COMMENTARY: Starved of Inspiration, the Art World Plunders Outsider Art


Henry Darger “Lagorian Rangers Calverian Girl and Boy Scouts”

IT’S ONLY TRICKY TO DEFINE IF YOUR STARTING POINT IS SNOBBERY: Defining Outsider Art In Anticipation Of The Outsider Art Fair

An Outsider Art article. I have mixed feelings about some of the efforts depicted, but a strong sense the elitist media and arts establishment miss the point here.

In this interview there’s lots of preening, power flexing, and mutual ego stroking on display: “I bought the fair…the press couldn’t stop talking about how the work was so great…the significance of blue chip galleries…I think we’re certainly always looking to enhance the stature of outsider artists.”

As if being noticed by pompous players like this equals stature!

It may mean money for artists, which is good, but it reduces the whole enterprise of art to trophy hunting and status symbols, hinging on the approval and acceptance by a self-important few. The interviewed operator pays some lip service to breaking down the insider/outsider art distinctions, but in the end it’s all about servicing collectors. The Art Fair discussed in the sycophantic interview is being treated as a means to provide the establishment stamp of approval to those who lack the credentials elitists usually rely on as a substitute for achievement.  

The cultural institutions have destroyed their credibility with decades of appalling mismanagement, hyping ideas that have caused a crisis of relevance in the visual arts. So now, to try and revive the sense of liveliness they have smothered in the arts with their useless theories and biases, they need to reach outside their pedantic formulas, and acknowledge those who are working from true personal need and vision. But to what end? Just to have another product to sell.

The so-called outsiders are being summoned by jaded cosmopolitans desperately trying to associate themselves with something genuine. It’s like they’re trying to buy a soul. The elitists learn nothing from the motivation of these artists, the wisdom that comes with creatively documenting individual insights into life.

Art isn’t just a commodity, it is a view into the spirit of the culture. The art usually pushed by our institutions have spectacularly failed to provide that visionary experience to the general audience.

Co-opting the authenticity generated outside of elitist presumptions doesn’t address the fundamental decay at the heart of their hierarchies.


17 thoughts on “COMMENTARY: Starved of Inspiration, the Art World Plunders Outsider Art

  1. Thank you for this post. On the one hand, I do find it troubling that the galleries and dealers see the work of outsiders like Darger as product to move or exhibition worthy work to raise their own profile. On the other hand, I love Darger’s drawings and would have never heard of them without the dealers, curators, etc., so I have to thank them for that.

  2. It’s great to see them scrambling, finally. And some new works will be praised and paid for. But we, as painters, writers, dreamers, artists will never get paid for practicing joy. It’s like having satori in the garden, and then looking up for a signed check to fall from the sky. I might have similar work frustrations as you. Heck, paint costs money. I want to share the joy, have shows, inspire my friends and neighbors. But I sometimes think the culture is kaput. I don’t think that those even close to me can recognize a work of art—and I love these people! I don’t blame them for trying, though. The art market, elitism in all realities, must choose winners and losers in order to keep their jobs. If the MoMA says, “Hey, this Bledsoe has value,” you can bet that even your best friends will pay what they never would have before to hang one of your paintings above the mantle.
    I can experience more of these private joys, and hope the idea catches on.
    Thanks for the post.
    “It’s like they’re trying to buy a soul” Ha! Exactly.

  3. “Inside, outside, all around the town . . .” “Let’s give ’em something to talk about . . .” “What’s the buzz/Tell me what’s happening/What’s the buzz/Tell me what’s happening . . .” “. . . The record shows/I took the blows/And did it My Way.” Reading your fine polemic brought these concatenated song lyrics to mind, plus a polemical throwaway in a Heinlein novel: “A government-supported artist is an incompetent whore!”

    Recently someone made my day by calling me a “born artist.” Born artist or no, I’ve never been able to use my art to pay all my bills, though I have had a few lucky strikes. I hope to be entirely my-art-funded some day, and (shame!) hope to get one of those elitist Insiders to notice me and champion my work. It is probably ignoble to feel that way. I HOPE feeling that way never warps my work.

  4. It’s true that without some kind of system of presentation, we’d miss out on lots of interesting offerings. The issue is the attitude many of the participants of the scene hold towards their fellow citizens, their use of social status as a measure of human worthiness. The same people that would snap up works of an outsider artist are likely to contemptuously sneer at people that come from different backgrounds, or have different interests than bi-coastal cosmopolitan privileged class. The worst examples of bigotry and hostility I’ve ever witnessed have been from members of the creative class and their groupies, it’s disgusting.

  5. If the current ilk of the MoMA liked my work it would scare me, and let me know I was doing something wrong. But the culture is not kaput, it’s just been so lost for so long under the misguidance of educated fools, people are afraid of it, or assume it’s not for them. We can change this, it will take time, but it has begun.

  6. You definitely have a gift, worth pursuing, worth supporting. And I don’t think it’s ignoble to want to make a profession of your talent, it’s very natural. I want to unleash a wave of cultural renewal so intense they’ll be begging us to take their money. For this to work it has to be about the art first and foremost, I have faith the rest will follow.

  7. It’s so true and sad what you are saying. It seems to me I must have read long ago some commentary by someone about artists like Darger (maybe it wasn’t about him, actually, although I view him as being troubled, but about people who were institutionalized and how the art was later displayed and what sort of ethical questions were raised by that). And now there seem to be no ethics about anything at all. Maybe this is why people like Damien Hirst make such garbage. They might wonder what would be the point of making something more beautiful than sharks in acid water, or that perhaps that’s what the collectors deserve (aside from the audience stupid enough to pay admission to stare at that). Then there is the story of the artist who canned his excrement and it ultimately exploded in the museum’s collection. I don’t remember the name of that artist. I used to think it was all about just shocking the audience but perhaps it is also a gesture of contempt for the collectors, academics, and the critics of the art world.

  8. So refreshing to find someone questioning art-as-commodity. I’ve been living- and writing about it for about 10 years now, still trying to figure out how to dance with the market when necessary (this from an artist with a 40 year career behind her) . I so agree with what you say about outsider art being co opted by the system as a new product. Suzi Gablik said that an artist should always keep part of herself out of the marketplace.

    The whole landscape of art is changing now, veering toward more socially engaged work. I think the only way artists will be able to eventually live from their art will be when the society transitions to a more sustainable, humane way of being. In that case the sacred, the different, the transformative, enchanted, and beautifully crafted- will be seen as necessary!, not fringe to living a whole life.
    Still a ways to go!

  9. So much of the art hyped by the arts establishment is based on contempt but I think part of the appeal is the artist is inviting the collectors, academics and critics to share in the contempt towards life and reality, It’s meant to be a sign of their own self-declared superiority. It’s all so destructive of values and principles, and to what end? Who benefits from all this relentless undermining? Only those who want to impose their own brute power onto others.

  10. Reform is needed, but be cautious. There is a huge disconnect between the rhetoric and actions. The power brokers who talk about creating a more humane society to rope in followers are the ones most actively pursuing totalitarian tactics. They stir up idealism so we will buy what they’re selling. I agree that the transformative art is crucial to health of our culture, and I too see the change coming. Keep up your art and writing!

  11. Thanks Richard. Good point about the rhetoric and actions being a disconnect.
    The reform I’m talking about is still mostly below the radar and consists of edgy individual art actions involving some form of consciousness raising. They have at their heart generosity and connection, and usually disdain for the commercial. Like Lily Yeh, who goes to the world’s broken places and helps people heal through making beautiful mosaic monuments, murals, sculptures, etc. She founded the Village for Arts and Humanities in Philly. She has found, through experience, going in without an agenda, that when people create beauty- dignity and self empowerment aren’t far behind.

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