Interesting Ideas

Catching All, Capturing Little

Testimony book cover Hahn book cover Let It Shine: Self-Taught Art from the T. Marshall Hahn Collection
By Susan Mitchell Crawley
High Museum of Art, Atlanta, 176 pages, 2001. ISBN 1-57806-363-9

Testimony: Vernacular Art of the African-American South
Edited by Elisa Urbanelli
Harry N. Abrams, New York, 192 pages, 2001. ISBN 0-8109-4484-7

Does the world really need more exposure to the accumulations of collectors who happen to have sufficient wealth or connections to qualify for expensive exhibits and catalogs?

Not really. Witness two new art books, Testimony: Vernacular Art of the African-American South and Let It Shine: Self-Taught Art from the T. Marshall Hahn Collection, that group together the usual suspects in more or less the same format that has been done to death, adding very little context to what was supplied when David Butler, Howard Finster, Sam Doyle, Mose Tolliver and most of other 50 artists represented here were first surveyed, anthologized and encapsulated decades ago.

It's not that the artists don't deserve attention. But this field needs in-depth one-person shows, or surveys where there is some rigor to the underlying curatorial point. If Mose Tolliver is deemed worthy of inclusion in yet another anthology, is he not important enough for a one-man review that establishes the depth of his personal vision while authoritatively addressing the issues of quality, authorship and authenticity that diminish his reputation? These inconsistent catchalls of quality, importance, intent and meaning -- united by the tastes of the collector -- reflect the continuing immaturity of a field where they are still considered significant enough to publish.

The Hahn exercise is the more easy-going of this pair, which makes it a little easier to swallow even if it's lighter yet in ambition. Opening the book is an interview with the collector, who mostly seems pleased with having befriended some of the artists he collects. An essay by Lynne Spriggs is peppered with some insights and interesting details as she examines a selection of the artists Hahn collected. But there is not enough new here the carry the weight of the book. Linda Roscoe Hartigan offers intriguing, if unjudgmental, glimpses into the history of how southern self-taught art has been collected. But her essay reads like an outline for a longer study that could be fascinating if it penetrated deeper into the issues, implications and darker sides of that history.

The book includes a few artists whose low profile in the self-taught literature belies their talent, most notably Ned Cartledge. His lovely relief carving of an overturned basket provides a striking cover for this volume. Hahn also collected some substantial work. Minnie Evans, Henry Darger, Martin Ramirez, Bill Traylor, Elijah Pierce and other important artists give his collection weight, if no real center of gravity. That, together with its generally brighter reproductions, makes the Hahn volume the better picture book of the pair, if you really need another one to weigh down your bookshelves.

The Shelps' acquisitions seem more middling in both quality and importance, but there does seems to be a bit more of a unifying theme to their collection. Unfortunately, what appears to be a high-minded emphasis on southern black cultural heritage makes this collection feels self-serious, with humor and wit either absent from the work or undervalued in its presentation.

This may partly reflect the influence of Atlanta collector William Arnett, who placed most of the work in the Shelp collection, according to the Testimony catalog. You have to wonder whether there really is a need for any volumes devoted to Arnett-heavy collections like this one after the publication of Arnett's own Souls Grown Deep: African American Vernacular Art, with its hundreds of lavishly illustrated pages covering all but a handful of the same artists.

Judith McWillie opens the Testimony catalog with a polemical essay that adds to its almost lugubrious atmosphere. Her point of departure is the well-trodden territory of what to call the work the show surveys. Surprise: The "outsider art" label is rejected as inaccurate and downright pernicious.

Anyone with a passing exposure to the literature of outsider, self-taught, folk and related art has been exposed to the struggle to define a label equal to the richness of the art. Every few years a new word is floated and then shot down amid quotes from Jean Dubuffet, claims of elitism and questions of whether the work should be labeled at all. The effort is hopeless -- not because the labels are wrong, but because the art does not constitute a single genre for which a universal label can be resolved. In different contexts, for different work, different, sometimes overlapping, labels will be appropriate. But that doesn't stop the posturing over terminology.

In McWillie's case, this means flogging a whipping boy that she styles the "outsider movement." She supplements the usual complaints ("outsider" privileges insiders, it implies artists are not part of their own culture, etc.) with a claim that there is actually a "movement" possessed of a coherent program for exploitation of disenfranchised artists

McWillie attributes to the "movement" the most narrow, extreme definition of outsider art - that it's art of misfits and the insane - rather than the broader insight that people working outside the traditional art world can create art of equal value. There is an irony in condemning as elitist and segregationist the advocates of the idea that you need no elite training or stature to make great art. But perhaps McWillie secretly fears that the outsider concept undermines the primacy of a modernist canon into which she is very anxious to bring erstwhile outsider art (specifically black "vernacular" art).

But are we really supposed to take heart because the inner sanctum has been opened to Thornton Dial, the Bessemer, Alabama, artist who is one of Arnett's darlings? Testimony contributor (and Nation magazine art critic) Arthur C. Danto seems well-pleased that today's art world is liberal enough not to exclude Dial's work just because he is self-taught and a former metal worker. Indeed, Danto argues that Dial owes something to Picasso and other modernists whose pioneering of appropriation and assemblage made it possible for connoisseurs to comprehend as art the appropriation and assemblage practiced by Dial and other ex-outsiders.

The point is actually interesting, as is Danto's claim that contemporary art's declining emphasis on technical skills has contributed to the success of self-taught creators such as Dial. It is no longer the physical art object, he says, but rather the philosophical investigation of it that reveals something to be art. If contemporary artists, trained and untrained, all aspire to the realization of vision rather than the perfection of technique, the work of the self-taught can be welcomed into the fold. This is something of a back-handed welcome, but it's better than rejection. (It might also be said that Dial, of the major contemporary self-taught artists, is least challenging for art world initiates because his art is so close in style to work by contemporary trained artists.)

In any case, self-taught artists themselves typically remain outside the art world discourse that Danto believes confers on objects the status of art. That could be one reason why so many of them don't recognize what they are doing as art, but it also poses the question of how their work can ever become art without being subject to a philosophical investigation conducted by someone else. This situation sounds a lot like what McWillie condemns in the "outsider movement" -- that self-taught artists and their work are subordinate to the values of collectors, curators and dealers.

In fact, without the efforts of critics, curators and collectors who more or less embraced the outsider concept, Danto (and McWillie, for that matter) could never have shown their broadmindedness in accepting Dial. That's because Dial most likely would still be quietly making his things in Bessemer without anyone, himself included, calling it art.

In the most useful version of the outsider art concept, the great insight is that art is not a monopoly of Culture, with a capital C. The point is certainly not that the art world's light has finally shined to transform these objects into art. In the context of views like Danto's, the most amazing thing about outsider artists' work is the extent to which it makes the case for itself as art quite apart from any philosophical discourse. The artist is still at the mercy of the interaction between his or her work and an audience. But neither the art world nor the artist himself need to know it's art -- the work speaks for itself to the viewer without the mediation of arcane explanations or artistic posturing.

That doesn't put arcane explanations out of the picture, though. For one thing, there is always more than meets the eyes to art works of real depth. Even if this work creates its own discourse with the viewer, there remain wheels within wheels that become visible only on further reflection and analysis. That process in turn takes place within an art world in which self-taught artists do not consistently participate, making their work especially vulnerable to extraneous or misguided interpretations.

In particular vogue are interpretations attuned to any sign of African stylistic traces, or to the influence of traditional southern black culture, itself viewed as a repository of Africanisms. As fully as it rejects the outsider concept, Testimony embraces the African one. Fully half its artist capsules make reference to African parallels or to the dominant southern African American culture, as do all the essays.

Unfortunately, these glib references rarely go beyond superficial comparisons and statements of the obvious. Worse, this particular interpretation often feels like an imposition as onerous as any attributed to the dreaded outsider concept. Black artists universally partake of a common spiritual-cultural tradition, it appears, since anything in the work that bears a resemblance to something African or traditionally black seems to automatically justify a definite attribution, without regard to the artist's actual intentions, beliefs or background.

Was it Mary Proctor, for example, who believed that the broken plate in "Blue Willow Plate" was a reference to African-American funerary traditions. Or is Bill Arnett, to whom this interpretation is attributed, the ultimate authority? As in many such interpretations, the artist is never cited one way or the other, perhaps because they can't be counted on to give a satisfactory answer. No matter. Proctor's apparently not part of this particular interpretative discourse but she is black and untrained in art, so she can be made to bear the burden of Heritage in a way that would never apply to, say, Julian Schnabel and his use of broken crockery.

Similarly, did anyone ever ask Mary T. Smith whether her figures with hands on hips reverberated with African meaning? Testimony cites a claim by Robert Farris Thompson that Smith's "arms akimbo" paintings likely constitute a cultural survival of African sentinel figures. Although this imagery hardly seems so unusual or exotic as to warrant special explanation, Testimony repeats Thompson's visual/linguistic case for African influence on Smith's work -- namely his assertion that the akimbo in arms akimbo is "apparently" a "creolization" of "bakhimba," the name of a Kongo society whose sentinels guarded their posts with their hands on their hips.

Thompson has many interesting things to say about African culture and its presence in the New World, but presuming that this Kongo connection meant something in Smith's work, or even that Smith had the term arms akimbo in mind, seems tendentious. The crucial premise -- that there is something African about "arms akimbo" -- is in fact an impressive example of taking superficial similarity to absurd excess, since the Oxford English dictionary references arms akimbo as an English phrase back to the 15th Century.

This does no service to the artist or to African traces that really do exist. It also tends to shift focus from individual vision to a cultural influences that seem nearly ubiquitous, based on the level of emphasis they receive in books like this one. This seems especially odd in a field where highly idiosyncratic visions are prized. And in the case of artists as distinctive as, say, J.B. Murray, it seems almost as though just being black justifies treating the distinctly personal as secondary to a presumed universal black culture.

What would be far more helpful than more recitations of African similarities are studies that identify the real commonalities across the works of self-taught artists from the south, black or otherwise. This could show whether "vernacular art of the African-American South" is actually a meaningful category or just work by self-taught artists who happen to be black and southern, and it could serve as a basis for then understanding where those commonalities might have come from.

Such studies might also show what, if anything, is actually vernacular in the work of these artists. The "vernacular" label seems pretty clearly on-target for certain types of art: quilts, yard shows, hand-painted signs, popular crafts. It's art of the folk, but without the connotation of traditional techniques passed down through the generations.

But is it really applicable to artists like Murray, Smith, Dial, or most of the others in these books? Another trip to the dictionary, in this case the American Heritage, may be helpful. Vernacular implies idiomatic, or, specifically, "1. The standard native language of a country or locality. 2. The everyday language spoken by a people as distinguished from the literary language."

The contrast from literary language makes the term appealing as a softer way of saying "outsider," but you have to ignore the first part of the definition -- standard and everyday -- to make it relevant. Advocates of the term, whose efforts are enshrined in Testimony's subtitle, no doubt see it as helping to restore the cultural connectedness that they believe the outsider concept denies these artists. But it's the precedence of personal vision, eccentric personal vision, over cultural inheritance that makes these artists so interesting. By definition, to call them vernacular is either beside the point or reflects confusion about the term's implications.

This review appeared in Intuit's Outsider magazine.

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