The raw and the cooked.
Based on some conversations I’ve had recently, I’ve been thinking about this idea of how being an “outsider” figures into SL art.
A little background: The term “outsider” sort of assumes there are two distinct groups of people who make art – those with formal training in the subject and those without. On the surface, this seems fair enough. But it gets a little tricky when you start to consider who has been dumped into that second category, which then breaks down into categories of its own. You have, among the leading lights of Outsider Art:
- Martin Ramirez, who lived much of his life in a mental institution.
- Ray Materson, a former inmate, who began creating obsessive works made from unraveled socks while incarcerated.
- Rev. Howard Finster, who claimed to create his work with the intercession of God.
…and on and on and on. What they have in common is that the creator of the work – beyond just this very simple definition of being “untrained” – has some sort of, shall we say, slippery relationship to the traditional notion of mental health. As a result, while it certainly has its admirers (I’m one of them), “Outsider Art” is a rather dubious category to get dumped in. Even efforts to save it, which seem to inevitably involve the argument that the work of “Outsiders” is somehow “more pure” than those of us who went to school for art and take our medication, because (as the argument goes) the Outsider is creating art which ignores the marketplace and influence of art history and instead privileges that which expresses an inner, emotional, private world.
I’m an eternal optimist, so I generally think that the invention of the category of “Outsider” was well-intentioned; it sought to bring to the fore the work of people who might otherwise be dismissed because of their lack of training. Unfortunately – and this is just the way things go, I suppose – the term is now almost fetishized by collectors and dealers who rally to the cause of this “pure” art and use the term as a marketing tool. And as someone who has an MFA, I find it sort of disheartening to think that my work is considered somehow “less pure” because I chose to take that route.
All of this – the popularity of the term “Outsider,” the reconsideration of “Outsider Art,” and the underlying current of distrust towards “Insider Art” – feeds into these conversations I’ve been having with SL artists about their work. And while SL artists (and their supporters) may feel a well-intentioned affinity to the work of Outsiders, that connection is extremely limited at best.
SL seems to draw to it its own two, distinct categories of artists – those who are artists/academics/MFAs in real life and those who are not. For a couple of years now, the two groups have more or less peacefully coexisted but more and more I see them bumping up against each other. In private conversations, the MFAs are branded (by those who don’t have that background) as condescending, patronizing, and arrogant, whereas the un-MFAs are considered anti-intellectual and a detriment to the wide-scale acceptance of SL art by the RL artworld.
Neither of these charges is really all that untrue, but they’re unfortunate. And I see what’s being proposed as a kind of middle ground (and I’ve done this in conversations as well as I’ve heard others do it) is to recast the unMFAs as Outsiders – totally outside of some sort of mainstream conversation about art, immune to the marketplace, and somehow therefore more pure. While I see this sort of compromise as being well-meaning, it also conjures up some of the worst stereotypes of people who spend a lot of time in SL (mainly, that we’re all a bunch of weird and mentally unstable types) and despite its best intentions, it comes across as both demeaning to the artists it attempts to describe as well as to those that it excludes (the idea that AM Radio’s work is “less pure” because he went to art school is silly, at best).
So maybe the best comparison to draw is not to compare SL artists to Outsider Artists, but to think instead of an example of (for instance) the Quilters of Gee’s Bend. The story of the quilters is legendary to anyone who likes to root for an underdog: A group of women in the deep South, without any knowledge or exposure to Modernist art, created a vast collection of beautifully designed quilts which – and this is the fun part – engage color, shape and abstraction in exactly the same way those Modernist artists would… only they did it with cloth and thread and either did it before their contemporaries in the artworld did it in oil paint on canvas, or concurrent to that work. You’d have to be pretty heartless to look at their work and consider it to be anything but a legitimate work of art, even if it’s taken a little while for the canon to catch up with them.
I think that coming up with this entirely separate category – like “craft” or “design” just as examples – could really be the answer to all of this. I doubt anyone thinks of an Eames chair as being more or less “pure” than the work of Damien Hirst – the two are simply in completely different categories. And while you might go to the American Museum of Art and Design and see an embroidery that specifically refers to a work of contemporary art (this is not rare: more and more MFA/classically trained artists are embracing these sorts of techniques while also not abandoning their training), it may easily be hanging next to a similar piece that has no such connection to “high art” but instead references the history of craft (or something else entirely). Each piece has to be taken individually; in interpreting it, bringing in and referencing outside trends in fine art, design, popular culture, and the like is not frowned upon. Which is to say that the conversation about this kind of work generally isn’t only about other works of art, but the culture in which it exists as a whole – which frankly seems to me to be a better, more reasonable way of discussing just about any kind of art.
Taking this strategy will be most threatening to the SL MFAs, as it suddenly makes them not the prevailing experts on the topic. I’m personally ok with that; others won’t be. But I like it as an acknowledgment that in this field, none of the rules are set and it’s impossible to be an expert on the topic. It’s what makes SL art criticism tough, but also what makes it fun.