On a brisk Minnesota evening this past January, after a screening of a documentary about the guerrilla billboard artist Ron English at the Bell Auditorium, I bumped into an artist acquaintance at the Loring Pasta Bar. He had been subject of a story I’d written more than five years ago about local outsider artists , a story that had concluded that there was not a particularly strong tradition of such art here in the land of Lutheranism and lutefisk. (This was before the opening of Yuri Araj’sOutsiders and Others gallery in Minneapolis, which has greatly expanded the local outsider art market by identifying all manner of “outsider” artmakers in other professions, such as lawyers, musicians, and police officers, who may never before have thought of being in an art show; more on this below.)
The artist, let’s call him Chad, talked with me for awhile over drinks about this and that—how we were doing and what was new—but when the conversation turned to outsider art he grew animated. He’d been spending a lot of time on the topic in chat room discussions of late, he said, and he had a burning question he wanted to have answered: With the rise of internet technology and the instant availability of information on art and all things under the ether, is it even possible for there to be outsider artists now?
“Think about that,” he said slyly, “and email me what you think.”
A few days later I returned to Pittsburgh, to my confused life of case studies, mission statements, survey writing, group research projects, leadership training, and endless reading, writing, meeting, and power-point lectures. I promptly forgot the outsider artist question until a few weeks ago, when I happened to catch Henry Darger, Highlights from the American Folk Art Museum at Pittsburgh’s Andy Warhol Museum. This show of Darger’s work was so evocative and intriguing that I was finally inspired to make a stab at Chad’s question.
THE TERM “OUTSIDER ART” is a complicated one to define, as it’s widely applied and often misused. Art sellers have learned through the years that the public appreciates the idea of artists who are untainted by modern culture or artistic training. There is a general notion that art made by “outsiders” is more pure, free, and preternaturally inspired than art made by trained artists, and that trained artists are somehow tainted by their ambitions, the market, education, the pursuit of money, and so on.
The term “outsider art” is thought to have been coined by art critic Roger Cardinal in 1972. He used the term as an English synonym for Art Brut (“raw” or “rough art”), French artist Jean Dubuffet’s term for art created by insane-asylum inmates, interest in which developed in the 1920s, after the 1921 publication of Dr. Walter Morgenthaler’s Ein Geisteskranker als Künstler (“A Psychiatric Patient as Artist”), which focused on his mental patient Adolf Wölfli. Wölfi had spontaneously taken up drawing after being confined to Morgenthaler’s asylum, and the activity seemed to calm him. Wölfli’s most noteworthy work is an illustrated epic of 45 volumes (with 25,000 pages, 1,600 illustrations, and 1,500 collages) in which he compulsively depicts his own imaginary life story.
Jean Dubuffet was inspired by this work to begin his own collection of such art, known as the Collection de l'Art Brut. Dubuffet had strong ideas about how Art Brut was different from, and more pure than, what he called “cultural art”:
"Those works created from solitude and from pure and authentic creative impulses—where the worries of competition, acclaim and social promotion do not interfere–are, because of these very facts, more precious than the productions of professions. After a certain familiarity with these flourishings of an exalted feverishness, lived so fully and so intensely by their authors, we cannot avoid the feeling that in relation to these works, cultural art in its entirety appears to be the game of a futile society, a fallacious parade."
Outsider art today usually encompasses more than this, including self-taught, “naïve,” spiritually inspired, or rural art makers who were never institutionalized. Outsider artists are presumed to have had little or no contact with the institutions of the mainstream art world, and they employ unique materials or fabrication techniques and a simplified, expressive style. Much outsider art illustrates extreme mental states, deep spiritual awareness, unconventional ideas, compulsive or repetitive marks or patterns, or elaborate fantasy worlds.
The current interest in “outsider” practices among artists, critics, and, most recently, collectors may be seen as part of a larger emphasis on the rejection of established cultural values that came out of Modernism and associated avant-garde art movements. Many early and mid-century artists looked outside the traditions of high culture for inspiration, drawing from the artifacts of “primitive” societies, the unschooled artwork of children, and advertising graphics.
In recent years, outsider art has emerged as a very successful niche art market in New York. For instance, an annual Outsider Art Fair has taken place there since 1992, and the American Folk Art Museum has grown into a respected institution in the city.
The term “outsider art” now is often misapplied as a catch-all marketing label for art created by artists seeking to exploit the idea of themselves as “outside the art world.” In many ways, it’s difficult to see how the Outsider art market today differs from the market of art by trained artists; both are populated by people with personal economic agendas, cynical marketing ploys, and big-ticket art fairs that attract collectors simply looking for good investment opportunities.
FOR THOSE OF YOU WHO MAY NOT KNOW Henry Darger’s story, there’s no doubt that he was, at the time of his death at 81 in 1973, a legitimate outsider artist. A reclusive and seemingly simple-minded janitor who lived in a Chicago poorhouse, Darger made his work in absolute isolation, and only for his own purposes. In fact, one of Darger’s few social acquaintances, his landlord, learned that Darger made art only after entering the artist’s apartment after his death and finding stacks of drawings and other materials.
Darger’s cluttered and colorful images—sexually strange and obsessive--are made by someone who has no idea he is making art. Though there’s no way to date his images, Darger seemingly worked on his most significant series—which depicts an epic struggle between the race of picture-perfect “Vivian girls” and a race of evil, mortarboard-clad soldiers called the Glandelinians—for more than forty years. The images are fantastic though repetitive, with elements obviously cribbed from mid-century children’s picture books and other mass media. What’s remarkable about them is there is no self-consciousness or cynical opportunism. The series of drawings simply is what it is, with all its imperfection and senseless disorder and illogical narrative, made for the eyes of the artist alone.
Pinpointing the reasons why Darger’s work seems so authentically creative and untainted is tricky. First and foremost, probably, there’s the sheer compulsiveness of the images. Girls are carefully copied from sketches made from images in books and catalogues, the stories in the images repeat and refold without ever actually getting anywhere or coming to a conclusion, and the images come back to the same two or three themes over and over. But perhaps just as oddly authentic is Darger’s obvious lack of awareness of potential subtexts in his images. The girls, innocent and idyllic, are preyed upon by the creepy older men—choked and shot at and lynched and killed. The girls also very often appear naked, and, oddly, they often sport penises. (Gender is inexplicably not consistent in the images, and there is every reason to speculate that Darger’s sexual awareness is as nonexistent as his awareness of art-making.) In the end, because of the images’ obvious obtuseness, their lack of guile, and lack of sense of competition or awareness of what anyone else will think of them, these works come across as purely and wholly creative—just as Dubuffet defined Art Brut.
BUT TO RETURN TO CHAD’S QUESTION, I got to thinking about such artists as Darger in the modern age of internet and wireless and email and other interconnectedness. Would Darger have still been able to make his art had he known more about what the world thought—about art, sexuality, etc?
We’ll never know for sure, but we can predict that the answer would be both “yes” and “no.” And we can say this because of Eugene Andolsek, one contemporary Henry Darger that some friends in Pittsburgh discovered through a complicated, web-based pipeline. Eugene, who is now in his 70s, worked like Darger for many years out of inner compulsion, and to exorcise inner demons of depression and mental illness and escape from the trials of his tedious day job. Like Darger, Andolsek was able to do his work for many years without being suspected of being an artist.
The difference is, and perhaps this is the difference in our contemporary, interconnected times, outsider artists now are discovered before their death. Andolsek’s work was recently featured in a group show at the American Craft Museum called Obsessive Drawing, and someone is now working on a quick, DVD-format documentary film about him (more about this in later columns). Meanwhile, the work of many “outsider” artists in Minnesota is readily available for viewing, thanks to the Outsider and Others gallery, which not only outsidersandothers.org/past.htm archives its shows online, but puts out calls to artists for its future shows on its website.
So, Chad, in the end, I guess the answer is: Yes. You can be an outsider artist in this interconnected contemporary age--just not for very long.
Michael Fallon is a critic and founding member of the Visual Arts Critics Union of Minnesota (VACUM). He publishes in arts journals and lives in temporary exile from Minnesota.