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The degree

grad

I’m happy to announce that I have completed my Master’s degree. The thesis is called Outsider Art:  Forty Years Out, referencing the chaos that ensued with outsider art terminology after Roger Cardinal published his book Outsider Art in 1972.

Next step? A book about outsider art in Canada, of course!

Outsider art in Montreal

Old Montreal

My apologies for no blogs coming from two weeks in Montreal. Shortly after I arrived I had major problems with my laptop (again) and couldn’t add photos. And, what’s the point of a blog about art if there are no photographs of art…?

As I suspected, there is a lot going on in the world of outsider art in Montreal, Quebec. At least more than the rest of Canada. For those of you outside of Canada, the province of Quebec is an eastern province that is predominantly French-speaking. It has a long history with France and is still connected by more than language to that country. To visit a city in Quebec is like visiting a city in France – the language, culture, and food would fool you into thinking you were somewhere in Europe. In short, it is an incredible city for those who enjoy history and the arts.

The purpose of my trip was to connect with artists and galleries with whom I have been corresponding through my blog. I kept a frenetic pace for two weeks, as there was a lot to see, people to meet, and much to learn. One of the things I wanted to understand is how others in Canada define outsider art. Unfortunately, I have to report that the definition is as muddled there as here. However, because Quebec is still closely aligned with France, much credence is paid to the concept of art brut as it is understood in Europe – that is, art that is outside mainstream art and (perhaps) created by disabled artists or those who are not closely aligned to art culture. It is sometimes referred to as “art singulier” or “art insubordinaire” (insubordinate art).

I did not leave with a clear definition of outsider art, but I enjoyed long hours of conversation with art colleagues and collectors there. The blogs that follow will introduce you some amazing artists. Stay tuned.

 

 

Outside of what?

›‰hThe roots of the terms “art brut” and “outsider art” can be traced back to the writings of Prinzhorn, who studied the creative output of psychiatric patients, and then Dubuffet who believed such art was unadulterated by the socio-cultural environment.
(Painting by August Natterer at right.)

Dubuffet’s original art brut collection was ultimately housed in the Collection de L’Art Brut in Lausanne, Switzerland and remains there today. As Dubuffet’s collection grew, it became clear to him that some artwork did not quite “fit” into the narrowly defined category of art brut. Although the work was powerful and inventive, the artists’ contact with society and their awareness of their own work precluded their inclusion in the art brut category.

These artworks were moved to the Annex Collection, and re-named neuve invention. Dubuffet described these as works which, though not characterized by the same radical distancing of mind as art brut, are never the less sufficiently independent of the fine-art system to constitute a challenge to the cultural institutions.

It is said that Dubuffet created a paradox he hoped to avoid. In deciding what should be included in the art brut collection he had to exclude artists whom he admired. Without intending to do so, he created a new orthodoxy of inclusion. Beginning with a subversive attitude towards art, he ended up establishing a new set of rigid criteria. So, in respecting the parameters of art brut, he undermined its fundamental principles and housed it in a tight box.

Dubuffet  added to the problems of taxonomy in setting up a two-tier and elitist distinction between first and second class outsiders. Some works have been moved back and forth between the art brut and neuve invention collections. The margins of art brut began to blur as soon as the genre was named.

Art brut continued to exist, for the most part recognizing the two categories that Dubuffet defined: art brut and neuve invention. In 1972, Roger Cardinal, a professor at the University of Kent, set out to write about art brut. His publisher insisted on a catchier title, and so Outsider Art went to press.  Cardinal explains:

Well, it all happened when I produced this book. I wanted to call it ‘Art Brut’, and I had studied the Dubuffet collection, and had a lot of examples from the collection and some that I’d chosen myself, but fitting into the general rubric of Art Brut. And with that, with Dubuffet as the coiner of that particular concept, and his definitions fairly clearly in mind, I showed the publisher what I wanted to do, and I said, ‘Well, you’ve got Art Nouveau, and you’ve got Art Deco, now you’ve got Art Brut and everybody will get on with it.’ But the publisher was very worried about this particular title and wanted something more easy to get on with for the English ear and said, ‘Well, shouldn’t we call it something else?’ And we went through hundreds of titles: ‘The Art of the Artless’, I remember was one of them…

This was where the terminology problems started. Although the term “outsider art” was not used in the text of the book, Cardinal intended it to be synonymous with art brut, and from the outset it encompassed the categories of both art brut and neuve invention. Cardinal defined outsider art (and art brut) as strictly un-tutored and exists outside of the normal concept of art. “Not hooked up to galleries and certain expectations. It should be more or less inwards-turning and imaginative – self-contained as it were.”

At this point, the narrowly-defined and closely-guarded world of art brut was turned upside down. In the years that followed, European scholars loosened the parameters of art brut but Americans took the concept much further. The term “outsider” was taken literally and begged the question: outside of what?

The definition of outsider art unravelled from this point on.

It’s about the process

sitting-at-the-edge-of-a-cliff

I am on another writing retreat in the mountains (it’s snowing here!) and I have been silent, not because I am goofing off, but because I have been completely absorbed by the task before me. In other words, I am blissed out.

The sad truth is that I have no idea what I think about something until I write it. I know some well-known writers have expressed this same feeling, but I have lost track of those quotations. Anyway, that’s my reality.

In the process of exploring the topic of what “self-taught” means, I wrote myself to the edge of a cliff. This is not to say that I felt like jumping off a cliff, but that I had nowhere to go from there.  I became so disenchanted with the multitude of definitions of outsider art, and their *reasons (*excuses) for defining it so, that I thought I might have to throw this entire  project in the garbage. Egad. What now?

No matter how we define outsider art, it has grown from Dubuffet’s plea to look at art in a new way, to yet another power-dominated field of art. How can I write about this without it turning into a hysterical rant? This is, after all, an academic exercise, not an opinion piece for a rag newspaper…

But, when all is said and done, and in spite of the headaches it causes me, I absolutely love the art that I encounter in my research. It never fails to punch me in the gut. And I always say to myself, “so this is another way to look at the world…” It leaves me with a sense of awe.  And really, what more could you ask of art?

I have always believed that outsider artists – in the process of creation – are in the midst of a soliloquy, as opposed to a dialogue with others. That soliloquy takes them to a deeper place and a deeper truth. Filmmaker, Werner Herzog, calls this the ecstatic truth. As he says, one can reach a deeper stratum of truth in the arts – a poetic, ecstatic truth, which is mysterious and can only be grasped with effort. One attains it through vision, craft and style. By engaging in the art-making process, sometimes obsessively, I think these artists find their own deep truths. It’s not about the product. It’s about the process.

So, I am signing off tonight with a promise to get down to details in a future blog.