Saturday, January 8, 2011

"Vonnegut's Ballerinas: Deprogramming 'Outsider Art'"

Raymond Thunder-Sky

Here's a link to a paper I've written for a conference about "outsider art" and its meanings:  "Vonnegut's Ballerinas".  Below is a synopsis of the piece...

Rosemary Garland Thomson writes in her landmark essay “Seeing the Disabled: Visual Rhetorics of Disability in Popular Photography” about the way “non-disabled” people view images of people with disabilities. Thomson's “wondrous” rhetoric especially reads like a dictionary definition not only of the way people with developmental disabilities are codified and colonized by cultural norms, but also the way art made by “outsiders artists” labeled with developmental disabilities is often marketed and explained. The “wondrous rhetoric,” Thomson explains, is the oldest mode of representing disability. This classification includes “monsters and prodigies.”

“Outsider artists,” especially those labeled with developmental disabilities, often have to take a seat at the kid's table culturally speaking, with the caveat being they are “wondrous” but not quite sophisticated enough to have a seat at the “adult table.” In my paper, I use Thomson‟s “wondrous” concept, as well as a reading of Kurt Vonnegut‟s short story “Harrison Bergeron” and a brief survey of the histories of “outsider art” and people with developmental disabilities to critique the manner in which “outsider artists'" lives and art are “programmed” around anachronistic concepts of segregation and “wondrousness,” all based on concepts of “outsider art” that seem to ignore the social and historical colonization people with developmental disabilities have gone through.

I also tell my own personal story in helping to develop an arts program for "outsider artists" with developmental disabilities in Ohio, based on meeting an artist named Raymond Thunder-Sky through my job as a social worker. My initial vision in doing so was to ensure that Raymond's art would be placed side by side with the art of other artists, no labels required. Instead what happened is that I unintentionally created a trap with my good intentions: a program that segregates artists (like Raymond).

We as curators, writers, collectors, and lovers of art made by unconventional artists have to be in the business of pulling apart the clichés and categorizations that plague how these artists are viewed and relegated so that everyone can have access to art that transcends those notions. Without that help, I'm afraid, we'll be constantly reconstructing those clichés until they become the norms we intend to defeat.