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Outsider Art: Psychosis or Expression of Folk Art-Making?

An argument by folklorist Roger Manley that psychotic or ecstatic origins for "outsider art" are the exception, not the rule, and that instead "outsider art" generally reflects commonly held cultural expectations.

Outsider Art: Psychosis or Expression of Folk Art-Making?

After Annie Hooper died in 1986, North Carolina State University agreed to assume stewardship of the thousands of cement and driftwood figures that represent the immense creative surge of the last 35 years of her life. When a few years later the university was able to assume outright ownership of the work, the occasion was marked by an exhibit of less than 5% of the holdings accompanied by an international symposium featuring several leading authorities on the outsider art phenomenon. Following the symposium, I took the overseas presenters on a brief tour through the South, to introduce them to a number of recognized Southern outsider artists.

The long miles between stops were filled with animated discussions in French, German and English, most often on the subject of authenticity. Clyde Jones’s environment was hardly out of sight before an argument began as to whether or not he was a “real” (i.e. authentic) outsider. When we had arrived at his place, the overwhelming jumble of chainsawed carvings, multicolored paintings nailed to the outside of his house, and mounds of found objects ranging from vacuum cleaner hoses to carpet samples, had convinced the whole contingent that they were at one of the great ur-sites of outsider art. But Clyde wasn’t at home when we first drove up. When he came home half an hour later to find us examining hi yard, his calm and bemused manner confused the visiting scholars. Accustomed to dealing with psychotic artists in institutional settings, they found Clyde Jones’s behavior to be too “normal” to be genuinely “outsider.” Neighbors, many of whom displayed samples of Clyde’s work in their own yards, stopped by to chat with him during the visit, and didn’t behave in any way that would indicate a perception of Jones as anything unusual, other than that they seemed proud for him that his yard had attracted visitors from as far away as England and Switzerland. The friendly everyday atmosphere clearly disturbed these curators and professors, who had grown used to finding outsider art in isolation or at least in conjunction with abnormal social interactions.

This was a scene that would be repeated again and again during the tour. The work seemed odd and unusual out of all proportion to the manner of the artists, many of whom were surprisingly (to the visitors) articulate about the goals and intent of the works. When for the benefit of the visitors I would ask the artists (some of whom I was meeting for the first time, myself) to describe the events that happened just before beginning their creative work, they would almost always provide a variation on the trauma, followed by loss of self-worth, them I have outlined in this paper.

Two years later (in the autumn of 1990) I had an opportunity to travel for a number of weeks through Europe with Genevive Roulin, the curator of the Collection de l’Art Brut in Lausanne, Switzerland, which is perhaps the world’s most important collection of outsider art. With Mme. Roulin and other European scholars I visited outsider artists in insane asylums such as the Centre Hospitalier Specialise in Fleury-les-Aubrais, France; Sanitaria U.S.S.L.3. in Varese, Italy, Petrusheim, near Kevelaer, and Klinikums Heidelberg, both in Germany; and the famous Haus der Kunstler (home for the insane artists) at the lower Austrian National Hospital for Psychiatry and Neurology near Klosterneuburg (called “Gugging” for short, after the founder). Speaking through staff interpreters or (with French patients) through Ms. Roulin, I was able to piece together enough biographical information from the artists I met to get a short glimpse at their creative motivations.

The patients/artists I met in these institutional settings fell into two general categories: patients who had been institutionalized for most of their lives and probably suffered from congenital mental disease or disorder, and those who had led more or less normal lives and had entered treatment as adults or even late in life. These latter people interested me the most, because their lives often bore striking similarities to the outsider artists I had met in the American South. Most of them had begun making art after traumatic, life-changing events, and their new freedom (if it can be called that) from having to earn a living, coupled with the availability of art-making materials in their institutions, had given many of them a chance to devote their full energies to creative activity.

There were some interesting differences between many of these European outsiders and their American counterparts. The European outsiders I met or shoes work I saw in the various collections I visited typically experienced their traumas in connection with one of the two World Wars that wrecked Europe within living memory, whereas the American outsider artists of whom I am aware usually encountered traumatic experiences that are most often economic and individualized.27 The American public’s perception of these wars fought on foreign soil are for the most part distant, impressionistic, and relatively ordered (as simplified by news media and digested in historical recollection), while Europeans experienced them as immediate, real, and chaotic, with the result that they, as individuals, more often suffered great mental stress and emotional damage.

The life-stories of the European artists I met time and again refer to traumatic experienced during the wars. A few examples here stand for the many I collected directly or indirectly (through biographical information gathered by the museums I visited) during the few weeks I traveled. For example, Oswald Tschirtner, whom I met at Gugging and who is famous for delicate line drawings that recall the work of James Thurber, had fought in the German army during the siege of Stalingrad, and then suffered mental disorders while a prisoner of war in Russia and France.28 Miguel Hernandez began drawing and painting while in a French concentration camp after fighting against Franco in the Spanish Civil War. Josef Wittlich began his art as a P.O.W. in a Russian labor camp. Sylvain Fusco started drawing at a mental hospital in Lyon after he became psychotic and mute while serving in a French disciplinary battalion in Algeria. Natalie Schmidtova began painting when her husband was interned in a Russian P.O.W. camp. Jean Radovic, a Serbian who wound up in an Italian P.O.W. camp, was later hospitalized in Switzerland, where he began making colored drawings.

I met an elderly artist named “Theo” in a German asylum (I was asked not to mention the name of the asylum as well) who has portrayed Hitler hundreds, if not thousands of times, always surrounded with densely written descriptions of the war, written on both sides of the paper.29

Other artists I met had not directly participated in the wars, but were nonetheless damaged by the conflicts and were far more obsessed with military imagery than American artists I have encountered.30 Andre Robillard, for example, has been institutionalized since he was 19 years old (Thevoz 1976:54). His room in the Centre Hospitalier Specialise near Fleury-les-Aubrais, France, is crammed with outlandish guns and rockets made from sardine tins, electrical tape, bedsprings, pet dishes, and anything else he finds on his solitary walks around the hospital grounds. Johann Hauser, Augustin Walla, and Johann Fischer, whom I met at the Haus der Kunstler at Gugging, all frequently incorporate weapons and war scenes in their work (Feilacher 1990). Walla has decorated the walls, the ceiling, and nearly every loose object in his room with swastikas and other nationalistic slogans, and has begun to paint the hallway and asphalt drive leading to the part of Gugging where he is housed. It is a measure of the unique tolerance of this institution that they allow him to work without interference.

Visiting these asylums, I realized how easy it must have been for Jean Dubuffet to assume that outsider art was always and only a product of insanity and cultural isolation. But one must not forget that Dubuffet himself had a history. He was disgusted with what he called “the art machine” of salons and galleries, as well as distrustful of the trends and directions of European political history (MacGregor 1991:70). It is not coincidence that he organized the first exhibition of outsider art in Paris in 1949, while France as only beginning to recover from the Nazi occupation. Dubuffet idealized insanity because he needed to, and he set up cultural isolation as a prerequisite because he himself wanted to be done with culture (MacGregor 1991:72).

Ironically, Dubuffet struck a cultural nerve, as evidenced by the enthusiasm with which the “art world” has embraced outsider art in recent years.31 It is an embrace that smothers, as the culture paradoxically tries to get away from itself, by setting up cultural “others” and then engaging them in the competitive structure of commerce and marketing (Gaver 1990:81).

Henry Glassie has pointed out how terminology itself serves cultural purposes, especially as applied to folk art. He makes useful distinctions between what he calls “the nationalistic, the radical, [and] the existential” definitions of the term (Glassie 1989:24), finally recommending the latter as the most useful way to approach the field today:

Our existential definition snaps attention back to real individuals in real situations. It clears away the preposterous structures of false science, recenters on the idea of responsible freedom lying at the heart of the radical definition, and then reformulates it in words suitable to our age. Today we think of folkore not as a kind of material but as a kind of action. It is artistic communication in small groups.

That formulation answers our needs today: artistic communication in small groups. The suggestive word “artistic” gestures broadly. Think of it as the relocation of the impulses to tradition and variability within the intending consciousness of the actor. The artistic act mobilizes the creator, pleases the body and mind, and emerges as comprehensible, because it incorporates shared notions of propriety. If “artistic,” the act cannot be coerced. It must involve the creator’s will. If it is a “communication,” the artistic act cannot the autoerotic or mad. It must reach out to make connections between people. Not everyone is called by the artistic act. It gathers the “small group,” those for whom the act is a communication. During the communication, in the interplay of coherent intenion and coherent response, creator and group become a unity shaped by the creative act. Folklore, existentially, is the unification of the creative individual through mutual action (Glassie 1989:34).

While Glassie’s exclusion here of “mad” artistic acts might seem at first glance to cause problems in relation to some kinds of outsider art, I think his hinging the definition on the idea of communication as central to understanding folklore (and folk art) allows us to look at outsider art the same way.32 Completely mad artistic acts would likely not even be recognized as art at all, i.e., art only is art to the degree that it communicates. Even Adolf Wolfli, whose violent insanity was contained for years in cells and straitjackets, could write on the cover of one of his books of drawings,

All the content of this little book is that it reflects the spirit, the attitude, and the character of an insane person. I hope the friendly reader will be able to appreciate, at its true value, this pastime executed in my cell in an insane asylum (MacGregor 1991:72).

Wolfli’s drawings are different from Marchen in the sense that they do not resemble drawings by other artists as much as a folktale told by one storyteller might resemble the same story told by another, but the goal of communicating is the same.

I like the way Glassie frees everyone from having to be equal participants in the creative act, because it is the surface uniqueness of much outsider art that has prevented it from being considered an aspect of folk expression. On of the standard argument against inclusion of outsider art in the study of folklore is its apparent social nonconformity: the artists don’t seem to be working within a generally accepted group norm. But this actually singles our art-making (specifically, painting and sculpture) as a special category, perhaps only because it is difficult to talk about.33 Folklorists have studied preaching as a folk art, yet the special manner of talk of preachers from the pulpit does not conform to everyday social norms of common speech. Few housewives keep bakers’ hours yet no one would accuse a baker of failing to adhere to community standards of behavior. Certainly folklorists have now seen fit to examine foodways (including that of professional cooks, under the “occupational folklore” category) as a part of folklore. The artist, “outsider” or not, is only one of many individually unique points to which the web of community interaction is attached.

If the lack of a long-term tradition creates problems for folklore study, perhaps we should ask how traditions get started, and at what point do they become folk art? The woman who made the first wedding-ring quilt (or even the first quilt of all) is now anonymous and surely did it a long time ago, but that is hardly reason enough to exclude her initial creative mental leap from the realm of folk art. Certainly no folklorist I’ve ever met would do this (neither would I), but isn’t this what we do when we act as if every folk artifact, both mental and physical, were handed out at Eden? Now that Howard Finster’s children and grandchildren are involved in producing paintings and sculptures in a recognizable Finsteresque style (i.e., apparently a tradition has been started), have they become traditional enough? Georgia Blizzard learned pottery from her grandfather and older sister and her daughter and granddaughter now make it, yet it bears little resemblance to pottery made by more widely recognized “folk” potters. How far does it need to spread beyond her family before it becomes folk? Three generations of Thornton Dial’s family cooperate in making his increasingly well-known sculptures and paintings, and Rosemarie Person now draws and builds furniture in the style of her grandfather Leroy Person.34 What about the late Hermon Finney’s son using his old molds to cast new concrete objects that look identical to the ones he made while he was alive and that now stand in hundreds of “traditional” front yards throughout the region around Elkin, NC? Have these entered the everyday lives of enough people to be considered folk? The fact that all these outgrowths are mostly driven by financial considerations (i.e., the demand for the art sometimes exceeds the ability of single individuals to meet it; see: The Atlanta Journal and the Atlanta Constitution 1986) is by itself inadequate as a reason not to consider it from a folkloric standpoint; the alkaline-glaze potters of central North Carolina learned their craft not because it was fun or artistic but because they could support themselves by doing it (Zug 1986:xiii).

Finally, even if one sets up as a definitional requirement of folk art that it be basically utilitarian (and thankfully fewer and fewer folklorists are espousing that viewpoint), it could still be argued that outsider art passes that test. For it is utilitarian at the deepest levels: it enables its makers to make sense of the world and of themselves, and without that understanding, survival is difficult at best. It is no coincidence that the more “primitive” a society is (at least in a technological sense), the more “art” is integrated into its everyday life, often so much so that it becomes inseparable and indistinguishable from life itself, rather than being relegated to a special category of experience as it too often is when we see art only in museums or galleries.

I raise these questions to attempt to demonstrate that at least to me the distinctions between folk art and outsider art are blurred, and that this state of affairs should beckon folklorists into this new field.35 Certainly they are needed, since so far only psychiatrists and art historians have explored the territory (with particular intellectual or historical points to make), while dealers and collectors have pillaged it (Gaver 1990:76). It is easy to make the unrecorded voices of the inarticulate or those without media or academic access to national culture say anything we want, just as it is easy to take advantage of people who know little or nothing about the marketplace. Folklorists can begin to alleviate some of these problems by visiting these artists and their communities and considering the work within biographical and local historical contexts. As long as it falls within only the purview of psychiatrists, outsider art will seem insane, and as long as only museum curators and gallery dealers call attention to it, it will seem like a category of fine art. By giving a voice to the artists themselves, the isolation that others have described for this work (and that is required by their definitions) will vanish. After all it was never really there to start with.

END NOTES

27. Our nations’ comparatively long experiment with democracy and capitalism, and historical events like the economic disasters of the dustbowl and Depression, are among the many factors that make American historical experience quite different from that of the Europeans.

28. Examples of Tschirtner’s work can be found in Herbeck, Ernst, and Oswald Tschirtner (1979) and Feilacher (1990).

29. Artists whose institutions protect their anonymity are often known only by their first names.

30. Even present-day wars are engendering outsider art expression: a retired Saudi Air Force colonel named Darwish Ali Salamah has built a miniature cement and iron city in front of his Jidda, Saudi Arabia, house; this environment includes medieval castles and a version of the Alamo (he was trained as a pilot in Texas). The New York Times (1990:C3).

31. The “primitive” in general is a hot item these days, as witness not only to the intense market for outsider art, but also for tribal art, traditional folk art, and art by fine art isolates like Van Gogh. Recent issues of interior decorating and fashion magazines frequently feature front-cover articles on folk and outsider art and collection (see Patton 1989; Gaver 1990; Miele 1991; Beardsley 1991).

“Western thinking frequently substitutes versions of the primitive for some of its deepest obsessions—and this becomes a major way in which the West constructs and uses the primitive for its own ends” (Torgovnik 1990:18).

32. Many scholars would disagree. Judy McWillie, an art historian at the University of Georgia at Athens, finds it “profoundly offensive…to lump [artist Mary T. Smith’s] work and that of other black visionary painters in with the art of the insane” (Gaver 1990:84). Certainly it is wrong to imply that black outsider artists are insane because their work springs from the same need to communicate as work by institutionalized artists, but I don’t think it is offensive to say that certain human needs are universally felt and variously expressed.

33. I recall a story about a famous musician, who when asked what a piece of music he just played meant, merely played it again.

34. Thronton Dial is discussed in Gaver (1990:161).

35. Already, of the artists discussed here, Minnie Evans, Howard Finster, Laura Pope Forrester, Annie Hooper, Eddie Owens Martin, Edgar McKillop, James Bright Bailey, and Jeff Williams are listed in the Folk Artists Biographical Index (Meyer 1987) alongside all the decoy carvers and basket makers. And in Europe, work formerly considered “outsider” is often displayed alongside peasant (i.e., traditional folk) gear in excellent small private museums like France’s “La Fabuloserie” in Dicy and “Le Petit Musee du Bizarre” in Lavilledieu. It seems the spirit of the objects themselves, rather than the development of any adequate theories, has suggested such inclusions.

*****

Manley, Roger. The Functions of Outsider Art. Master's Thesis, University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill, 1991: 80-92.

Acknowledgements to: Roger Manley

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