Tuesday, November 2, 2010

Art vs. Social-Work

At the Comet  (the bar a couple doors down from Thunder-Sky) Friday night, I escaped the fun during one of Thunder-Sky, Inc.'s best openings to have a few drinks, and I got into a discussion with one of the artists in the exhibit, Bruce Burris, plus a friend of his.  Bruce is a great guy.  I don't think this will make him upset, but I feel like we have a lot in common:  we're both a little highstrung, passionate, and very very sensitive, especially about art and outsiderness and "disability" and the whole nine yards. 

So Bruce asked me a question about Antonio Adams.  About whether what we are doing for Antonio through Thunder-Sky, Inc. is about art or about social-work.  There was a lot more to the conversation than that of course.  I've boiled it down to that essence because I've been perseverating on that art/social-work binary all weekend, and even now here in a Starbuck's in Columbus, Ohio. 

First off, what Bill and I do for Antonio is try to help him stay inspired, and also we listen to him.  I like to think that we are among some of Antonio's best listeners.  We also try to supply him with art supplies, and a space to come to make stuff when he gets tired of making art in his bedroom.  Bill and I have known Antonio for ten years now, and I think more than anything else we are friends with one major thing in common:  we understand that Antonio is a genius.  Antonio knows it, Bill and I know it.  We also share in the Cult of Ray.  It was Antonio, Bill and my idea to cofound Thunder-Sky, Inc.  It was Bill and Antonio who came up with the concept of the big beautiful Raymond mural on the side of the building in Northside where Visionaries & Voices (V&V) is housed.  And it was Bill, Antonio and I who really pulled together the whole concept around V&V back in the day.  Antonio, Bill and I have traveled to Pittsburgh, Los Angeles, Nashville (TN), Columbus (OH), Indianapolis, Louisville (KY), Chicago and several other places to exhibit Antonio's brilliant art.  I've written countless news releases, blogs, articles, letters of support, grant proposals, etc., all with Antonio in mind.  And maybe most importantly (I hope) with Thunder-Sky, we have created a space for Antonio to be a part of that is not about "disability" or "outsiderness."  Thunder-Sky, Inc. is a gallery and a studio that is about fostering connections among all kinds of different artists without talking about the same concepts and narratives and tropes.

This brings me back to that binary:  art vs. social-work.  Is what we're doing either one really?   

We don't have connections with Big City Galleries.  We can't offer Antonio acceptance into the Whitney Biennial or whatever.  But my hope is that by creating a space where he can flourish, and other people can too, without foregrounding "disabilities," then we might be able to build an audience who will eventually be interested in supporting him.  As we keep trying to reinvent what art and social-work are supposed to do, maybe they merge into a sort of bliss, an irregular heartbeat that is better than a regular one.  Maybe what we are trying to do with Thunder-Sky, Inc. is reinvent a heartbeat.

I don't know.  I really don't.

I think when we do the art/social-work split we lose track of what both concepts are.  And we start forming the same old narrative in our heads about "outsider artists."  I really want Antonio not to be a part of that cliche.  It's always been amazing to me when I go to outsider art shows or read outsider art criticism, I feel a sort of voyeuristic weirdness steaming off it all, not intentional, but still:  the art of "The Outsider" is special because the artist is in need of social-work services.  Social work in that context becomes a code for "other," I think:  an exotic world of poverty and doctor visits and being "helped."  Antonio is saner and smarter than anyone I've ever known.  He is so down-to-earth he wants to eliminate cellphones, God bless him.  (See the painting above.)

So at the end of the day:  I really want Antonio to be a superstar.  But I want him to be a superstar on his own new terms.  We're trying.  We really are.