Outsider Art:

Slouching Towards Utopia?

James Mann, Ph.D.


There has been a fashion in recent years for what is called Outsider Art, a loose but convenient term that encompasses several overlapping categories: self-taught, visionary, naive, primitive, and folk art.  In 1989, prominent art critic Donald Kuspit gave a lecture at the Hirshorn Museum in Washington, upon the occasion of a large exhibition of three centuries' worth of American folk art then being held at the Smithsonian's National Museum of American Art.

Kuspit said, essentially, that new or recently made folk art is commercially popular now, because the twentieth century's complete reductive dismantlement of high art has left the art-buying public without any reliable standards of esthetic judgement.  Thus the frantic market phenomenon of the Rev. Howard Finster's work, for example, can say more about art-marketing than it does about art-making.

It is not surprising that there are now two large annual retail expos, one in New York and the other in Atlanta, for Outsider Art in the United States.  The great majority of the artwork that appears in these venues is more freakish than fine.   The whackier it looks, and the more gimcrack its materials and construction, the better it seems to sell.  Meanwhile, really fine self-taught artists, like William Thomas Thompson, Ray Schumpert, Marci Gehring, and others, rise completely above this marketing madness, and above the art it promotes.  The Outsider Art included in The End is Near! is generally of a very high order, else it wouldn't be exhibited at LVAM.

Paintings by such artists deserve to be measured against, assessed and analyzed in company with, the best figurative art being made today.  Their work's spontaneous, unstrained and untrained uprising - from the mind, eye, and hand provides not only amazement, but also cause for serious study of the philosophical and esthetic impact of their art.  For any art to have more than a sociological  or anthropological interest - i.e., to present matter for prolonged esthetic contemplation and intellectual analysis - it must have serious claim to being valued through application of the highest artistic standards of its time.  This condition still holds, even if the art is created through the accidental originality of an individual's artistic naivete.

One can cite the case of the French customs official Henri Rousseau (1844-1910), the most celebrated of naive artists.  He was so ingenuous that when Picasso gave a large artists' banquet in his honor in 1908, Rousseau told the Spanish painter that he believed they themselves were the two greatest artists of their day - "I in the modern manner," he said, "and you in the Egyptian."   Similiarly, highly focused and intense art by the likes of Thompson, Schumpert, and Gehring is worthy to be judged by the high-art standards now being recovered and reconstituted by the most advanced artists of our time - those artists now transcending the late-dismantlement esthetic of deconstructive Post-Modernism. 

It is telling that there is relatively little older, antique folk art to be had on the market, especially at events like the two Outsider Art expos, where new or recent work for sale outnumbers old by twenty to one.  Much of the art shown in these venues is basically rubbish - sometimes recycled rubbish.  On the whole, such artifacts offered for sale at these expos can be considered little more than gimcrack, jerry-built components of a large artistic sideshow.  The interest of this kind of art palls very quickly for habitual art-viewers.

The idea of beauty is one that many of these artist and their commercial agents aren't able to entertain or aspire to.  Much Outsider Art is merely crude, and is prized for crudeness' sake.  Crude because its creators can't manage anything more.  Many merchants and collectors in this field offer little or no critical perspective for objectively evaluating the art they promote and collect.  For example, in a recent issue of 20th-Century Folk Art News, one art dealer "Answers Questions From New Collectors About Building a Folk Art Collection": "Q. How do I know I'm buying a good painting? A. If you like it, it's good."   Got that?

The work shown here, in The End is Near! Las Vegas, belongs to a far higher order of critical assessment than this.