Sunday, November 6, 2011

Curated Lives

This is an illustration from a 1960s psychology textbook depicting the Eugenics process as "revealed" by the studies of Dr. Henry H. Goddard.  Goddard wrote the ur-text for Eugenics in 1912, depicting the fictitious "Kallikak" family in which he plots the "beginning" of "feeblemindedness" by finding its essences in a moral binary:  a "moron" line of descendants spawned by a "dalliance," and a "superior" line of descendants from an upstanding marriage to a "Quakeress."  While Eugenics was essentially gutted in the 1930s and 1940s, its imagery and symbolisms and metaphors still remain intact culturally (and sociologically, psychologically and morally too) in multiple ways.  In art this echo works itself out via biography and credentialization:  an "outsider" line of "instinctive, accidental" artists who make art in institutions (hospitals and day programs), and an "insider" line of professionals creating and showing their works in Institutions (art schools and museums).  When an "outsider" (like Judith Scott [see below]) is inducted into the "insider" world  the explanation of his/her diagnosis and struggle becomes one of the primary reasons for seeing and understanding the art.  The "outsider" lineage is based in the schematic above; the "insider" lineage is not connected to that.  In other words, "Quakeresses" don't have to explain where they fit in the scheme of things.  "Feeble-minded tavern girls" always need to be explained to the lay audience.  

1.  the person in charge of a museum, art collection, etc.
2.  a manager; superintendent.
3.  Law: a guardian of a minor, lunatic, or other incompetent, especially with regard to his or her property.

Institutional art (sanctioned by art schools, art historians, museums, etc.) is curated of course:  paintings, sculptures, performances, photographs, etc. all ordered and categorized, labeled, cataloged and consigned, placed in spaces that are designated as worthy of Art. 

But lives are curated too, often using those same lofty and often meaningless verbs.  In fact, the lives of people with developmental disabilities have been curated in the United States for over 200 years, when some of the first "special schools" were founded (and "special schools" here means huge institutions where people with "it" were colonized).  And still today people with intellectual difficulties, what many people call "mental retardation," are still consigned, labeled, ordered, categorized, and consigned into institutions deemed worthy of their status and abilities.  People with "it" often live in group-homes, foster-homes, and larger institutions.  They often spend their days in day programs where other people cosigned and labeled just as they are also are placed, overseen by staff.  They live under the weight of curation everyday of their lives, and the curators don't often understand that they are in fact curating, managing and supervising, using the tools of their historical (and kind of retrograde) practice.  They apply generalizations and abstractions in order to let everyone else know what to do and think when approaching the people they curate.  They surround their curated people with paperwork and rules in order for the rest of "us" to understand who they are -- in much the same way a gallery or museum curator fashions wall texts or writes an essay for a catalog, or juxtaposes one picture next to another.  These meticulous decisions are freighted with meaning for art curators -- but for curators of the lives of people with "it" no so much.  These curatorial powers (used by social workers and teachers and doctors and lawyers) have devolved into a standardized practice.  This is who you are, this is what is wrong with you, this is what you need to be safe, and these are the places you can go to be who you are.  To be what you are.

Now let's zero in on the main reason I'm writing all this.  It's about when people with curated lives make art.  Really great, interesting art.  How do we take a curated life and attribute art worthy of curating to it?  History and common practice devalue these lives to the point they need to be curated;  artists without "it" (and who make great, interesting art) are curated in exactly the opposite way.  Their art is curated by credentialed specialists whose mission it is to find what is worthy of being institutionalized.  People with curated lives more often than not are just plain institutionalized (whether it's a nursing home or a group home or their own apartments with supported living staff). 

What I want to try to figure out is how great art made by artists with "it" can smash through the complacency of both poles.  And how the curation of this art can somehow critique and replace the curation of art in the lives of artists with developmental disabilities.  This means you have to almost pull away from both mindsets.  Often when people with "it" make art they are grouped together, and the shows they are in consigned to the level of "community outreach."  When these artists with "it" are included in non-"it" shows, "it" always has to enter the picture and jargon and conversation somehow.  Maybe one of the best moves when this happens is to have every artist in this kind of show reveal their own personal diagnoses -- what society has deemed wrong with them.  Maybe then the playing field might be completely fair.

Maybe the problem isn't about "it," but the way "it" becomes the only way into each sphere.

Who knows.

Here's a snippet from an article in the San Francisco Chronicle introducing Judith Scott (above) to the world in 2002:  "Some favor the totem figures for their primal, symbolic quality. Others are drawn to the boulder forms -- bulky, egglike works that seem complete from any angle. Still others see something simple and gorgeous in the papery sculpture that resembles an ancient Egyptian mummy.  These are all works by Berkeley artist Judith Scott, pieces that have traveled in an international tour, that sell for thousands of dollars.  Some of those who like and collect the art know Scott's story. Others are drawn to the pieces for their elemental quality, for their bursts of color, for their mysteriousness -- the sense that they convey something at once hidden and exposed.  Only later do fans learn that Scott, 59, has Down syndrome. That she is deaf and mute. That for more than three decades, she was shut away in an unforgiving institution, all but forgotten. That Scott, who is one of those rare creatures, an art world star, doesn't know it."  Why do fans need to know her diagnosis?  What does this information add to the objects?  How did the writer know Scott (who passed away in 2005) "doesn't know" she was an "art star."  Is her art stardom predicated on the fact that she "doesn't know it"?  Isn't the "mysteriousness" better served by not aligning her work with diagnostics and her supposed "not knowing"?  I guess what I am trying to think through is how to separate Scott's art from a world Scott probably did not participate in:  while she had to put up with the after-effects of diagnoses and institutions created to "improve her," she resisted by making art.  But the art  is not just evidence of that resistance.  It is a product of her intellect and her ambition to be an artist.  She is a "Quakeress" much more than a "Tavern Girl."