Hemphill and others favored the term "folk," because put simply, this was the work of "truly American folk: everyday people out of ordinary life, who are generally unaware of and most certainly unaffected by the mainstream of professional art--its trained artists, trends, intentions, theories and developments." Far less doctrinaire than Dubuffet's approach. this viewpoint readily accommodated the work of African-American creators such as Bill Traylor and Sister Gertrude Morgan, who, while isolated from white society, were deeply in tune with the values of their own communities. Indeed the "outsider" label, explicitly premised on a mainstream white perspective, seemed offensive when applied to the art of African Americans. Nevertheless as a marketing concept, "outsider" had an appeal that vastly exceeded "folk" (incurably hampered by crafts associations) or the more pedestrian, if relatively neutral "self-taught." "Outsider" linked the European theory of Art Brut to values--like individual empowerment and disdain for arbitrary authority--that resonated deeply with the American public.
The debate over labeling--so widespread that by the late 1990s it was routinely referred to as "term warfare"--reflected the incipient failure of the underlying primitivist model. The non-western cultures once viewed as primitive had long since been returned to their original contexts, where they could be studied on their own terms rather than as projections of unrealistic ideals. Similarly, the actual contexts of the "domestic primitives" called out for recognition and respect. Even Dubuffet had to admit that there was no such thing as an art completely removed from received culture. The attributes once ascribed to "outsiders"--lack of influence, lack of development, lack of artistic intention--turned out in many cases to be self-fulfilling prophecies; not sought, and therefore not found. From Henri Rousseau to the present, the best self-taught artists have always been deply engaged in the creative process. It is this engagement that accounts for the quality of their work, that makes it art.
Once the primitivist overlay is removed from self-taught artists, all that remains to separate them from their trained colleagues is their relative distance from mainstream culture. But this distinction, too, has ceased to be terribly meaningful. "High" art no longer has a unified storyline against which the "other" may be juxtaposed. There hasn't been a new art-world "ism" since postmodernism, which in itself signaled the end of the modernist narrative. Instead of a strict linear trajectory, we now have a loose network of creative connections extending in all directions. The discourse has changed, admitting a plethora of elements once banned from the realm of "high" art. In the 1950s, Grandma Moses was chided for sprinkling glitter on her snow scenes, and Henry Darger, had he exhibited at the time, would have been dismissed for copying comic strips. Today trained artists use all manner of ephemeral craft materials, and pop culture serves as a common reference point in much the same way that Greek mythology once did. Of course, in any cultural discourse there will always be worthy creations that inadvertently get left out. But this is simply a mistake, not a matter of intrinsic significance.
The absence of any cohesive narrative shaping the twenty-first century aesthetic discourse creates its own set of possibilities and problems. The false, demeaning dichotomy that kept great self-taught artists from being recognized as the equals of their schooled peers has lost much of its former relevance. Without any fixed rules or heirarchies, all artists must be understood in terms of their specific contexts and goals, and evaluated based on whether those goals have been successfully achieved. But what, asks the British artist Grayson Perry (himself a master of formerly debased genres like pottery), if the artist's goal is to produce "a load of shit"? Art "seems to have become everything," Perry complains, and "the danger is that we've got no judgment on what is good." Sometimes it seems that the traditional arbiters of quality--the museums and the academy--have ceded their authority to the marketplace. The loss of the modernist narrative has left us curiously adrift. We need our stories, even if we know they are fables.