Reactor

Do We Still Need to Defend Outsider Art?

by Jillian Steinhauer on July 22, 2013

Ralph Fasanella, "American Tragedy" (detail) (1964), oil on canvas, 40 x 90 inches / 101.6 x 228.6 cm (photo by the author for Hyperallergic)

Ralph Fasanella, “American Tragedy” (detail) (1964), oil on canvas, 40 x 90 inches / 101.6 x 228.6 cm (photo by the author for Hyperallergic)

Apparently we do. From an art critic, of all people.

In last week’s Village Voice, critic Christian Viveros-Faune wrote what would have been a great review of the current Llyn Foulkes retrospective at the New Museum — if he hadn’t started the piece with an inexplicable three-paragraph screed against outsider art. “Outsider art is the new blue-chip art,” he begins. “Or so various New York insiders would have you believe.”

From these opening insinuations of a shadowy conspiracy, he continues:

From this summer’s Venice Biennial (curated by the New Museum’s Director of Exhibitions Massimiliano Gioni) to yards of boosterish column inches in the normally dry-eyed New York Times, a consensus has been reached that declares “Art Brut”—artist Jean Dubuffet’s raffish euphemism for insane-asylum art—visual culture’s pole star for the coming century. That’s Gotham tastemakers in a nutshell—nine times out of 10, they mistake a power play for the plot.

So far, not so bad. The tone is obnoxious, but he’s only accusing some art dealers of a power play. Unfounded, maybe, but not anger-inducing. No, that comes in the next two paragraphs, which I’m quoting almost in full here:

A market tale very much like the vogue for primitive art in the 1990s, the current excitement over minor artists like Southern folk fave Bill Traylor …, the Italian-American Marino Auriti, and the Chicago-born doll-fancier Morton Bartlett …, answers to an exhaustion with slick commercialism and multi-venue extravaganzas orchestrated for financial juggernauts like Damien Hirst …, Jeff Koons …, and Paul McCarthy …. In place of big shiny baubles, today’s “raw art” craze promotes unskilled stuff by Sunday painters, stitching septuagenarians, and religious cranks.

Virtually all of these artists’ works confirm rather than challenge the normal functioning of conventional commerce (as the spike in their prices illustrates). Their position toward the market is, after all, like their attitude toward art: naive. But even as ventriloquized by their well-connected cheerleaders, outsider art—in its gullible guilelessness—has precious little to say about our time’s most pressing issues: among them, the world’s festering economic malaise, perma-political protests, and the continual downsizing of the culture’s middle classes (bye-bye modest recording artist, so long mid-tier galleries). They also have little to say about contemporary art itself. Equally convenient—today’s new art market stars are either dead, mentally impaired, or can barely speak for themselves.

Upon first reading, I had to revisit that last line to make sure I hadn’t misread it. Is Viveros-Faune really saying it’s convenient that these artists are dead, mentally impaired, or can’t speak for themselves? He may theoretically be couching those descriptors in terms of the artists’ market success, but with the alliterative “Sunday painters, stitching septuagenarians, and religious cranks” of the earlier paragraph, he loses any claim to good faith. This is condescension and crudeness to the point of being offensive.

Winfred Rembert, “All Me II” (2002), dye on carved and tooled leather, 31 1/2 x 37 3/4 in (click to enlarge) (image via Flint Institute of Arts)

Winfred Rembert, “All Me II” (2002), dye on carved and tooled leather, 31 1/2 x 37 3/4 in (image via Flint Institute of Arts) (click to enlarge)

The thing is, somewhere in there, Viveros-Faune has a point — an actual good one. His contention that the current appreciation of outsider art stems from an “exhaustion with [the] slick commercialism” of much of the contemporary art world is spot on. Exploring the ways in which this has played out — the art world’s supreme embrace, possibly to the point of exploitation, of a figure like Forrest Bess; the way contemporary market pressures influence a working artist’s output — would be fascinating. Instead, he resorts to name calling, and then he goes off the rails.

He basically faults outsider artists for the fact that their work has begun selling well, because it “confirm[s] … conventional commerce.” According to this guideline, any artist whose work has ever sold according to the standard dictates of the market should be written off. Yet he goes on, at the end of the review, to forgive Foulkes for just such a trespass:

His showmanship and criticality may not inure him from being grist for the great corporate cultural mill, but it makes any thinking person who experiences his eye-goggling, brain-jarring attractions know perfectly well which side this artist is on.

Viveros-Faune pins this on intention, “that key notion that sends outsider-art lovers running for the aisles,” in his words. Because Foulkes positions himself a certain way in relation to the art world and market, it’s okay if his work sells; because outsider artists are too naive to do so, it’s not okay if theirs does.

Viveros-Faune isn’t the first observer to make this distinction — others, including gallerist Ed Winkleman, have posited something similar. But I’m not convinced. As I’ve written before, novelists and poets have written pages and locked them away in drawers until their deaths; that’s never stopped the work from being accepted as art and selling posthumously. Plus, intentions are private and slippery — most people have trouble pinning down their own, let alone someone else’s. If we accept, rather, that art is made from some kind of basic impulse to create, to translate thoughts, visions, and ideas into physical form, then art is simply art. The market, for many outsider artists, is secondary. Why is that a problem? Why is it particularly a problem now that the market has embraced them?

The other thing Viveros-Faune gets wrong is his assertion that outsider art “has precious little to say about our time’s most pressing issues.” Sure, much outsider art is not straightforwardly political; most often, it doesn’t hit us over the head with social messages. But the generalization falls apart when considering the marvelous paintings of socially conscious self-taught artist Ralph Fasanella, which were recently on view at Andrew Edlin Gallery, or the eerily exuberant dye-on-leather pieces of Winfred Rembert, whose art draws on his experiences of racism and slavery. These artists may not be making work about Occupy, but as any historian will tell you, you can’t understand the present without looking at the past.

Martín Ramírez, "Untitled (Train and Tunnels)"  (c. 1952–53), graphite, tempera, and crayon on paper, 36 x 99.25 in / 91.4 x 252.1 cm (via Ricco/Maresca

Martín Ramírez, “Untitled (Train and Tunnels)” (c. 1952–53), graphite, tempera, and crayon on paper, 36 x 99.25 in / 91.4 x 252.1 cm (via Ricco/Maresca)

Even the work of a seemingly apolitical outsider such as Martín Ramírez resonates with a kind of vertiginous loneliness, especially when you connect it to his life story: he came to the US from Mexico in search of work, was rendered homeless by the Depression, and spent the rest of his life in mental institutions where he couldn’t communicate with anyone. To say that art like this has nothing to tell us about our politics and times is to exhibit the kind of naivety of which Viveros-Faune accuses the artists themselves. Politics is a human affair; those “perma-political protests” are enacted by people. About them and their condition, outsider art has much to say.

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  • Dain Q. Gore

    Thank you for writing this article. Outsider art will always be worthy of defense, because raw visions are to be at the least shared, if not celebrated outright.

    • Jon Timmble

      hmmmmmmmm…raw visions?

      • Dain Q. Gore

        Couldn’t resist :)

  • Anon123

    Clearly he’s not saying it’s not convenient for the artists, rather it’s convenient for the dealers –they are the ventriloquists who speak to collectors, the press, etc. for these artists. They try to pass their own voices off as the artists’ own, and the artists are not able (for whatever reason) to disagree. Viveros-Faune is not faulting the artists for having made work that sells, and I don’t read him as making a value judgment. I read him as making a distinction.

    It is not a value judgment to say that the work of outsider artists is a different market from that of contemporary artists, but that Foulkes’ style represents a visual connection between the two markets, but that Foulkes is — individually and directly, not through a dealer who will translate the work for us — engaged in a certain kind of critical conversation, which places his work in a specific and narrowly defined market for contemporary art. If Viveros-Faune “blames” anyone, it is the dealers making a market in so-called Outsider Art by putting words in the mouths of those artists.

    And FWIW, I don’t read him as having any issue with the fact that there are people who appreciate the work enough to want to buy it. To describe a difference between A and B is not to elevate A above B, or vice versa. Viveros-Faune is an informed critic who expresses his opinion. If he likes chocolate better than he likes vanilla, and if he gives reasons for why he likes chocolate better, it doesn’t necessarily mean that he thinks vanilla, and the orchids from which the vanilla beans come, are somehow less or worse. It is to say that he thinks they are different. You may (and obviously do) disagree with him, but that doesn’t make V-F’s expression “obnoxious.”

    • Jillian Steinhauer

      Viveros-Faune is an informed critic, and in that he’s also a writer, so he knows full well the value of words. And I find his words here to be overwhelmingly obnoxious. I think you may be right—that he’s trying to fault the dealers and the market—but if that’s really the case, he’s done it so clumsily that he’s written off the artists, too.

      What’s more, I think if you’re really going to take dealers of outsider art to task, you need a lot more of a precise argument than this one. To write them all off as having bad intentions means you dismiss any situation in which outsider artists would be “allowed” to sell. If he wants to actually make the argument that outsider art dealers are exploitative, he should, carefully. But he hasn’t in this piece.

  • Gavin Mann

    Very interesting article.

  • quilla

    None of what Viveros-Faune says is new in any way. Glad Jillian Steinhauer took him to task here. Am thinking he is young?

  • Ed McDevitt

    Aside from the deep condescension of the article, I’m very put off by the truly narrow scope that Viveros-Faune assigns to art. He says: “But even as ventriloquized by their well-connected cheerleaders, outsider art—in its gullible guilelessness—has precious little to say about our time’s most pressing issues: among them, the world’s festering economic malaise, perma-political protests, and the continual downsizing of the culture’s middle classes (bye-bye modest recording artist, so long mid-tier galleries).” Since when has art’s single purview been to say anything about pressing issues? Has a politburo been appointed to vet insider and outsider art using such criteria?

    Viveros-Faune’s critique is, unfortunately, typical of increasingly narrow, insular and often wooden-eyed art criticism in our time. Part of the blame for the trend lies in the deletion of trained art critics from newspaper and magazine staffs and in the subsequent solicitation of piece-work from pedestrian stringers with little appreciation or understanding of art. Some of the phenomenon derives from critics with political axes to grind or personal animosities to air. And some resides in a critic’s lofty haughtiness from which he feels it his right merely to dismiss without acquainting us with the terms of dismissal. Such critics cast no light on the topic of dismissal, being more interested in keeping attention focused on themselves and their importance.

    Fie on them. If they so need attention, let them find a pool in which to gaze at themselves and leave us out of the gazing.

  • monica

    i think you’re really missing the tone of v-f’s piece here. you really don’t detect any deep irony here?

    • Jillian Steinhauer

      No. Where is the irony?

  • Donald Mrkacek

    I never really understood the label Outsider, but I do understand why critics and collectors refuse to refer to it as intuitive, the equity of the insurance policies or contracts with the banks, good luck.

  • Brian Fernandes-Halloran

    This gets to the heart of why the term outsider art can be some problematic (lame). Because he isn’t talking about outsider art. He is talking about what the art market has chosen as good marketable outsider art. He is indirectly criticizing the system that values, selects and inevitably ranks outsider artists, isolates them from their origins and community, incorrectly labels them and places them in a ridiculous historical context. Outsider art is a shifting insider definition of its antithesis. First its the crazys, then the primitives, now I its the uneducated and unpolished. (Its always had some notion as being exotic from a western upper class perspective) But when the art world defines work by being outside of its civilized(yuk) confines, it should forfeit any entitlement to judge the work after placing it in white cubes (or cubicles if its an art fair) I know it’s silly to talk about the art world as a single body, we are all individuals after all. This is what the term outsider art does. It places this border around the inside stuff and asks us to gaze outside. We can still though colonize those savages and pick the good ones who show primal (raw) artistic aptitude to put their work on our walls. Ewwwwww what are we doing!

  • http://hragv.com Hrag Vartanian

    Critic Christian Viveros-Faune, who explained he was unable to post in the comments section, asked that the following he posted on his behalf:

    Jillian,

    I’m glad that you got so exercised about outsider art that you decided to come to its defense — it’s a discussion worth having, especially now as I think those artists or rather their estates are being used by an art market that continues to expand and is essentially looking for new shores to conquer and financialize. I’m not so glad that the lather you worked yourself up into made you utterly misread perfectly direct language on the subject. Anon123 is right: I obviously don’t “basically fault outsider artists for selling well,” especially when I say, in the same paragraph, no less, that one of the problems with outsider art is that the vast majority of those artists can’t speak for themselves. I fault, instead, a 1%ers art market and a critical establishment that unthinkingly (and ahistorically) embraces artists with virtually no agency — the latter being, in my book, a decisive if not the decisive aspect of art making since it quit being religious illustration. The other thing that people miss with outsider art (admittedly the term works best as a marketing category, but there doesn’t seem to be a better one around) is that in an overwhelming number of cases, outsider artists don’t even intend to make art (Adolf Wolffli, Henry Darger, The Philadelphia Wireman, Charles A.A. Dellschau, Martin Ramirez … the list is as long as is the history of outsider art’s middlemen), which for me is a basic metric. Without that intention, like with the posthumous novels or memoirs of dead writers, as you rightly point out — but even more so—that art and those artists are totally at the mercy of interpreters. As a member of the interpreting class, I personally find that situation to be ethically problematic and ripe for abuse and, quite often, condescension passing as appreciation. As for my writing being obnoxious, well, what can I say — obviously, it’s not for you. Thankfully, I can take some refuge in my inbox, which tells me an awful lot of people liked the article you hated.

    Best,

    CVF

  • Helen Glazer

    I read the piece above, then I read the comments, then I read the original article, and I have to say, Mr. Viveros-Faune has a point. Maybe not the one about outsider artists not having anything to say about political and social conditions, but he’s onto something about the way such art is marketed as by definition more “authentic” than art by people who see themselves as part of an artistic tradition and profession, such as Llyn Foulkes. Living as I do in Baltimore, home to the American Visionary Art Museum, I have mixed feelings about the way “outsider art” is presented there and elsewhere. On the one hand, I’m all for recognizing and appreciating striking artworks, whether they come from a folk tradition, a university trained artist or someone who like Mr. V-F says, didn’t even think they were making art. On the other hand, I’m made very uncomfortable with the romanticization of mental illness, psychic pain, and yes, social isolation and dysfunction engaged in by the champions of this work. I will never forget a visit to a local talk show by a couple who were collectors of outsider art promoting their recent book on the subject, and the disturbing way they spoke about the people with clear delight on how wacky they were. They spoke about one of the artists, an 80 year old woman who lived in Chicago and suffered from mental illness. She had a studio apartment, but she preferred to sleep outdoors on the sidewalks because she said she was more comfortable there. Pretty much nothing short of deep snow on the ground make her grudgingly sleep indoors. This was presented as an amusing and daring eccentricity on the order of, say, dying her hair pink, and not the alarmingly dangerous compulsion that it was. I was horrified by their attitude. That was an extreme example, but it seemed a piece of how they viewed these people. But look, that romanticization permeates our culture with regard to other artists, too, not just of the “outsider” variety — the idea that being on the edge of sanity or having a horrible substance abuse problem or otherwise living in a way that recklessly endangers your life makes you a more interesting and marketable artist. There are lots of examples.

  • gricha16

    Hi! thanks for this article. I try to developp a website about outsider art in France. I need your feedback, please tell me what you think about this ! http://www.gricha-rosov.com

  • Cat Weaver

    This quote from CVF displays the PINNACLE of art snobbery: the notion that art, in order to be valid, must have something to “say
    about our time’s most pressing issues; among them, the world’s festering
    economic malaise, perma-political protests, and the continual
    downsizing of the culture’s middle classes (bye-bye modest recording
    artist, so long mid-tier galleries).”

    This is a new(ish) and very annoying art critic formula: equate “depth” with politics and politics with the issues which YOU focus on and deem worthy. IT’s just stupid. Minimalists cared about color and form, Cubists cared about new ways to depict things, esp: pipes, wine bottles, and women, Jeff Koons made it just dandy to attach all sorts of deep notions about the human condition to our banal objectifications; so many artists, key to our appreciation of art and art history, had little to nothing to say abut “our times most pressing issues” and a lot to say about what we see, how we see it, and how to depict (or thwart) those POVs.

    Similarly, issues about “depth” have been taken up as a cudgel against non-academic art — as if visual art could not be valid if it is first and foremost “visual”; and as if these art-snob blockheads could perceive nothing meaningful in life and its accoutrements, love and its complications, light and its dance, and the things we become obsessed with — death, love, religion, war, science, numbers, color, texture, chores, skies, pies, lies, flies…

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