A Specter Hangs Over the Hamptons Couch

Inside the Outsider Art fair

Outsider Art Fair New York 2023, organized by Wide Open Arts LLC, Metropolitan Pavilion (March 2-5 2023 in New York, NY)

There’s Henry Darger! There’s Lee Godie! There’s Bill Traylor! There’s Martín Ramírez! Wait, there’s Ramírez again, and just behind him is Traylor again, and then there’s William Hawkins and Clementine Hunter over there too, hold on, is that Ramírez again lurking behind, oh yes, Darger?

I’m at the Outsider Art Fair in Manhattan, the world’s preeminent art fair dedicated to the sale (and, secondarily, the display) of outsider art since 1993.1 It’s gone international, too, opening a second annual event in Paris in 2013. Some illustrative facts about the Outsider Art Festival: it was founded in 1993 by the art dealer Samford Smith – known affectionately as “Sandy” in the business – a Wharton graduate who according to a profile in one trade publication is “an affable entrepreneur [who] has no plans to retire” (“‘I’ve outlived them all,’ he says of erstwhile competitors”) and who “has spent more than half his life identifying undiscovered market categories” (Judith Gura, “Sanford Smith / founder of niche art and design fairs,” The Design Edit [29 May 2019]). In 2012, “Sandy” sold the festival to Wide Open Arts, LLC – a satellite company of the art dealer and gallery owner Andrew Edlin – which operates it to this day. In an article for the business press celebrating the occasion of the acquisition, Edlin told a reporter, “My feeling is the art market has been strong, and certain artists have proved recession proof…If you look at the auction record you’ll see that, as we know, the one percent is doing OK” (Michael del Castillo, “’Recession proof’ would be real masterpiece; does Wide Open Arts’ Andrew Edlin have it?,” New York Business Journal [1 February 2013]). A remarkable enough statement – never before and never since, one gathers, have almost any of the artists Edlin possesses and sells been referred to as “the [top] one percent” of anything. And certainly in their lifetimes they themselves were anything but recession-proof. Sweaty, on a strangely muggy day in March, approaching the Metropolitan Pavilion in the wastes of the Flatiron district, I didn’t suspect that this building – squat, anonymous, appearing as a cross between a storage facility and an office – was my destination. That is, until I saw the Escalades pulling up and pulling out, the man in the orange vest ushering people towards the door, the gaudy, expensive outfits. Yeah, this is the place, this is definitely an art fair. 

Inside now: the space, despite its size, is packed and hot. The moment you approach a gallery’s booth to look at the art, a representative appears and begins telling you about whichever piece you’re eying: “this is so and so, they’re from such and such, they had a hard life because of x, y, and z, what do you think?” It’s a sales pitch through and through, and the moment I tell them I’m “just looking,” their smile drops and they move on. I can’t fault them; they’re working – but, coursing through the pavilion, there’s the half-frenzied goldfish excitement of the department store before Christmas.

What a selection! All the stars are certainly out today, and my my don’t they look expensive. I’m not going home with any of them – I know that – but, well, basking in the glow of celebrity is thrilling enough as it is. Listen, I didn’t pay the $70 entry fee for nothing.

Their work is being sold by galleries here at the fair,  but check Christie’s and Sotheby’s and you’ll find they’re well represented in auctions for “Outsider Art” and “Folk Art” lots as well. Traylor’s pushing 400k. Ramírez 80k. Darger, well, Darger is taking home 750k on a normal day.

All of these artists are now dead. Traylor was born a slave. Ramírez spent almost his entire life confined in an asylum. The money for which any of these works is being sold after their death would have unimaginably changed their circumstances while they were alive. But then, had those circumstances changed, they wouldn’t be at this fair, would they? 

Darger, the most expensive of the bunch, was a shut-in who lived in penury, creating expansive and disturbing works of art and literature in almost total isolation until his death at 81. Just like Jackson Pollock, Darger once worked as a janitor. Unlike Jackson Pollock, Darger died a janitor.

~

The term “outsider art” has a fraught history. It was coined in 1972 by Roger Cardinal in his foundational text of the same name, but “outsider art” as a label begins with Jean Dubuffet and art brut

In 1922, German psychiatrist Hans Prinzhorn published Artistry of the Mentally Ill: a contribution to the psychology and psychopathology of configuration, which sought to both create a taxonomy of the art motifs of the mentally ill (e.g.“scribbles,” “repetition”) and, more aspirationally, find “the metaphysical meaning of configuration, which civilization generally obscures by establishing extraneous ends.” Even though Prinzhorn’s prized psychological and metaphysical source of configuration (by which he means the urge to create images) remains elusive, he made a landmark contribution to aesthetics: namely, the observation that the art of the mentally ill (in particular schizophrenics) bore a marked resemblance to both “primitive art”2 Which had, a decade or so earlier, so captivated Picasso and his peers (the faces of the women in Les Demoiselles dAvignon, for instance, were influenced by tribal African masks predominantly from the Congo region). as well as the art of the German expressionists (and while the aesthetic similarities are real, the association was also accompanied by the casual racism and pseudoscience of the time). This affinity was, in Prinzhorn’s estimation, the result of the two types of artists’ respective removes from western society – in the case of the schizophrenic, an uncontrollable alienation from the singular self and from society at large, and in the expressionist’s case, a conscious rejection of bourgeois aesthetics stemming from a similar alienation–even if the two were different in kind. 

Around twenty-five years later Jean Dubuffet and his fellow modernists were again experiencing an aesthetic crisis brought about, in part, by another catastrophic European war. Searching for a way to revitalize his work and distance himself from an art scene which had become, in his estimation, too institutionalized, Dubuffet turned, as it were, to the institution. Heavily influenced by Prinzhorn’s work, Dubuffet, along with other fixtures in the French avant-garde like Andre Breton, began visiting asylums for the mentally ill and collecting the works produced by the patients. The collection took on the moniker of art brut, or “raw art.” Following Prinzhorn, Dubuffet defined art brut as “pieces of work executed by people untouched by artistic culture, in which therefore mimicry, contrary to what happens in intellectuals, plays little or no part, so that their authors draw everything…from their own depths and not from clichés of classical art or art that is fashionable.”3 Jean Dubuffet, L’art brut préféré aux arts culturels, Galerie René Drouin, Paris, 1949. In other words, art brut was art unmediated by culture, by history, by anything other than the artist’s own psyche and physical limitations. It was, for the artists, pure immediacy as opposed to the intellectualized and referential art of the academy. 

“Unmediated creativity is a myth, however. Even Judith Scott, sealed inside herself as she was, interacted with the world around her and drew inspiration – or, at the very least, forms – from her surroundings.”

The boundaries of the term, however, have always been malleable, leaving it capacious to the point of bursting. Since art brut’s inception, the term “outsider art” has come to include, by turns, naive art, art made by the mentally ill or the socially marginal, folk art, visionary art, or some combination of all of the above. Generally, the meaning of outsider art has coalesced around an idea of art made by persons without any formal training, who work outside the artistic establishment (though, on the other hand, many so-called outsider artists do have formal training and find their way in and out of the artistic establishment).

The capaciousness of the term also means that the types of artists and works subsumed under its heading will be heterogeneous. But this isn’t just a matter of semantic imprecision: the ideal of unmediated individuality, of the singular object distilled from the impulse to creation, all but guarantees outsider art’s heterogeneity.  

Let a hundred flowers bloom – even though the fair was heavy with the stench of commerce, the art itself still managed to push through. Indeed, the stench only heightened the sense that these works contained within them a spirit wholly opposite to that of their surroundings. 

To take an extreme example of both this spirit and of the ideal of unmediated originality we can turn to the work of Judith Scott (pushing $55k a pop on a good day). Judith Scott was born in Ohio in 1943 with downs syndrome and became deaf shortly thereafter due to scarlet fever. Her deafness remained undiagnosed throughout her childhood, and as a result she was never taught to lipread, to sign, or to speak. Unable to communicate, she was consigned to an institution at age 7, where she spent the next 35 years of her life. When she was 42, her sister took her in and enrolled her in the Creative Growth Arts Center in Oakland California, an art studio dedicated to the mentally handicapped. Scott quickly showed an aptitude for fabric arts, constructing idiosyncratic sculptures from all manner of material – twine, felt, yarn – often tied in thick webs over found objects like shopping carts or chairs. 

There is an idea advanced by the scholar of art brut Alain Bouillet that “the maker of art brut neither invites nor addresses us. The encounter with the other is conjured away and all we are left with is the projection of our own fantasies.”4  Quoted in David Maclagan’s Outsider Art: From the Margins to the Marketplace (2009), Reaktion Books. The absence of the encounter with the other points towards the horizon of free, unmediated creativity that outsider art came to represent, but also towards a pre-linguistic conception of art – one which takes no account of communicability, of theory, of received ideas.

Judith Scott is perhaps the purest instance of an artist whose work, as far as we can surmise, addresses nothing outside itself, which conjures away the other in its creation and, in Scott’s fundamental unknowability, turns the artist herself into an uncrackable cipher. Take “Untitled” (1994), made 11 years before Scott’s death. The piece is a sort of ovoid structure entirely covered with tied and pasted white fibers. The shape of the work, with its soft upward slope ending in a raised and rounded peak, recalls Constantin Brancusi’s bust Prométhée (1911) turned upside down. Indeed, the ivory-white of the fibers and the jutting chin-like point recall at once both the bone of a skull and a surgical wrapping. But whereas Brancusi’s bust radically simplifies the subject’s features into a smooth suggestion of a face – a shadow given tactile form – Scott’s work is haywire and shaggy. 

There is a hermeticism to the piece. It is sealed tightly shut, and the object which gives the work its strangely suggestive shape is hidden from view. Only a small piece of rope peaks out from beneath the ivory-white of the point – an entire universe of mystery contained in that speck of difference. As Boulliet writes, we are left only with the “projection of our own fantasies.” And here, it is tempting to see in this work a reflection of Scott’s own hermetic existence in an institution for the disabled, unable to speak to anyone. The tight winding of the soft fibers corresponding to the speechlessness that conceals and constricts her own clearly vibrant subjectivity. The piece’s suggestion of a skull or a face covered in fraying surgical wrapping becomes the very image of that subjectivity seeking to exceed its constraints, the rope a glimpse at the world underneath. This piece, more than perhaps any other, moves me almost to tears. In it is distilled the entire struggle for communication, the entire tragedy of that struggle’s frustration.

Unmediated creativity is a myth, however. Even Judith Scott, sealed inside herself as she was, interacted with the world around her and drew inspiration – or, at the very least, forms – from her surroundings. And the outsider artist is often a folk artist of sorts as well – someone who consciously depicts their milieu, remains open to the world around them, and returns back to the world its image reflected through their singular prism. 

Bill Traylor – who is, along with Darger, one of the celebrities of American outsider art – crafted his own radically stripped-down visual language, which, despite its strangeness, remained rooted in the segregated American South. Traylor was born into slavery in 1853 (his exact date of birth is unknown) in Benton, Alabama, in bondage on the plantation of George Hartwell Traylor. At the end of the Civil War, Traylor, like many former slaves, remained in conditions of servitude, working as a sharecropper on the same plantation on which he had been enslaved. After fathering a number of children and spending around 75 years on the plantation, Tralyor relocated to Montgomery, Alabama. In Montgomery, Traylor, unable to find steady work and then ultimately unable to work altogether due to deteriorating health, slipped into homelessness. It was on the streets that Traylor first began to draw, eventually attracting the attention of Charles Shannon, a local artist. Shannon supplied Traylor with (cheap) materials and went on to exhibit his work. In a sense, Traylor, entirely self-taught and living on the margins, was adopted into the art world late in life. At his first show in New York, Alfred Barr, then director of MoMA, offered to buy Traylor’s smaller works for $1 each and the larger ones for $2 each. An insult – the offer was rejected. Oh, but what an investment it would have been.  

Traylor’s visual language, strangely, has to my eye a close affinity with Kafka’s draftsmanship, with cave drawings, and there’s something germanic and medieval about his figures as well: their flatness, their cracked but deep opacity, the village scenes – I’m not an anthropologist, but Traylor’s work approaches something like a universal peasant grammar, should such a thing exist. 

Consider Untitled, (Drinking Bout) (1938-1943), a pencil drawing on found cardboard in which 5 figures appear, the flat picture plane cut by a triangle emerging from beyond the frame to a point which divides the image at its top third. The figures, each seen in profile, a single round pupil carved into a cavernous sclera – in lower left: a man in a hat holding a jug and tilting back in a chair; to his right a man pointing at him; a bird stretching upwards above this second man, divided in half by the right edge of the triangle; a smaller, also hatted man above and just left of the bird standing on the top of the triangle (no longer background now but solid ground); holding the hand of a figure with large buttocks, half their head cut off by the edge of the frame, standing on the other side of the tip of the triangle. 

The figures in the bottom 2/3 of the frame are all in black; the two human figures in the top are rendered in a muddy brown. All against a neutral, pinkish-tan background; the triangle suggested by two black diagonals. It is, like all of Traylor’s work, an enigmatic scene. Despite the flatness of it, the work is full of motion – every single figure adds a layer of dynamism. The drinking man tilts; the pointing man lunges; the bird flies, seemingly pulled upwards by the air itself; the hatted man on the triangle pulls; the figure he pulls resists and pulls back. But still:flatness. The figures gesture but the space constrains them; there is nowhere for them to go in this void. This tension between motion and stasis, between life and death, concentrates each in greater degree to the point of bursting. 

But what is it actually depicting? To venture a guess, it’s a street scene: a drunk falls backwards in his seat, another man points and lunges towards him in mockery or in concern, up top a man (the mirroring of his hat with the drunk’s suggests to me that he may also be drunk) pulls a woman (?) downhill, but she resists; or is her pose one of intoxication instead of resistance, her head rolled back in a stupor? And the bird – animals figure prominently in Traylor’s work – the bird ties the scene together. We’re outside, we can guess that much. But more than that, the bird is the formal crux, the bridge between the scene playing out on top and the one below.

This intuitive understanding of form, this idiosyncratic iconography, these distinct figures, the colors and irregular framings were born, like so much genius, within the limitations of poverty. Not only does Traylor’s work depict, on the everyday level, his socio-historical context; his use of everyday materials like found cardboard and paper scraps, pencil, and poster paint, seems perfectly formed from it as well. But still, the uniqueness of his work – and indeed, despite affinities like the ones I hazarded above, there is nothing else like it – gives it a timelessness both ancient and refined by some as yet developed sensibility.5 Perhaps it is the immediacy of outsider art works, their often flat perspective, their ostensible access to raw creativity which speaks to us. There is a sense in which they remain unmediated by language, unlike much contemporary art which is instead saturated by it. The task of the critic, Benjamin wrote, is to mortify the work – to give flesh to the spirit, which also carries with it the sense of to mortify as in to debase and discipline. To return the work to its earthly place, to its place in discourse. But art’s linguistic turn, in part a response, an ex-ante defensive attitude, to its own impotence means that often it comes to us pre-mortified. The artist’s statement and wall texts crowd out the work itself. We are given the body, in other words, without the spirit. Outsider art’s lack of self-consciousness of itself as capital-A Art is thus part of its appeal as art – it leaves again the work of mortification to the critic, concerning itself with the image above all else.

Traylor the man, however, was mortal. He was estranged from his many children – most of whom went north during the great migration – though he did manage a visit for a short period of time towards the end of his life. He developed gangrene on one of his legs, which ultimately required amputation, after which he was cared for by one of his daughters who remained in the South. And, despite the minor institutional attention paid to his work, he died as he lived: penniless in Alabama.  

~

This would look great above the couch”

Right back in the fucking meat market. 

It was a woman who said it, at the fair – she’d been looking at a piece, gestured to her husband, and said it just like that: “this would look great above the couch.” Not just any couch, now that I remember: “the Hamptons couch” – too good to be true. 

“To the extent that modernism or even postmodernism or the avant-garde (if it still exists) have been officially recognized as such, the jig is up. Recognition and incorporation into the market schema is simultaneous.”

Maybe it was Traylor, maybe it was Clementine Hunter. Doesn’t matter – they’re all dead, and here this woman is trying to kill them all over again. What is it Benjamin says? Right: “even the dead will not be safe from the enemy if he wins. And this enemy has not ceased to be victorious.”6 Walter Benjamin, “Theses on the Philosophy of History.” Illuminations (1968) The same winners of this society that consigned these people to lives of poverty and violence – misery from which they nevertheless managed to create works of lasting value without ever ignoring or glorifying their condition – these same winners now assert their victory all over again, decorating their homes with the spoils of class war. 

I’m sure this is part of the appeal too. Traylor was a former slave, and he paints? Say no more – sold!

~

In Outsider Art: From the Margins to the Marketplace, David Maclagan writes, “It is as if Outsider narratives of creative awakening are more extreme versions of what we expect to find in the wider world of art: they include a familiar range of events that could be said to constitute a break in someone’s life, such as psychological trauma, mental breakdown or physiological injury, but these can also have been present so early that they function as a starting point rather than a turning point.” In this sense, outsider art today is little more than a marketing gimmick, a demarcation line delineating how much trauma (au courant) one needs to be considered sufficiently “outside.” But in any event, it is often the trauma or the fact of the marginalization that is the selling point instead of the artwork itself. Indeed, the cults of both novelty and authenticity demand increasingly esoteric and downtrodden artists who can be said to have been “discovered,” thus providing the collector with a simulation of the genuine sense of discovery typified by Debuffet, while also serving, in exaggerated fashion, the social-alibi function of art collecting. 

Traylor was a rare artistic talent, a conduit of centuries of history and millennia of representation. Now he’s hanging above some rich white family’s fucking couch. 

Is anyone making outsider art now? The better question is, did anyone ever make outsider art?  

I’ve been gesturing at it, but here’s the problem: outsider art, simply, does not exist. Perhaps in Dubuffet’s time there was a greater claim for its existence, but even then it represented the pole of an artistic continuum, its exemplars always at some remove from the ideal. But then, starting in the 1960’s and avalanching towards the distended corpse we see today, the market’s hegemony in the art world became absolute. Financialization turned art into a speculative asset, destined for the temperature and humidity controlled warehouse lest it lose a cent in value; depoliticization turned it into decoration to the extent that it is even viewed; the ever increasing saturation of daily life with images turned it into background noise. 

Even Dubuffet was aware that art brut or outsider art contains the seeds of its own destruction. As he began exhibiting their work, he knew that the solitude and “purity” of outsider artists, as the world came to accept their aesthetic merits, would ultimately be compromised.  It was their remove from the world, after all, that was the ostensible source of their originality. Drawing the world’s attention, then, was bound to turn the artist’s attention outward as well, tainting them with culture. 

In the era of outsider art’s inception, it was possible at least in principle to escape the hegemony of the image. Today the prospect of remaining untainted by the advertising image, by the smartphone camera, by the image of the self, by the daily barrage of kitsch is, for those of us in the United States at least, unrealizable. Thus the idea of “pure creation” untainted by the outside, a pure expression of the artist’s innermost consciousness, is even more of a fantasy than it already was. As the political economy of art has changed in such a way that making a living purely as an artist becomes untenable for an ever greater majority of artists, the idea of an untrained artist tapping into or cultivating a unique aesthetic sensibility unlike both the world at large and the art world proper seems dimmer.7 See, for example, the proliferation of a certain cartoon aesthetic among a vast number of untrained artists which shares overt similarities with advertisement, anime, and the cute (which, as Sianne Ngai explains, is the aesthetic form of the commodity).

Even as early as 1979 Roger Cardinal, one of the curators of the Hayward Gallery “Outsiders” show, suggested that “in the end, there is really no such thing as Outsider Art, no more than there is such a thing as the General Public. There is only the ferment of individuality, that is: the contrary of anonymity and generalisation.”8 Maclagan, 172

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It’s a pretty thought, but no, it’s not quite right. We’re thinking in the wrong terms here, and we must reset. Recall Bouillet’s line about the absence of the other: in outsider art “the encounter with the other is conjured away.” Bouillet meant this in a general sense, but we can update his formulation by circumscribing the “other” of which he speaks. In outsider art, which is not addressed to the gallerist or collector or critic, what is conjured away is not the encounter with the other writ large, but with the Art-World-Other that is now coextensive with the market. In this sense, an artist like Traylor remains outside (his two gallery shows were his patron’s doing) – the outsider artist’s work is addressed to a different audience, or, in its address to no audience at all, it can speak in a more general sense to the context of its creation and the organic community of people and artifacts therein.

If, as Jameson writes, the Frankfurt School saw in high modernism “the locus of some genuinely critical and subversive, ‘autonomous’ aesthetic production,”9 Fredric Jameson, “Reification and Utopia in Mass Culture.” The Cultural Turn: Selected Writings on the Postmodern, 1983-1998 (2009).  that hope for art’s potential must be understood within a specific cultural and historical moment. Indeed, in the current moment, though modernism retains a certain critical stance by virtue of its remove from mass-culture, it can no longer make any strong claims towards autonomy. To the extent that modernism or even postmodernism or the avant-garde (if it still exists) have been officially recognized as such, the jig is up. Recognition and incorporation into the market schema is simultaneous. And once in the market, art takes on a new valence. Just as the “‘public” of mass culture wants to see the same thing over and over again – hence the urgency of the generic structure and the generic signal”10Ibid – the same holds true for the public of “high art.” The market homogenizes, sure, but desire becomes homogeneous in turn. Artists and art critics (myself as well) like to unpack (or invent) the layered meanings and humane message contained within a given artwork. But in the market, these works, these signs have only one signified. All the diversity of possible meanings that art objects may contain are reduced to a single meaning, “high art” –  and all that it means for something to be “high art” is that it’s capable of conferring status to its possessor, or providing the worst and richest among us with a weak justification for their position. Thus “high art,” in its actual multiplicity, is subsumed under a single heading—in order to fulfill its purpose as social-alibi, “high art” must be acknowledged as such; various forms must become a single recognizable type

Outsider art, at its best, defies this process because it generally has no pretensions to being high art, is ideally uninfected by institutionalized forms and content and method, and is made for a wholly different audience with different demands (if it is made for an audience at all). Thus it retains a kind of aesthetic edge, an unrefined originality increasingly absent from officially sanctioned art. In an art world dominated by hyper-profitable galleries, by market-driven hype, by billionaires seeking to launder both their money and their reputations, the beauty and allure of outsider art is precisely its existence outside this world, its embodiment of l’art pour l’art not as the culmination of fascist aesthetics Benjamin saw it, but as a genuine representation of the alternative modes of living and seeing promised by art, of the joy of creation for its own sake, which is political in exactly the opposite way as the objects of Benjamin’s critique.11 Walter Benjamin, “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction.” Illuminations (1968)

Outsider art, at its best, defies this process because it generally has no pretensions to being high art, is ideally uninfected by institutionalized forms and content and method, and is made for a wholly different audience with different demands (if it is made for an audience at all). Thus it retains a kind of aesthetic edge, an unrefined originality increasingly absent from officially sanctioned art. In an art world dominated by hyper-profitable galleries, by market-driven hype, by billionaires seeking to launder both their money and their reputations, the beauty and allure of outsider art is precisely its existence outside this world, its embodiment of l’art pour l’art not as the culmination of fascist aesthetics Benjamin saw it, but as a genuine representation of the alternative modes of living and seeing promised by art, of the joy of creation for its own sake, which is political in exactly the opposite way as the objects of Benjamin’s critique.

But under our totalizing market system, is such a thing still possible? No. But possibly, if we make it. It is the tragedy of art under capitalism that, per Jameson again, “it becomes one more branch of commodity production, the artist loses all social status and faces the options of becoming a poète maudit” – or a decorator. The problem applies even more forcefully to the outsider artist, for whom the market represents a cancellation of their status. With the institutionalization of outsider art, the organic artistic impulse represented by the outsider artist is threatened by the claws of the market, a market which makes qualitative as well as quantitative demands and which, though this process may be subtle, shapes – pre-corporates – the works it gobbles up. What’s more, in the erosion of the hard line between amateur and professional artist, the market’s logic has extended itself even further. As notions of what constituted art became more capacious, and as the market looked outside the academies to appeal to more heterogeneous tastes and feed the cult of novelty, the line between trained and untrained began to matter less and less. Likewise, social media removed the artists’ need for gallery spaces to sell and display works (though galleries remain a prerequisite for “official” recognition) – increasing the prospect of amassing a large following as an amateur (indeed, the conceptual turn in the art world sealed it further from the public at large, while the generally graphic and representational quality of much amateur art renders it more accessible to a wider audience). Thus, the idea of being an artist, which is now intimately tied to and pre-corporated by the market, infects many of those outside the market as well – those who, in their work, enact a kind of pantomime of the already-canonized.

In this disintegration of boundaries, however, lies a utopian kernel, if only because it has clarified our target. We can see it in outsider art’s former separation from consumer society, from its very place of marginalization. Even the art of the mentally ill, Dubuffet’s starting point for the outsider art movement, hints at this utopian promise. The promise is this: “to say that the group exists and that it generates its own specific cultural life and expression, are one and the same.”12 Jameson, “Reification and Utopia in Mass Culture.” The dialectical movement contained within outsider art is that, since capitalism has atomized the individual while simultaneously homogenizing their desires and production, it is primarily through the most isolated, most marginalized individual, whose creations are to the greatest extent possible unrelated not only to both “high” and mass-culture at large but even, in this separation, to other individuals, that the new group, the new possibilities for class struggle on the terrain of culture emerge. The task of the artist today is to craft from a hyper-individualized aesthetic expression the forms and expressions of the social milieu from which the marginalized creator emerges, and so to build the conditions for collective understanding and action. 

This cannot be, and must not be, a mere recapitulation of the existing semiotics of a given community, incorporated, as it must already be, into what consumer society hideously refers to as “authenticity.” These signifiers and forms as currently practiced and utilized present no challenge, no way forward. This is not to say that there is no aesthetic value in these forms; indeed, there remains aesthetic value, immense aesthetic value, in even the most feted and institutionalized art. Rather, it is to say that the class struggle in culture cannot be waged on familiar terrain.

If outside means anything at all it means outside the market. The way you get there is class struggle. You get there by building up institutions that allow people to reproduce themselves with ever greater distance from the market. 

~

The kernel is there, but we can’t get at it unless we crack the nut. So what is to be done? The majority of artists are already de facto excluded from the market—the key is to turn this exclusion into a conscious political refusal, and to set up institutions that allow people to reproduce themselves as artists – not as gig workers with a canvas – with ever greater distance from the market. Which means that it must be the “proletarians” of the artists who conduct the struggle. It cannot be the galleries, or the auction houses, or the museums; nor can it be the blue chip artists like Anselm Kiefer or Gerhard Richter or (it’s comical even to mention his name in the same breath as class struggle) Damien Hirst, all of whom have, despite their immense achievement (not Hirst), become brands, imbricated in the structure of the market itself. 

In more concrete terms, community outside the art market could take a number of forms, none of which are mutually exclusive as means to an end:

Disruption as a method of cultural class war must return.13 I would never advocate for illegal actions: things like tagging the walls and windows of mega-galleries such as Gagosian or selling bootlegged or counterfeit prints of works on auction outside Sotheby’s for bargain bin prices or throwing paint on the latest Koons monstrosity. I would never do that, so instead I will advocate for legal actions here.  We can look to the Letterist International (which would later become the better known Situationist International) – who themselves took inspiration from those other great artists of refusal, the dadaists – for guidance. Take the Letterists’s 1956 Ordre de Boycott. The Ordre, as Domonique Routhier explains in With and Against, was a call, released to the public, to boycott the Cité Radieuse festival in Marseille – “where nothing is lacking that in twenty years will represent the imbecility of the 50’s” – which was set to gather a number of literary and artistic luminaries in the city (even leftists, like Samuel Beckett and Agnes Varda). The boycott demanded that those artists who “don’t feel themselves to be finished” dissociate themselves from the festival and refuse to show up.

Political action at museums and art shows is becoming more common as the dependence of the art world on all manner of financial and political evil – from defense contracting (the Whitney) to big Pharma (the Sacklers, well, everywhere) to Zionist apologetics (Lévy Gorvy Dayan Gallery, and so many others) – become better known. But the difference between these laudable actions and the Letterist action is that whereas the former targets the funders of the art world, the latter targets the artists. Less important on general political grounds, but more important for our purposes (and, though of course they can overlap, aesthetic action without political action is an empty gesture).14 Indeed, the resurgence and expansion of the Palestinian solidarity movement in the wake of Israel’s genocidal campaign in Gaza has forced a reckoning with art institutions’ tacit or explicit support for Zionism – in their refusal to implement cultural boycotts of Israel, in their collaboration with Israeli art institutions, in their dealing with Zionist collectors. This political reckoning provides a ripe opportunity for an aesthetic reckoning as well. Disaster – from the two world wars and the Shoah to Vietnam have revealed the emptiness, or worse, complicity with the lifeworld that led to these conflagrations, leading, in turn, to reevaluations of form, often directly antagonistic to what came before.

Artists must realize that they are not all in this together; that, indeed, they have enemies within the art world on both a class and an aesthetic basis: artists who degrade the value of art in society by virtue of their ubiquitous kitsch production (Banksy) or by their proximity to and reinforcement of market structures (Koons, Hirst). Class enemies or class traitors – enemies nonetheless. An artist persuaded of the Letterists’ mission learns to take advantage of more compromised artists’ reliance on their reputations vis-à-vis other artists and the gallery system (and ideally the public, to the extent that an art public exists, as well). In a sense, the moment for such confrontations is more ripe than it was in the 50s: contemporary society, in its barbaric positivity, abhors confrontations (except those provoked by the police). The shock, then, of a return to negativity, to enmity, would perhaps be even greater now that it was in the Situationists; heyday, when politics and the staking of aesthetic positions still seemed possible. The point here is not necessarily to build any lasting structures – a politics of pure negativity burns itself out – but to push forward the ethos of refusal, to clear the negative space upon which the affirmative can be built.

On the positive side, there should be a general political push for arts funding schemes which make it possible, for a time at least, for people to be artists and only artists. So many would-be professional artists (like the rest of us) are not currently engaged in socially useful labor. They waste away at temp jobs, hunched behind a screen watching the emails stack up. Funding programs could take the form of public works projects (like the New Deal-era projects where artists like Philip Guston cut their teeth), putting artistic talent to social use and at the same time bringing together atomized and disorganized laborers, thus providing a basis for future organizing.

Outside the public sector, cooperative economics, already a hallmark of artist’s spaces and small magazines, ought to become both more widespread and more political in its outlook. Subscription-based, community-run studios could provide the raw materials and spaces for production; printing, promotion, and sales networks could spring up alongside or independently from such spaces, with revenue shared evenly or by democratic arrangement among participants. But in all cases, participation in cooperative spaces must be contingent upon a boycott of traditional market structures. The point is not simply to provide the means for the creation of art, but to pursue a strategy of building dual power, one which takes advantage of the naked rapaciousness of the art world as currently constituted to state its case and to attract established artists of conscience away from the market system.

No recipes for the cookshops of the future, I know, but this is the present – the future is what we’re after. None of these solutions are utopian, none an end in itself. Rather, they are salvos in the battle to build greater and greater space outside the market where genuine art could flourish. That is, they are salvos in the battle to abolish the market altogether. One eye always on the art, yes, but the other turned towards the horizon. 

That horizon, in brief, is the end of the artist as such. Without the market – should we succeed in abolishing it – all art becomes outsider art, which is to say that the distinction between outsider and insider would no longer pertain. Artistic production can again represent an organic expression of different social realities, can develop freely without financial imperatives, can be exchanged and revised and destroyed and revived purely on the whim of the creators.

This is not to say that art would become more simplistic or regress aesthetically to older forms – not, emphatically not, a demand for a state style. Indeed, one of the main attractions of outsider art for artists like Dubuffet was the unfettered creativity, the forward looking forms and hues and techniques, to be found in its best creators. Freed from market demands, rather, long-forgotten styles can blossom and develop, new idioms emerge, new modes of representation flourish. Indeed, “outsider artists” like Winfred Rembert – a former sharecropper, civil rights marcher, and lynching survivor who learned leather working while incarcerated and proceeded to create the most magnificent, Jacob Lawrence-esque scenes, entirely on worked and painted leather – demonstrate that folk craft, learned and honed outside the art world, can be, and always has been, art. A resurgence of such art, with the varied materials and techniques it brings, seems a natural consequence of the freedom to create outside the auction houses’ demands for large canvases.

To paraphrase Marx, I can hunt in the morning, fish in the afternoon, and paint at night, without ever being a hunter, a fisherman, or a painter. This describes the outsider artist from the position of marginalization, but it equally describes the artist under conditions of communism – which is, as always, the ultimate horizon. But in the abolition of the artist, artists gain so much more than they lose. Art can, once again, be a part of production of our life in common, with a hitherto unknown aesthetic freedom.

So to pose the utopian challenge differently:

You can either be a decorator, hanging your finest achievements above a banker’s couch – or you can struggle against this rotten order and, at last, become an artist. ~

Author

  • Jake Romm

    Jake Romm is a writer and human rights lawyer currently based in Brooklyn. NY. His writing and photography have appeared in Inkstick Media, The New Inquiry, Hyperallergic, Photograph Magazine, Protean Magazine, MAP6, Yogurt Magazine, The Brooklyn Rail, Midnight Sun, Iterant Magazine, and elsewhere. He can be found on twitter at @jake_romm and on instagram at @jakeromm.

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Strange Matters is a cooperative magazine of new and unconventional thinking in economics, politics, and culture.