Monday, April 18, 2011

Not Evidence of Identity But a Way to Create It

I'm working on an essay about Thornton Dial's retrospective at the Indianapolis Museum of Art, and I keep coming back to what "outsider art" represents, and how the meanings it conjures can often be reductive.  Putting art and artists into an overarching, identity-based categorization system eliminates almost any other area of inquiry or interest.  Any other narratives and contexts become unnecessary because the story behind the art-making pigeonholes the artist and situates his/her art in another sphere, "outside" of Art, capital A. 

From its very beginnings, via Jean Dubuffet, "outsider art" was a reaction to "insider art," not a new way to see, but a way to criticize the hegemony of Western culture.  In philosophizing about "art brut" (the forebear of "outsider art"), Dubuffet writes, "Personally, I believe very much in the values of savagery. I mean: instinct, passion, mood, violence, madness." 

"Savagery, violence, madness" are of course wonderful things for artists to indulge in and play with, but they are also words that delegitimize and colonize artists who may not be art-schooled or have access to pedigree status.  Often "outsider artists" don't have the choice of how to construct their own narratives.  The identity of "outsider" fills in the blanks.  All the artists labeled "outsider" I've come across are not violent or mad, moody or savage:  they are just hard workers, trying to create their way out of being obscure or ignored. 

In positioning an artist (especially if she/he is labeled "developmentally disabled" or "African American working class") as "outsider," the art produced by this artist becomes evidence that he/she is human and capable and talented, even though they are "mad or moody" and outside of "our world."  We assume these characteristics in other artists who are not labeled "outsider."  An "insider," non-labeled artist's work is not seen as evidence of identity:  it is seen as the way they create it. 
What the exhibit of Thornton Dial's works does is allow us to envision an "outsider artist" creating his own identity, breaking free of the cliches and pigeonholes "outsiderness" creates.  Comparisons to Matisse and Rauschenberg are necessary because Dial is not "outside" of the Matisse/Rauschenberg radar.  He is participating in art history, whether he knows it or not,  His art demands that kind of attention.  When we juxtapose Dial's works with the works of more famous artists we start to understand that Dial is working towards clarity and his own aesthetic.  He is doing this not because he is "mad or savage, insider or outsider," but because he is "omni-sided," approaching his work as work, creating art because that's what artists do.