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Outsider Art: The Art Market’s ‘Cultural Capitalism’ Moment

Robert Jackson

Featured image: Outsider Art

The 55th Venice Biennale has arrived, and with it brings a new state of trends which are pontificated around, with a chuckle, a sense of forced opportunity and the shrugged sigh of ‘well, everyone’s doing this now apparently.’

The trend in question consists in a renewed attention towards Outsider Art (as famously termed by Roger Cardinal), or perhaps more famously the return of Jean Dubuffet’s ‘Art Brut’, under the modern moniker of ‘Folk Art’; the famous definition given to artworks, constructed outside of the critical art world system or outside the world of aesthetic critique. Specifically, Outsider Art denotes a straightforwardness of practice, which deliberately rejects, or remains unaffected by artistic techniques and instead embellishes a bold directness or authentic personal vision. This, we are told, is a renewed return to the interests of authentic practitioners, giving spectators the chance of ‘trying to see more’ in the broadest sense. These are artists who exist without official global branding, nor the ease of stylistic marketing, nor the calculated requirements of visitor numbers.

Outsider artworks (echoing Dubuffet) are aesthetically valuable, precisely insofar as they haven’t been created for the sole purpose of critique, nor for being deliberately market-friendly (the last point is quite contentious). They are what they are. Or at least, ‘what they are’ is grouped around a deviation from the mainstream ‘norm’.

Massimiliano Gioni, the latest curator of the world’s oldest contemporary art exhibition, titled its flagship show “The Encyclopedic Palace” after the self-taught artist Marino Aurtit (1891 – 1980), and his elaborate proposal to build a house of knowledge in Washington D.C. Gioni warned that the Biennale would not trace the familiar ‘who’s who’ of previous festivals (despite having its usual art stars), but will, in part, follow the aesthetic footsteps of the ‘illustrious nobody’ and ‘dilettante’, like Aurtit. Gioni even joked that this biennale, may be exposed as a “thrift-store biennial’ – yet his entire intention is to “break away from this pressure of the new“. True to his word, you wouldn’t exactly find an entire room dedicated to Carl Jung’s Red Book manuscript, or Rudoph Steiner’s blackboard drawings, at major art fairs.

Just last week, the Hayward Gallery has been one of the first public-funded galleries in Europe to host a major event which focuses entirely on Outsider art: “An Alternative Guide to the Universe“. Unlike Gioni’s effort, the entire Hayward gallery is filled with self-taught, yet highly skilled obsession-led projects from the private wing of the aesthetic fringe: the intricate math puzzles of George Widener or the technical drawings of Karl Hans Janke, a schizophrenic inventor who envisioned rockets running on clean energy. There is, like most major art shows these days – lots of ‘stuff’ here – all of it inherently odd and some, self-knowingly disturbing – like the Bostonian bachelor Morton Bartlett, who created his own peculiar family of female dolls, or Eugene von Bruenchenhein’s awkward images of his wife acting in unsettling roles, like a non-deliberate Cindy Sherman series. Speaking of Sherman-seque photographs, Lee Godie’s 20’s style, self-portraits (also showing at the Hayward) are a firm favourite with private collections. Godie, who died penniless in 1994, and lived homeless on the streets of Chicago, sold her photographs on the streets for roughly $30, yet they can now expect to fetch $15,000.

Linking the two exhibitions is the remarkable charity The Museum of Everything, showing the work of Nek Chand at the Hayward and having their own pavilion at the Venice, of the back of previous shows in Moscow and Paris this year. Elsewhere in London, the Wellcome Collection showed off the successful show Souzou, exhibiting Outsider Art from Japan.

But over and above, these recent shows, why have the mainstream become so interested in Outsider Art? Or have they always been interested? Why are curators so fascinated with the darker side of the outsider, the other? Why are Bartlett’s unintentionally disturbing contemporary prints worthy of a 2007 solo show at the Julie Saul Gallery, in New York? The trend could be looked at as a self-realised view of the art world turning in on itself. It has finally realised how insular it has become, and needs to do something more cultural than a retrospective of a modern master here, or a lucrative solo show of some flavour of the month there. It has decided to become more ‘open’. The self-taught, yet sincere visions of mental patients, spiritual mediums, eccentric historians and utopian visionaries have once again reignited the art market’s purview. Certain works, never deliberately constructed for the whims of curators and spectators are now, insatiably lucrative.

The irony of this is… well, beyond irony. There is a deep sense of self-cannibalism at the heart of reclaiming the autobiographical eccentricities of others. As the lucrative self-direction of the art market now casts it’s eye over the purchase of collectable outsider art, and all its naive aesthetic principles, they cannot but be aware of the paradox within the trend itself. The recession-proof art market, self-knowingly creates inequality with one hand, whilst branching out of its self-constructed insular network with the other. Whilst it gobbles up, callow drawings from psychiatric patients and innocent pieces from batchelors for a tidy sum, the market simultaneously disgorges itself with folk, liberal, self-esteem. Clearly this is not an unprecedented trend, but the scale with which outsider art is being collected, exhibited and purchased in the last few months, as well as its public funded backing, certainly brings with it a large dose of incredulous cynicism.

The turn to Outsider Art is, unexpectedly not new and the mainstream art world has a habit of doing this every decade or so. Such aesthetic interest on the ‘darker’ element of outsider art, can be traced back to 1922, when psychiatrist Hans Prinzhorn published ‘Artistry of the Mentally Ill‘, a collection which included ten self taught artists battling with schizophrenia. In 1929, MoMA’s first director Alfred Barr, identified self-taught art as one of the three major movements in modern art, alongside Surrealism and Abstraction. MoMa even organised the show “American Folk Art: The Art of The Common Man in America 1750 – 1900” in 1932. Even the Hayward appears to be repeating itself, as it organised (with Roger Cardinal no less) the show “Outsiders: Artists without Precedent or Tradition” in 1979.

As Jane Kallir wrote 10 years ago, in the article “Outsider Art at a Crosswords” for Raw Vision magazine, the history of Outsider Art is draped in a dialectical contradiction that even Hegel couldn’t have made up. For our purposes, she sums it up perfectly.

“Outsider art is not a game that the artists themselves are allowed to play. An artist is anointed an “outsider” by members of the mainstream who have determined that he or she, for whatever reasons of mental incapacity or biographical circumstance, is incapable of fully comprehending or adhering to mainstream traditions.” 

Outsider art suffers from a necessary, yet expected paradox. Once the mainstream embraces its status, it can only become suffocated, and, quoting Kallir again, “[o]nly when the mainstream’s attention is engaged elsewhere can any sort of truly isolate art flourish.” This is why, she argues, previous historical booms of Outsider art, between the two World Wars, eventually petered out. The “insiders” seek to hoover up the “outsiders”, negating the latter, and extending the former – making such dichotomies either useless or pointless. But it’s not as if the mainstream exists without distinctions, it’s just that these distinctions are inanely hypocritical. You know things are bad when even Will Gompertz notices.

Moreover, the historical return to Outsider art does little to characterise what it actually is, rather than characterise what the mainstream wants it to be: and this return is no different. In a hyper-connected epoch, it gets even worse. Who decides when an artist is an outsider? Legitmately, all artists may consider themselves to be outsiders (and especially the fringe of exceptional ‘media arts’ – although we’ve been here before).

As Rosie Jackson writes (no relation), outsider art becomes a ‘convenient cipher’ for everything the mainstream wishes it could ever be: “uncensored, meaningful, compulsive activities hammered out in blood, sweat and tears.” Every historical return to Outsider art retains a basic notion of ‘openness’ and ‘difference’ along some lines, yet such terms also fail to help understand the work ‘as’ work, and instead only understands it as ‘other’, through an insular structure that filters membership on its own terms. This recent interest the posthumous fringe, takes on the basis of carrying a cultural conscience in the art market.

In my eyes, the commercial art market seems to be integrating itself with the broad appeal of cultural capitalism (or capitalism with a conscience). The famous and sweaty pop stalinist, Slavoj Žižek, has previously articulated the logic of cultural capitalism quite well. Even the most unaware consumers in the Western world are acquainted with this modest shift in capitalist values. Corporations embrace the problems of poverty, and so market their products with ‘built in’ commitments for helping out the poorest in the world – the ones who fell over at the start of the ‘global-race’. One would call it capitalism with a human face, but we have gorged out on irony, for too long.

Žižek calls on two particular noteworthy examples; Starbucks Coffee and TOMS Shoes. Go round the corner to a local Starbucks and they will go to great lengths about how you, the consumer are not just ‘buying a coffee’ – instead they are buying coffee with a built-in disclaimer: that a portion of the customer’s money will help the workers who cultivate the coffee-beans and distribute that portion onwards. Similarly the incredibly successful TOMS Shoes, goes one step further with their ‘one for one‘ commitment: when you purchase a relatively cheap pair of TOMS Shoes, a portion of the profits accumulated, help manufacture another pair of shoes which are given to a child in poverty. We get the product, they get the profit, a child without shoes gets some shoes – what’s not to like?

Žižek tentatively retorts that charitable capitalism is, clearly better than the ‘business as usual’ practices of speculation and exploitation, in quasi-abstract way. But, he avers, one cannot fail to see the paradox of this gesture. The consumer is buying, not just the product, but the cultural impact of the company’s ethics. As a result, there is what Žižek calls, a ‘semantic overinvestment or burden‘ in being a consumer here. You don’t just simply buy a product and consume it, your consumerist ethical redemption is included in the price. In a typical Žižekian rejoinder, he borrows from Oscar Wilde’s lucid declaration in ‘The Soul of Man Under Socialism‘ that;

“Just as the worst slave-owners were those who were kind to their slaves, and so prevented the horror of the system being realised by those who suffered from it, and understood by those who contemplated it, so, in the present state of things in England, the people who do most harm are the people who try to do most good.”

Even though the slaves were momentarily protected from brutal oppression, the kind acts of conscience from their masters, masked the reasons behind their inequality, failing to change the inherent systems that determined their slavery in the first place. Rather uncompromisingly, Žižek argues that commodifiable charitable exchange that grounds cultural capitalism, degenerates the unequal situation even further. Capitalism partially modifies its operations to address inequality by marketing products that appeal to consumer conscience, whilst marginally improving the conditions for poor communities: communities which the market has indirectly caused, through profit accumulation in the first place. Instead the only proper ethical act, should be to modify state regulation to such an extent that inequality and descent into poverty become impossible: not a consumerist disclaimer designed to partially help the poorest through a system which self-inflicts the very reasons for poverty (i.e. if Starbucks really wanted to reconfigure its ethical marketing, it should start by paying its expected levels of corporate tax).

This recent focus on outsider art is largely (but not exactly) based on a similar turn of hypocrisy, but instead of appealing to consumerist cultural value, it appeals to the elite’s bloated levels of aesthetic cultural value, not the works or the artists themselves. Instead of modifying and reconstructing the market to regulate and protect the careers of living artists working today and help artists who are marginalised through no fault of their own, the art world twists itself into valuing outsider artworks which keep the attendee’s conscience happy, yet mask its inherently peculiar logic. ‘You are not just appreciating an artwork, you are appreciating a different, alternative way of life.’

If you think I’m joking about how literal this comparison is, you only have to look at the 2011 exhibition, Mindful: which brought together the choice cut of the YBA market, in order to raise funds and awareness about the stigma of mental health. Although the show was not ‘Outsider Art’ as such, it dipped its toe in from both angles; mainsteam artists grappling with issues on mental health and the pragmatic benefit of making art for those who suffer from it. Again, this is not to say that the results of the show, or the work of artists, (outsider or otherwise) are without merit – this is about the latent hypocrisy of providing audiences with cultural and ethical overinvestment, the terms upon which are already decided by mainstream principles. The fact that one of the sponsors was Starbucks, tells you everything you need know.

The conclusion to draw from this, is that the art market’s endorsement of Outsider Art contributes to it’s insularity rather than genuinely addressing the actual structure which contributes to the problems that outsider artists face. Outsider art only remains interesting, or opens up a productive discussion so long as the mainstream finds it lucrative enough to include such a discussion on its own terms. The mainstream artworld finds itself in a curious place then: for whilst it knocks down with its right hand, what it builds with the left, it curiously remains as it is, as it was, and ever present. To paraphrase Wilde, “It is much more easy to have sympathy with outsider artists than it is to have sympathy with thought.”


If you would like to donate money directly to charities who specialise in the exhibition of marginalised artists, you can do so at the following links.

The Museum of Everything.

Outside In: an arts agency which provides a platform for artists who find it difficult to access the artworld.

Creative Future

And of course, Furtherfield.