Interesting Ideas

Everyday Genius: Self-Taught Art and the Culture of Authenticity, by Gary Alan Fine, University of Chicago Press, 342 pages, 36 illustrations, 2004. ISBN 0-226-24950-6.

No royal road to purity
Gary Fine's Everyday Genius

Early on in Everyday Genius: Self-Taught Art and the Culture of Authenticity, Gary Alan Fine makes clear he is not aiming to resolve theoretical disputes. Relying on his professional distance as a sociologist, he disclaims any interest in settling the field's most nagging issues, whether they be what to call the art, what makes it aesthetically worthy or how it should relate to the broader art world.

But he does aspire to offer rigorous sociology explaining this particular art world. Collectors, dealers, curators, academics and artists all have a strong presence. By raising, if not resolving, nearly every one of the problems that torment the more sensitive souls among them, Fine keeps his book interesting and useful. The writing flows well and the stream of insights reflect Fine's own solid understanding. This is a scholarly work that requires a fairly specialized interest to enjoy, but given that interest, it's very enjoyable.

The sociology is something of an uphill battle, however. The lack of solid, scholarly histories means anyone attempting a social analysis of this field must make do with fragmentary accounts and anecdotes they assemble themselves. Fine's unfortunate, if inevitable, reliance on Julia Ardery's generally unsympathetic case study, The Temptation: Edgar Tolson and the Genesis of Twentieth-Century Folk Art, hampers his own insights. Although Fine's interests range wider than her rather narrow frame of reference, and he doesn't display the hostility she sometimes shows to her subjects, he still repeatedly calls on her book to help him explain where the field came from, and that distorts his account.

Further risk of distortion comes from his sources. Fine's field interviews are anonymous, but his sample seems to favor certain a certain class of collectors and their immediate circles. Whole tiers of participants appear absent. It is an understandable problem, since those who are not prominent are by definition harder to find. But this art world was particularly democratic in its early formation, with the affordability of the art affording a good deal of socio-economic diversity in its collecting pioneers.

A more critical absence is serious consideration of the role of publishing. Fine discusses the lack of institutional support from museums and art galleries but not how that weakness made books and periodicals so crucial to the field's development. The 1982 Black Folk Art in America show originated by the Corcoran Gallery in Washington (an exceptional event among mainstream institutions) was a dramatic introduction to contemporary self-taught artists for the people who saw it, and it deserves the attention Fine gives it. But far more people were exposed to the show through its catalog, which until recently could be found in bookstores.

Similarly, Fine gives major play to Herbert Hemphill's important curatorial role at the American Folk Art Museum and to his personal accessibility to a wide circle of collectors. Yet Hemphill's own 1974 book, Twentieth Century American Folk Art and Artists, and the 1990 book about his collection, Made With Passion, projected Hemphill's collecting proclivities to a far broader audience. (As a relative latecomer, it was Made With Passion that opened my own eyes to the field.)

Fine's references to those and other publications, such as Folk Art Finder, are strictly incidental. He doesn't apply any of his interpretative flair to how these books and magazines themselves helped define the self-taught art world, and how an audience that gets its initial exposure to art via publications might develop in particular ways. Arguably, this atomistic environment has been an important factor in the culture of direct contact between artist and collector that Fine spends a good deal of time discussing as a distinguishing feature of the field. Collectors show relatively less influence from tastemakers at galleries and museums, instead developing their own connections with the art and the artists.

These gaps aside, Fine's book still succeeds as a sort of picaresque, cataloging many of the field's favorite foibles, gossip and issues. The sociology may suffer a bit from the equal weight he gives to opinions that matter and ones that are just amusing. But this pluralism means that wonderful facts and statements pop in every chapter. Some times they're howlers, sometimes insightful; some are trivial, others important. (For instance, a museum director jokes about a collector who was asked, "What do you do with your mistakes?" and answered "I give them to museums.")

Ultimately, Fine can't help getting tangled up in the straw men that litter this terrain. He seems to accept, for example, the dubious notion that "otherness" is central to the validation of self-taught creators as artists, even if he is not entirely comfortable with it. Somehow, an otherly "compulsiveness" and "deep engrossment" are thought to distinguish self-taught artists, as though these conditions are not shared by any number of trained artists. Being black, rural, southern, schizophrenic, obsessive or poor are hardly unheard-of conditions outside self-taught circles. Neither Fine nor other exponents of otherness have demonstrated any characteristic that makes self-taught artists inherently different from mainstream ones, other than their disconnection from the art world.

Fine also cites a related fallacy, the belief that outsider art rises "directly from the unconscious." But he cites no proof that these creators have any more privileged access to the unconscious than what's available to trained artists. They may have different skill and may often be solving different creative problems. But to attribute some kind of spiritual magic to these artists discounts their very human talents and is unfair to the trained and untrained alike. The quality of an outsider artist's work is determined by his or her creativity, just as it is for any artist. There is no royal road to emotional purity.

These points are critical. Focusing on the artists' state of grace places the work's fundamental quality elsewhere than in the art. That risks confusing identity-based categories like self-taught and outsider with the art itself. Indeed, Fine labels the material "identity art." There is no self-taught art, however, just self-taught artists. In fact, other than what's given by the absence of standard artistic conventions and behaviors, there is no consistent relationship between artists' self-taught or outsider identity and the actual content and character of their art. The variance from one artist's body of work to the next is typically much greater than any similarities. In this sense, self-taught isn't different from other terms of convenience, like conceptualism, impressionism and minimalism, that people apply to bring coherence to the overall art world. If taken too much to heart they all mask fundamental differences in the work and the intentions of the people who produce it. It is, perhaps, another sign of the outsider field's immaturity that so much energy is spent debating every nuance of what to call it.

Basing the self-taught categorization on the artist's identity is really just a superficial statement of fact that accomplishes little more than grouping work within the higher category of art. Of the many schools of art, this one in particular does not cohere, given that the lack of commonality among its makers -- whether of training, goals or vision - is exactly the point. Any effort at a single definition or basis of appreciation is hopeless, not to mention unfair, for a field of art based on the overriding power of personal vision.

Fine does a reasonable job of capturing the field's fractiousness, allowing a variety of aesthetic and cultural agendas to come through, along with both sophisticated and simplistic ways of viewing the work. The struggle with labeling reflects that fractiousness, with each label- folk, outsider, self-taught, vernacular, art brut - saying something incomplete. Collectively, though, the labels represent a web of interconnecting concepts that enable collectors, curators, critics, dealers and artists to perform the critical function of turning this work into something that people recognize as art. If the art doesn't cohere, the audience does, at least enough for its community of interest to have created this art world.

Now it's a darn shame that those whose recognition turns tinkerers into artists are, usually, members of one elite or other. (It's a darn shame we live in a world where undeserving elites pretty much run everything.) But without those elites, the tinkerers' output would remain mostly invisible, its quality as art irrelevant. Some art worlds are originated by artists, but not this one. How could it be otherwise since in so many cases the artists don't recognize what they are doing as art until a member of that elite tells them so? This view doesn't win favor among those who feel a greater emotional or political debt to producers than to the generally more prosperous consumers, but it's reality.

This community clearly revolves around the creative work of the artists, even if the exact status of those creators within it is far from certain. Fine early on defines the community as consisting of "self-taught artists and their associates." But while the democratically minded badly want to include artists on equal terms, and many self-taught artists do wind up participating fully, the artists' relationship to this art world remains far from simple.

Fine shows how some members of the collecting elite patronize the artists, applying standards they would never use with people they recognize as equals. The discomforts of class (and in many cases racial) difference drive this less-than-admirable dynamic. Fine quotes one egregious example where artists' supposed culturally deprived backgrounds are cited in reference to the Corcoran show. The begged question: whose culture? Another common manifestation of this condescension comes in discussions of what's good for the artists. The unspoken assumption too often is that they don't know what's in their best interests and need special pleading from their patrons. Collectors and dealers clearly have obligations to the artists, but they are the ordinary obligations of buyer, or partner, or friend, or colleague rather than expressions of noblesse oblige.

These identity-centered dynamics, which Fine mostly treats with appropriate skepticism, are entirely consistent with the quest for authenticity that characterizes the field.

"Folk art is not based on aesthetics - that's the whole point," Fine quotes collector Chuck Rosenak saying. The upshot could not have been represented better than by a curatorial source who told Fine: "You discern it with your eyes, you discern it with your heart, you discern it with your gut." What Fine's source is certainly trying to discern is some kind of authentic essence.

The concept of authenticity all too easily fills the qualitative void left by the absence of aesthetics, but it does have its legitimate role. Among other things, it makes it possible to avoid scams and shams: people outright lying about who they are or what they do. More than that, creating a category and focusing on art that validly falls within it is a useful way to organize the overwhelming quantity of art and artists that clogs our culture. While the vast output of art schools reflects admirable aspirations (and sometimes real artistic virtue), that creates no obligation to want to spend time with it. Creating an art world around self-taught art marks out an appealing alternative territory. It's a powerful strategy for filtering out the dreary output of those whose drive to be artists is far greater than their artistic talent.

But the impulse for authenticity rarely restricts itself to matters of credentials or basic definitions. It more likely plays out as a search for artists who are truly folk, or truly untainted by the marketplace, or truly isolated from ordinary culture, or truly pure of heart. This seductive quest for an alternative to the "mass sameness" that one of Fine's sources mentions is hardly unique to the field of self-taught art. Although in the mainstream art world authenticity is typically an issue of forgery or alterations, there are plenty of analogs elsewhere. Ask whether white men can sing the blues or a franchise restaurant serve good food.

Modern culture lives by standardization, mimicry and cooptation, equally comfortable (and profitable) whether it is manufacturing facsimiles of personal expression, local traditions or historical artifacts. The quest for a truly authentic alternative is understandable, but also, as Fine points out, a form of romanticism. It risks creating a utopian ideal where unattainable virtue makes actual art and artists seem wanting or, worse, sellouts. In the end, the notion of purity vs. commercial culture is as mythical as any utopia. Even artists isolated by the most severely disabilities, after all, are still making it using materials available because of that culture. Anyone interacting with the particular world that surrounds us ultimately interacts with the marketplace that structures it. One can resent that marketplace's power, but it is unavoidable.

As Fine rightly points out, the power of that marketplace extends to its role as a collective validation of a work's authenticity and quality, offensive as that may be to the romantic spirit. In fact, by putting a tangible value on the work, the market acts to assure its preservation. The relative importance of this market validation may certainly reflect the weakness of a scholarly and museum infrastructure that might otherwise apply a less financially driven validation. But to the extent that dealers and collectors dominate the field, it is these people voting with their checkbooks that really do set its standards. And even in more mature contexts, art worlds in our society do not live and breathe except in a capitalistic environment where wealthy buyers and sellers have influence out of proportion to their merit.

Accepting the ubiquity of market forces doesn't mean ignoring how an individual artist's relationship to that market influences their status in the outsider art world. What it really means to call an artist outsider vs. self-taught or folk, and how an individual who at the start doesn't know he or she is an artist makes the transition to post-outsider are fascinating and wonderful questions. But the importance of these labeling exercises should be kept in perspective. Fantasies of purity -- whether purity of isolation, folkness, or intention -- have their worst result in generating obsessive examination of artists' life histories. The cost of demonstrating otherness is the elevation of the artists' characteristics far over the arts'. The circumstances of an artwork's creation, including its maker's biography, certainly have an impact on its character, and this impact is not irrelevant to understanding or appreciating it. But these circumstances in themselves do not make art aesthetically interesting or good, nor do they typically determine its core points of expression. That is why the concepts of insane art or disabled art are incoherent. Those notions of identity speak about the artist; they can say very little about the art itself.

The best defense of identity-based concepts like self-taught and outsider is in how they expand the sphere of creative activity. Fine's book, like nearly every contemporary work on the subject, probes whether the basic organizing principles of this art world ought to be based on an aspect of the artist's identity. The more pertinent question might be what avenues for the discovery of art would be closed if they weren't.

While it's hard to imagine anyone seriously disputing the premise that art can arise in unexpected places and should not be limited to creators with official credentials, the vast majority of such work would remain unrecognized absent outsider field's imperfect biographical categories. How else would people with no access to established channels for producing and distribute their work find anyone to value it?

Fine rightly emphasizes the field's "myth of discovery" and the emotional benefits that accrue to discoverers, with more substantive rewards often following the initial feelings of excitement and creation exploration. But these returns aside, the notion of discovery also resonates with a key point of self-taught art - blazing a trail for of creativity beyond the usual subjects. Discovery is a two-way street, often benefiting the artist even more than the finder.

Still, Fine downplays the intrinsic enjoyment art provides in favor of interpreting it instrumentally, as a form of self-image, status and display for the viewer/collector -- perhaps reflecting an occupational hazard of sociology. Those things may have relevance depending on the person, but over-emphasizing them discounts the direct aesthetic pleasure that is the primary motivation for a large body --- probably the largest -- of enthusiasts.

So pick the label you like best - outsider, brut, folk, neuve invention. Accept that they are all based on the artist's biography and limited in their utility by the fact that most are, as critics love to point out, based on a negation -- the absence of a some kind of cultural connection. Identify the artists that legitimately belong to the category, applying a narrow concept of authenticity to root out outright fakes and misnomers without overselling the intrinsic virtue of the art. (The proper myth of discovery is about finding art, not uncovering saints.) Then start thinking in terms of quality.

Because the labels refer more to the artist than the art, this is a field that can include a range of work as universal as art itself. Strict limits of style, intention and form don't apply to this art world in miniature. All levels of technique co-exist, from Drossos Skyllas' precise portraits to Mary T. Smith's blotchy figures. A galaxy of thematic concerns inhabit this terrain, with some artists drilling into the self, others exploring formal matters of color and shape, and others probing particulars of place. And the art is inspired by all manner of intentions, from filling a wallet with collectors' hundred-dollar bills (per Jim Sudduth, "the champion artist of the world"), to spinning out obsessive personal fantasies like a Henry Darger, to the completely mysterious motivations of creators like Judith Scott who have no language other than art to express them.

And be thankful that for all these people's immense efforts this messy field provides an alternative to the thrift store or the dumpster.

A version of this review originally appeared in Folk Art Messenger, published by the Folk Art Society of America.

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Copyright William Swislow 2004