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Back to Features 97


the outsider art fair

by Alan Moore


Although I'm commited to the high, I've always loved the people's art and try to catch this big show staged every year in the fine old Victorian pile built to house the satirical review Puck ("The Outsider Art Fair: Self- Taught, Visionary and Outsider Art" at the Puck Building, Jan. 24-26, 1997). In the teeth of the language models that govern art criticism, outsider and folk art demonstrates that illiterates can produce compelling art. Even intelligence is not required--one featured artist has Downs Syndrome. Here at the Puck is proof: Art is about something that reason, be it "instrumental" or "post-modern," does not own.

Of course this is a market, one that's booming, and this fair is a cashing-in. It's frenetically commercial, and going to it is always a trial. After leaving, I had to drop into a few local antique shops--straightforward stores where things bear only price tags--just to wash out the bad taste of rampant commodification.

Year to year this fair tracks the canonical artists in the folk/outsider world and shows us more of their work; it's like an ongoing group show. Right in the door, Jon Serl's blue Pan (1977), depicting the young god with a goat, is a marvelous painting (at the booth of Luise Ross; $17K; sold). The facture is flat, the color rich but thin, as if scraped and built up. It's knowingly painted, a thoroughly entrancing classical subject with the lithe rubber limbs and wry expressions that mark Serl's work. Its appeal resonates with Matisse, as well as with Corot's mythological subjects, many gauchely rendered, recently on view at the Metropolitan Museum. And why not? Perhaps only here, in this art world of visionaries and religiously inspired naifs, may we find a naturalized unselfconscious reference to classical mythology--it may be the Playboy version, but it's still as real as it gets.

Behind the people's art lie these persisting vital strains largely excluded from high art: untrammeled subjectivity; religious painting, art that reflects spiritual truth; genre and history painting from the working class; and African-American folk tradition.

Underlying all is the message that everyone is an artist, or could be. So many great ones--like Bill Traylor and Jon Serl--started old, it's also clear that it's never too late to start making art. When people see that some old geezer, biddy or weirdo may be a potentially marketable or famous outsider artist, it spreads art and art ideas throughout the culture. Success broadens the audience for art in terms that everyone can understand.

That this is often a lowbrow art world with many venal pinheads hard at work within it does not mitigate its power as a cultural phenomenon. This art world does not habitually reflect upon itself, it just grows. This boom reminds me of the East Village/neo-expressionist art of the 1980s, with the return of old-fashioned painting and sculpture, and a high tide of overblown art speculation. But this time it's a non-professional, national and international vernacular phenomenon. Curiously the outsider/folk boom reflects the historical shift underway in media culture from univocal to interactive modes--from mere choice of broadcast channels to each user with their own web site. Thus urban recluse Malcolm McKesson (whose book Matriarchy: Freedom in Bondage was premiered here), has much in common with today's cyber- bewitched--his book promo calls it his "inner mythology created in ecstatic seclusion," certainly a description of many of today's cyber-artists.

Except for those in folklore and material culture studies, art historians and critics haven't really yet gotten their grubby hands on this thing. It's still the proprietary creature of dealers, collectors, and other "managers" of their "discoveries." They continuously identify new artists then seek to share and sell them-- to have them authenticated by the critical, historical and institutional apparatus that is rather more than less controlled by those same people: dealers and collectors. This means less "seeking" critical approval than engineering it--that is, simply telling the story of the artist. An interesting biography is vital to their authentication (it helps to be dead, or very old, so that your frame of reference or visual culture is nostalgia to today's audience). Discourse in outsider/folk art is biographically driven, and these particulars tend to drive out principles. Still, paradoxically, the voice of the artist is rarely heard.

In this process of market-building, a particular simple model of the artist is continuously reinscribed--the artist is a social isolate who resides within a realm of uncomplicated making, mediating experiences, memories, "visions" or "obsessions" through work that is formally and contextually unselfconscious. The outcome of this "ecstatic seclusion" in the field of cultural production is an artist who is entirely unresistant to commodification.

Just to look at the show, my overall impression is that the artists are getting wise as to what's required, and the styles of canonical artists are being copied. This we would expect of "taught" artists, yet in the fair at the Puck this assumption is disallowed. Of course, this apparent commonality could be mostly an artifact of the process of selection. The oceans of vernacular production are vast--just imagine adding to this market exceptional graphic production by schoolchildren, for example. Those who select, then, are as significant to the construction of this art as the producers--whose production the selectors, as agents of the market, may guide.

Finally--I know it's just a fair, it's not an exhibition--I have a problem with what I don't see. The social context from which much of this work stems has been entirely deleted. There are no pictures of rural poverty, or urban SRO hotels-- no evocations of prison, mental hospitals or old age homes. (Part of the wonder of this art is that it flowers in bleak places, and to acknowledge the esthetic violence of the institutional surroundings where it is often made is, indeed, to further valorize the art.) The homeless artists who presented work at the fair last year are gone this year. So the stage is cleared for the pure products: no wider social concerns need accompany delectation. This is profit maximizing itself, herding off undesirables and clearing the ground all around. The insistence of this tendency is a warning light, an indication that the regressive aspects of this art boom are at least as strong as its pleasures and social benefit.

ALAN MOORE is a New York critic and art historian.