In Through the Out Door
Published in Crafts Magazine in 2016, in response to the exhibition Radical Craft at Pallant House.
Imagine this. You walk into an art gallery and find, on prominent display, an object so thickly wrapped with coloured thread that you cannot identify it. The thing’s contours are distended, its shape swollen and softened. It is strangely evocative, and certainly bears evidence of considerable labour on someone’s part. You want to know more. So you drop your eyes a few inches down, and read the printed label.
How you view this art object will very much depend on what you find written there. Perhaps you are greeted with these words:
The handmade sculptures of Oakland-based artist Judith Scott bring to mind the historical precedent of Marcel Duchamp’s 1916 work With Hidden Noise (an unidentified object wrapped in string), as well as the contemporary experiments of the Swedish-Chilean designer Anton Alvarez, who employs an automated ‘thread wrapping machine’ to similar effect.
Alternatively, you might be presented with a text like this:
Judith Scott was born profoundly deaf, mute and with Down’s Syndrome, and lived with her twin sister, brothers and parents until at the age of 7. When deemed “uneducable”, she was sent to the Columbus State Institution. She remained there until 1985 when her twin became her legal guardian and enrolled her at the Creative Growth Centre in California. Uninterested in painting but immediately inspired by a fibre class led by Sylvia Seventy, Judith began to spontaneously sculpt with textiles, inventing her own technique to carefully wrap found objects, in carefully selected yarns.
Both of the above texts are perfectly accurate, but they present very different and in some ways conflicting accounts. The first, which I wrote myself, places Scott’s work within the broader context of art and design history. The second, excerpted from the press release for the current exhibition “Radical Craft: Alternative Ways of Making” at Pallant House, presents her biography in a way that stresses Scott’s disconnection, not only from other art, but from society in general. Not until she arrived at Creative Growth Centre, we realize, did she become an artist at all, and even then pursued an individualistic and independent course.
I recently asked Valérie Rousseau, curator at the American Folk Art Museum in New York, to define the term Outsider Art for me. Noting that the phrase is specific to the English language – in her native French the term Art Brut, coined by the artist Jean Dubuffet in the 1940s, is the most common term – Dr Rousseau explained that how an artist is categorized is largely a matter of what she called “recognition.” How, and by whom, is an artist seen to be an artist at all? And by what criteria are their works to be judged?
Judith Scott presumably was not thinking of Duchamp, or contemporary design, when she began making her distinctive wrapped sculptures. To relate her work to those reference points, or indeed to put it in any art historical framework, would be a case of misrecognition. This is what it means to recognize her as an Outsider. We typically appreciate art in relation to context. A given work takes much of its meaning in relation to precedent, much as a move in a chess game is meaningful only within a given game. Art is a field of relationships, continuously developed by critics, historians, curators, and collectors. Artists themselves have a dynamic relationship to this discourse, sometimes participating in it actively, sometimes passively accepting interpretation, at other times resisting it.
Outsider Art is defined by its separation from this elastic and multivalent conversation. It must be recognized on other terms, and for that recognition to occur, it must be decisively removed from the chessboard. There is a big difference between someone like Scott, who cannot engage with the works of other artists, and an artist who is simply lazy and uninformed. In order for the particular dynamics of Outsider Art to take hold, we must be assured that we are in the presence of the former type of person and not the latter.
This is why biographical texts play such a key role in the Pallant House show and other exhibitions like it. Outsider Artists are typically described as “self-taught,”a way of demonstrating their freedom from outside influence and ideas. In addition to conditions such as Down’s syndrome, autism, and schizophrenia, Radical Craft includes many stories of childhoods spent in orphanages, social isolation in adult years, and above all, total indifference to the art market. In one case – that of Angus McPhee from Scotland, who makes objects out of grasses and sheep’s wool – the artist’s work is described as having been literally “hidden under bushes and undergrowth” until its discovery by a visiting art therapist named Joyce Laing. (The role and motivations of such “finders,” the first to recognize an Outsider’s creativity, is of course crucial in the construction of these narratives.)
Once an artist like Scott or McPhee has been divested of the usual burdens of art history and criticism, the way seems clear for strikingly unpretentious forms of appreciation. Simple counting, for example, plays an important role in discussions of Outsider Art: the length of time spent on a single carving, the number of marks or stitches on a surface. These statistics help to emphasize the quality of “obsession”, a term frequently used to signify these artists’ absolute dedication to their work. Contemporary art is evaluated according to a complex range of historical, theoretical, and market-based considerations. Outsider Art, by contrast, is often discussed in terms that recall the Guinness Book of Records. In Radical Craft, Erkki Pekkarinen is described as having created out of plaited birch bark the largest and smallest shoes ever made in Finland (2.7 meters and 3.8 millimeters, respectively), while the Indian road inspector Nek Chand worked for 18 years on a secret sculpture garden, eventually covering 12 acres with figures made of ceramic fragments, concrete and found objects.
This combination of accessibility and abundance has helped Outsider Art gain steadily in institutional presence. To put it simply, anything Outsider is in. The category is now supported not only by specialist museums, but also by galleries, publications, and collectors. Exhibitions of Outsider Art have been held at venues like the Wellcome Collection and the Hayward Gallery, who had never previously devoted attention to such work. Why is this happening? One factor is certainly distrust of the art market, which is inflated to the point of absurdity and is widely seen to be trampling individual creativity dead flat. In this context, the purity of
expression that many find in Outsider Art has an undoubted attraction, while the concept of Insider Art seems about as appealing as the concept of insider trading.
Related to this anti-commercial sentiment is an increasing discomfort with the idea that art inhabits a single interconnected field, one “art world” that dictates relevance. That assumption was dominant in the 1960s, which was also, not coincidentally, the last decade in which almost all financially successful artists were white men. Feminists, ethnic minorities, and others who had been arbitrarily excluded from the field set about attacking this biased situation. The struggle is still unfolding – white male artists are still the biggest earners in the market – but the population of art and its geographies have indeed become much more diverse, such that the idea of a unitary and hierarchical art world has more or less disappeared.
Outsider Artists may be unaware of these trends, but the reception of their work is implicated within them. Many do come from traditionally marginalized backgrounds, particularly in terms of ethnicity and class. The embrace of their work is one means by which institutions can address their own issues about representation. The Radical Craft project is explicit in this regard, and included an open call for participation by “artists who define themselves as facing barriers to the art world for reasons including health, disability, social circumstance or isolation.”
It also seems noteworthy that the rise of “self taught” art is coming at a time when professional art training is unprecedentedly beleaguered. The costs of getting an MFA are spiraling rapidly upward, even as the demonstrable benefits of the degree feel ever more questionable. Suspicion is compounded by the fact that art schools have, until recently, tended to prioritize theory over practice. The generation of artists who came of age in the 1990s – the hothouse moment of the YBAs in Britain –certainly talked a good game, but lacked concrete skills. There is now a widespread feeling that artists should stop tap-dancing with Foucault and get back to basics.
In such an atmosphere, the advantages of being “unbound by taught conventions” (to quote the Radical Craft press release) may seem attractive. Outsider Art offers a dream of untrammeled creativity, an escape from the complicated ideas, expensive equipment, and associated costs of professional art training. The tendency to view Outsider Art as “obsessive” (that is, entirely self-motivated) plays into this fantasy, as does its immunity to conventional critical analysis.
The picture I have been painting is admittedly broad in its strokes. There are exceptions to the rules: certain Outsider Artists, such as Henry Darger, have prompted complex theoretical reflection; and there is also the conspicuous fact that Outsider Art, originally defined by its separation from the art market, has become a market category in its own right. Now that we have dedicated annual Outsider Art Fairs in Manhattan and Paris, how genuinely Outsider can this material be said to be? Eventually such contradictions may lead to a gradual dissolution of the category, as art’s propensity toward flux and blur takes over even this most well-defended of artistic terrains. But for now Outsider Art seems to be here, and here to stay.
Craft has had its own longstanding issues with recognition, and it can be tempting to see in the example of Outsider Art a strong set of parallels. Both terms are associated with authenticity, and independence from the dictates of the market. The concept of obsession is applied indiscriminately to craft-based artists, no matter what their personal histories, and many Outsider Artists use materials classically associated with the crafts (textile, ceramics, metal, wood, paper). More controversially, craft is often described in opposition to theory. Terms like “tacit knowledge” and “thinking with your hands,” much favoured among craftspeople and their advocates, resonate with the conception of Outsider Art as intuitive and non-discursive.
Yet the differences between craft and Outsider Art are just as important. The historical roots of craft lie in professional trades, which had firmly established standards of quality enforced by guilds. The Outsider model could not be more different from this rigorous system. It’s true that craft is strongly identified with the principle of individualism, but that is meant to be hard-won rather than stumbled across as if by magic. The traditional means of artisanal training, in which apprentices are gradually elevated to the status of master, are quite different to the Outsider ideal of instantaneous creativity.
Even amateur craft, which one might expect to have clearer affinity to Outsider Art, turns out to have extensive dependencies on commercial products (kits, materials and instructional literature) and its own canons of correctness, as Stephen Knott has recently shown in his book on the subject. And while contemporary attitudes to craft are permissive and inclusive, incorporating the purposefully “sloppy,” the concept still implies a commitment to skill. Above all, craft involves a considered consciousness about matters of execution that sets it apart from the instinctive spontaneity of Outsider Art.
Terms like “Outsider Art” and “craft” are only descriptive tools. They have no objective reality, and only have merit when they reveal rather than obscure. Characterizing an artist as an Outsider may situate their creativity in a way that feels clarifying, but if the label closes down possible routes of interpretation we will be better off without it. Art is becoming an ever larger, more diverse, more democratic terrain. The concept of Outsiderness does play a role in this evolving process, but we should remember that it, too, can limit our imagination.
To return to the thought experiment with which this article started: imagine that you are a curator, assigned to write the label for a Judith Scott sculpture. What would you say? To what degree would you allow her biography to condition the reception of her art? Would you stress the work’s historical connections, coincidental as they may be? Simply describe the sculpture formally,or perhaps provide no text at all, allowing viewers to draw their own conclusions? The possibilities are endless, and the approach you choose will say as much about you as it does about Judith Scott. Her tightly bound objects, meanwhile, will remain all but hidden from view.