Because I never got my MFA and this can and possibly does (in ways never put into writing or spelled out, of course) affect my status as an artist, I am intrigued by the concept that art which does not evolve from formal training is often referred to as, “Outsider Art”. In Europe such art is referred to as “Autodidactic” and while this seems a more genteel term, it it testimony to the notion that a degree can validate the work and that there are terms which act as fences between two groups.

I have studied art my whole life but not always within the parameters of a formal degree program. I just take classes here and there and read whatever I find. This haphazardery means there are places which will not look at my work, my CV having preceded me thus trumpeting that missing batch of capital letters. Also perplexing; outsider art is often used to refer to persons working with certain materials like, glass, ceramics, and the like.

I have discussed this phenomenon with friends; preparators at prestigious museums, super-credentialed fellow artists, professors at weighty art schools, and the consensus seems to be that it is the integrity and conceptual intent of the work rather than the educational background that is of utmost importance.

So who then is making such distinctions? Well, word is that this is what some grant programs use as criteria for narrowing down applicants. And that’s another discussion best covered if one were to get jurors at granting organizations to speak anonymously.

Meanwhile my friend Chris Willingham, Adjunct professor of Art at HCC; Milton Avery Graduate School of the Arts, Bard College, Annandale, NY, MFA Sculpture, 2000; Massachusetts College of Art, Boston, MA, BFA, Art History (Concentrations: Non-Western Art, Critical Theory), 1996, Painting, 1995; Greenfield Community College, Greenfield, MA, AS Art, 1991 emailed me the following in a discussion about insider vs. outsider art:

“These labels (Outsider, Folk, Naive, etc) are a mendacious attempt by the intelligentsia to recoup a perceived purity as commodity and evidence of their own of broad-minded integrity… Cultural fetishism masquerading as noblesse oblige— makes me sick. Outsider artists are not to be envied (they’re often destitute, dysfunctional or insane) and they certainly can’t be imitated; Folk and Naive artists have a mediumistic purity that emerges from the basic primitive need to make a mark and any resemblance to conventions is coincidental or an honest distortion.

My feeling is that it is disingenuous for the academy, the market or any coterie of status-seekers to drive a style into that area– it’s not authentic and in the case of those of us who know better, it devalues our own motivations and cheapens the work, not to mention the insult to true artists of other types. In a way, its like the old aesthetic argument against white people playing the blues: if you’re not born to it, you can’t do it. Of course, that’s not always true, but the relatively limited number of exceptions may prove the rule. Praise and testimony given in interpretation may be eloquent, but not authentic.

As Arthur Danto (recommended reading) the aesthetic philosopher has observed, a quotation can never be profound, or if it is, that fact owes to the conditions of the quote, the act of which itself has no intrinsic content because it functions as a stop-gap in the absence of a meaning emergent from its natural source. So I say make the work that makes your life meaningful and let others interpret it as they may– “Posterity makes the masterpiece” (Marcel Duchamp). Be yourself and be proud. In my case, I’m white and I’m lame– and when I play the blues it only sounds soulful when I’m playing with the full awareness of my limitations and go on singing anyway.”

Point taken and from a lot of formal education.


  1. Clearly you have a brutish naivete-
    From Wikipedia:
    The term Outsider Art was coined by art critic Roger Cardinal in 1972 as an English synonym for Art Brut (which literally translates as “Raw Art” or “Rough Art”), a label created by French artist Jean Dubuffet to describe art created outside the boundaries of official culture; Dubuffet focused particularly on art by insane asylum inmates.

    While Dubuffet’s term is quite specific, the English term “Outsider Art” is often applied more broadly, to include certain self-taught or Naïve art makers who were never institutionalized. Typically, those labeled as Outsider Artists have little or no contact with the institutions of the mainstream art world; in many cases, their work is “discovered” only after their deaths. Much Outsider Art illustrates extreme mental states, unconventional ideas, or elaborate fantasy worlds.

    Outsider Art has emerged as a successful art marketing category (an annual Outsider Art Fair has taken place in New York since 1992); thus the term is sometimes misapplied as a catch-all marketing label for art created by people outside the “art world” mainstream, regardless of their circumstances or the content of their work.

  2. testing the comments thing.

  3. The problem about “inside art” and “outside” art is all about power.
    This has existed for centuries and is not a new problem. Wagner’s
    opera, Die Meistersinger, is about that subject. The singers/composers
    were hide bound by a set of rules on how to compose and they judged the
    upstart, Walther, as too radical and disqualified him. Eventually, with
    help, he became winner of the contest and the bride. The opera was
    based on Nurenberg in the 1500s and drew on the life of Hans Sachs, one
    of the actual Meistersingers at the time. See Meistersinger in Wikipedia.

    There were many guilds like this for arts, and crafts during the middle
    ages and renaissance. Barrel making was one of them and Wagner got his
    idea from a story about the barrel making guild by E.T.A. Hoffman, who
    had researched that guild. The guilds set standards, much like our city
    codes for plumbing and wiring, but they also worked to keep away
    competitions, just as our licensing of plumbers and electricians does.

    Music, painting, and other arts, even writing were just coming into the
    colleges and universities when I was a student and there was a lot of
    furor about that, which in many ways was correct. Scientific research
    in the university is about new discoveries and invention. But
    Humanities research is about discovering relationships in material that
    already exists. One is forward looking and the other backward looking;
    the backward looking stance is about new interpretation or understanding.

    The argument against having the creative arts in universities stems from
    having frozen standards in place. Universities do not foster creation;
    they only spread knowledge about creation. I remember vividly the
    argument that university doctoral music programs should be about history
    and not creation — that a D. F. A. in music or a Mus Doc was a
    ridiculous notion and that composer and performer training should be
    left to conservatories that were competent to train in those fields.
    There is a lot to be said for that notion; the best known university
    program is at Indiana University, which does a creditable if somewhat
    pedestrian job of training pianists and violinists and conductors, but
    the best come from Juilliard and perhaps Eastman. Only those schools
    produce world class performers. I must note, however, that power play
    enters into this game, even at that level. There is a track that the
    top performers get on that is an open secret; they have to spend time
    with the right teachers, who “place” them in situations that promote
    their careers. The teachers have special reputations and special
    contacts with the concert promoters and recording companies. The
    promoters and record companies trust these teachers to send up the very
    best. Who can say whether it is power play or best judgment that comes
    into question here?

    It is a truism in academic grantsmanship that it is extremely difficult
    to get that first grant, but afterward they come more easily. First,
    the grantors don’t always know the field and they use any sort of
    screening device they can to weed out applicants (absolute deadlines,
    etc.[note that the army and navy rejected pilot applicants with flat
    feet or bad teeth in WWII because they had so many applicants, who
    abhored trench warfare, that they needed to make judgment less
    difficult] ).

    After a few grants have been won, foundations base their judgment in
    part on the fact that other foundations have awarded the individual and
    thus the individual must be worthy — time saving and decision worries

    I know nothing about art museum curating other than that most of the
    curators have academic training in art — again backward looking. There
    must be some who can spot a new artist worthy of display, but there must
    also be many who use lack of credentialing as a way of reducing the pile
    without even spending the time to consider the work. It is most
    unfortunate, but life is unfair; I’m not so certain that “genius will
    always out.”

    But you knew all this. Maybe a detail or two from the music side of
    things might interest you. Yvonne and Betsy are visual artists; I am
    unqualifiedly not. I am not a visual person and there was no
    consciousness of art in my life until I met Yvonne’s family. For me it
    is music and literature that captures my imagination, along with
    mechanisms and aviation.

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