Outsider Art vs. Terminology vs. Real Art
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.