French philosopher Michael Foucault writes about an ancient Chinese encyclopaedia that Jorge Luis Borges claims to have found. In this tome, animals are divided into bizarre categories, such as: belonging to the Emperor; embalmed; tame; suckling pigs; fabulous; innumerable; that from a long way off look like flies, and so on. Foucault notes that the thing we understand in one great leap when reading this list is the exotic charm of another system of thought and, in our own limited system of thought, the stark impossibility of thinking that.
Accepting another system of thought is, I believe, the key to approaching outsider art. It is us, not the outsider artists, who are trapped on the outside, looking in. It is our responsibility to accept another system of thought. It is, indeed, possible to think that.
There are as many definitions of outsider art as there are recipes for bouillabaisse. There is also a growing discomfort with labelling the artists as “marginalized” and separating their art into a category of its own. This is a discussion that I will leave for the academics to punch out at a conference in Florida.
I know an outsider artist (Kevin House) who attended the Outsider Art Fair in NYC. I asked him if he met any other artists there, to which he replied, “No. They’re all insane or dead.” (I didn’t point out the obvious to him – that he wasn’t dead, so therefore… well, nevermind.) I’ll try to shed a bit more light on who gets on the list (with great deference for Roger Cardinal’s analysis):
Outsider artists are:
– self-taught (learning to draw from your mother doesn’t count)
– unaware of or indifferent to the work of other artists (Picasso who?)
– creating art that is outside the cultural norm (i.e., it may not look like something you’ve seen before)
– compelled to create art
– not creating art for profit or for others to admire
– not concerned with public opinion of their art
– not necessarily dealing with a mental disability
– sometimes well educated (lack of education is not the same as minimal cultural conditioning)
Next blog: so who’s not on the list?