Across the state of North Carolina and throughout the South, ordinary individuals, most of them working on their own without formal training in art, satisfy their need to create something special for themselves by making extraordinary works. They use art for the most ancient of purposes, to express deep feelings and to deal with common human problems. Some make work so personal that it is hidden away in the privacy of their homes; others construct huge environments near busy crossroads so that many may witness the fruits of their efforts. All of the artworks they create are honest extensions of themselves into the world around them. Cement presidents, incised hieroglyphic furniture, apocalyptic paintings, rocket ships, root animals—their works elicit powerful reactions, and they cannot be ignored.
What is this work? Art historians and folklorists have assigned labels to it based on the perceived eccentricity of the art or the artist, on the artist’s supposed isolation from the community at large, or on the fact that the art doesn’t easily fit into any preexisting categories; often ill-fitting terms such as “na´ve,” “outsider,” “visionary,” “isolate,” “folk,” or “raw” have been used to describe this kind of art. Even the label “self-taught” is misleading, because these artists draw on skills they have been taught by others throughout their lives. “Term warfare” has raged for years, mostly among professionals more eager to say what this art isn’t than what it is (Barrett 1986:4). Each of the suggested labels hints at qualities of the work, but none of them completely describes the whole phenomenon. In the end, anyone obsessed with arriving at a wholly accurate term may be forced to agree with Tom Patterson and call this art “The Art That Can’t Be Named—Nameless Art, for short” (1987:38).
Though these artists develop techniques adequate to their own purposes, they are still far to “unskilled” to copy the intricate patterns of high art in away that would open up their work to appreciation by fine-art connoisseurs. Nor has the society to which they belong been exotic enough to recommend them to the scrutiny of anthropologists until only very recently. Though psychiatrists have studied some of this work, they focus on work by the most extremely eccentric and antisocial among these artists. The psychiatrists’ goal is to look for clues to the pathology of psychosis; they look upon their subjects as products of their psychosis—not as functionally creative artists (Morgenthaler 1921; Prinzhorn 1922). Until recently museums and art historians have ignored this work because many of the artist live away from urban centers and cultural institutions, and because the work does not readily fit into accepted canons. Furthermore, the urban market for art has been long in acquiring the range of taste that could make this work accessible to the public.
Even academically trained folklorists have for the most part avoided claiming this work as appropriate subject matter.1 To the majority of folklorists, folk art refers to objects that “come out of a long-standing, informally transmitted, regional tradition, on that is familiar both to the maker and his clientele” (Zug 1985:6). Folk art is something received from ancestors and passed down to descendents, with only slight individual creativity permitted during the process of transfer. At its most extreme, the emphasis of American folklorists has largely been on nineteenth-century Anglo- and German-American utilitarian objects attributed to makers who learned and performed their crafts in traditional ways. The objects crafted in this tradition, such as quilts, baskets, and duck decoys, were originally used and though of by their makers primarily as tools for physical survival and only once the physical needs were taken care of, were they seen as objects for aesthetic contemplation.2
By the most restricted definitions of folklore, Leroy Person’s wife’s quilts and perhaps some of his furniture are folk art, but not his less obviously utilitarian drawings or carvings, despite the fact that both her art and his are make in the same house in the same small rural community, and both solve particular problems.3 Many an academically trained folklorist would literally wade waist deep through Annie Hooper’s sculptures to take a closer look at her husband’s hand-built nets and pronounce those the art.
Because folklorists in the past have tended to define folk art by method of transmission and function, they have often ignored the creation of folk-art objects as a process of problem solving or individual initiative. In a way this is understandable. Before the use of the tape recorder and video camera, contexts of production could rarely accompany objects on their journey from the maker’s hand to the exhibit case. Placement in a museum case or private collection isolates and canonizes functional art, turning it, through a process of recontextualization, from a well-made tool into an artful object for aesthetic contemplation.
While folklorists have narrowed their field of study to include only functional objects that demonstrate a long-term orally transmitted lineage, dealers and collectors riding fashionable waves of sentimental nostalgia or stylish marketability have lumped factory-made weather vanes and carrousel animals, commercial portraits and signs, banners and baskets, decoys and Pennsylvania Dutch fraktur together with the kind of art discussed and and called all of it folk art. This has had the effect of making that term so general as to be nearly useless.
The term that has gained the widest acceptance in referring to the kind of work I want to consider in this paper is “outsider art,” coined by Roger Cardinal to descrive what Dubuffet called art brut (Cardinal 1972). Cardinal describes Dubuffet’s rather specic criteria for art brut (“raw art”): “The artist shall be innocent of pictorial influences, and perfectly untutored; he shall be socially non-conformist, even to the point of diverging violently from the psychological norm (some of the most impressive items in Dubuffet’s collection are the work of lunatics); and he shall not cater for a public” (Cardinal 1978:2). Cardinal and Dubuffet later broadened the concept of art brut or outsider art; in Dubuffet’s words, it “must simply be regarded as a pole…a wind that blows” (Dubuffet 1973:437-439). Though considering outsider art to be a tendency rather than a delimitable set of criteria, Dubuffet still set the “pole” beyond the boundaries of culture and sought out artists who were isolated as much as possible from societal influences; prisoners, the institutionalized insane, and social misfits.
This relatively limited definition has been broadened in the United States to cover much work that neither Cardinal nor Dubuffet would have originally included. This broadening in large part arises from the fact that the more the art is studied, the harder it is to define. Furthermore, so few artists fit Dubuffet’s rigid criteria that their output could not possibly meet the demands of the art market. On one hand, spontaneous art by hospitalized mental patients is now so rare as to be almost nonexistent. Such art has been sharply curtailed by drug therapy, which numbs creative as well as violent behavior, and by institutional art classes, which channel independent spontaneity into standardized crafts and busy work (MacGregor 1988:2). It is doubtful that patients as gifted as Adolf Wolfli or Martin Ramirez could today produce their vast quantities of remarkable work. On the other hand, the work of prisoners rarely accompanies them on their return to the outside world.
In the United States the term outsider art has come to mean art created outside the mainstream traditions of the art world or local traditions of folk art, outside of tribal contexts, and outside of the pursuit of a hobby. As outsider work is gradually incorporated into the art world’s mainstream through museum attention and gallery presentations, and the artists become more aware of their status as artists, even this definition will change.
These artists are not Dubuffet’s outsiders, working in isolation outside their communities. Most of them have raised families, attended church, and held down jobs just like their neighbors. What is remarkable is that such ordinary folks have made such extraordinary things.
But if these people are ordinary, then why did they create their art? The conditions that generate this are often ephemeral and unconscious, but they arise out of a cultural context. It is wrong to attribute the work to spontaneous or accidental creativity and to consider it only as isolated eccentricity or psychosis. Defining the work as an odd manifestation obscures its origins and robs it of some of its essential meanings and deeper implications for society.
1. Robert Bishop, director of the Museum of American Folk Art (New York) has said, “I don’t think there is any such thing as contemporary folk art” (Seibels 1985:6). Considering the increasingly frequent presentation of contemporary works in his own museums, it seems likely that he has modified his beliefs in recent years.
2. In an article written for a popular audience Charles G. Zug maintained that these”…forms of folk art still flourish in North Carolina. Potters, quilters, and decoy carvers remain at work in their native regions” (Zug 1985:7). It seems doubtful that most of them continue to do so for the original utilitarian reasons as their forebears, although the practicalities of needing to generate income remain the same.
3. For supplemental biographical information about Leroy Person and all other artists identified in the text, please refer to the Biographical Appendix.
Manley, Roger B. The Functions of Outsider Art. Master's Thesis, University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill, 1991: 10-15.