Do We Still Need to Defend Outsider Art?

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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