Book Review: Great and Mighty Things: Outsider Art

“Great and Mighty Things: Outsider Art from the Jill and Sheldon Bonovitz Collection,” Edited by Ann Percy with Cara Zimmerman; With contributions by Francesco Clemente, Lynne Cooke, Joanne Cubbs, Bernard L. Herman, Ann Percy, Colin Rhodes, and Cara Zimmerman, Yale University Press, 288 pages, 245 color illustrations and 1 b/w, 2013. ISBN 978-0-3001-9175-2. Hard cover $60

This is a blockbuster catalog for a blockbuster exhibit at the Philadelphia Museum of Art, yet like a parade of similar volumes it is built around samples of work by mostly well-known artists, each equipped with a one- to two-page biography, followed by essays revisiting popular themes in outsider art, whether the history of the “field” or the nature of black southern art. It’s formulaic, but done with enough competence and insight to represent the best current introduction for folks new to this kind of art.

Like many similar enterprises, this is a bit of a vanity project — something Sheldon Bonovitz comes close to acknowledging in an interview included as a chapter in the catalog (QED on vanity): “Rather than leave it to the Museum when we die and have a show then, why not do it during our lifetime and get the pleasure of having it – of having interviews like this, explaining our views concerning the art, and seeing how the Museum will deal with it and treat it?”

The vanity isn’t just that of the Bonovitzes, who assembled the collection, but of the museum, which has received it with ostentatious pride. And a good deal of the vanity is justified. If the Bonovitz collection is not so unique as the catalog presumes, their very good taste still could not be clearer in the truly outstanding stuff here, much of it collected in depth, including work by Emory Blagdon, Eugene Von Bruenchenhein, Bill Traylor, Martin Ramirez and numerous others.

The catalog’s reproductions of their work are first rate and the writing well-informed, although the formalist in me thinks most of these can stand on par with the museum’s better-established denizens without the clinical details, discovery narratives and other contextualizations the biographical entries provide. (Formalism, I should note, is not the prevailing view in the academic circles that supply catalog essays. Lynne Cook, in her generally cogent essay on the discovery of “outsider” art, expresses apparent satisfaction that appreciation of Bill Traylor’s work has shifted from the aesthetic to the historical and sociopolitical.)

Other exceptional elements here include a media-rich iPhone app built for the exhibit and groundbreaking research into literal material culture. The museum’s conservators conducted what has to be the most thorough forensic investigation ever into the materials used in the creation of this art. If you wonder what Emergy Blagdon built his healing machines from, the catalog’s last chapter is your chance to find out.

This research is part of what makes Great and Mighty Things a big event, even if it’s not the first time a substantial collection of self-taught art has entered the collection of a conventional museum. The Milwaukee Art Museum has the Michael and Julie Hall, Anthony Petullo and Richard and Erna Flagg collections; Atlanta’s High Museum has the T. Marshall Hahn collection; and Herbert Hemphill’s core collection is at the Smithsonian Museum of American Art.

The Philadelphia Museum brings a new level of institutional heft into our little corner of the art world, however. This is a venerable comprehensive museum art where the outsider work joins, among other things, perhaps the world’s finest Marcel Duchamp collection, which is as insider as it gets. And the museum reportedly will be hanging outsider work alongside existing art in established galleries, something no comparable institution has systematically undertaken.

Such a move raises the question of whether distinguishing “outsider” from other art remains a desirable or even viable concept. There’s certainly a sense in which these artists are “associated only through their presence in a single private collection,” as curator Ann Percy writes. Of course they are actually associated in other ways – in other collections, at times by shared culture or class, by the collectors, writers and dealers with whom many of these artists interacted.

But perhaps the salient point is that most of this commonality does not speak to character of the art. “Outsider” and similar labels address nothing intrinsic about the work, or about the artists, even if all too often they are treated as somehow elevated beings – or put another way, patronized as being “special.” What’s relevant to the art is that they are simply creative, and that’s the power of the field – recognizing that creativity is truly common ground.

The real outsiders here may not be the artists, who in general were never nearly so isolated as many once believed, but the very people who call them outsiders. As with most great art, we can only penetrate uncertainly into the real meaning and intentions of this work, with or without the assistance of biography and contextualization.

In any case, this impressive exhibit represents an important step in moving the work beyond the outsider pigeon hole (despite the show’s own subtitle). The catalog fits self-taught/outsider art solidly within the mainstream art narrative, which is no surprise considering the sponsoring organization and why it collects what it does. By some lights, that’s a bad thing, the dominant discourse inevitably dominating whatever it touches. If you believe this is rebel art, the warmth of a museum embrace may be suffocating. But is it really so bad, even if that narrative or this institution is not to one’s own taste? It’s their story to tell, and none of this work ought to be considered exclusive to any given story, biography or community.

Lest anyone think that the remaining controversies surrounding this work revolve around the outsider label and the threat of dominating narratives, it’s instructive to read some of the public comments the museum collected and published on its Web site. Most are favorable and demonstrate the work’s exposure to new audiences. But as is often the case with this kind of online discussion, it’s the negative ones that pack the most punch: “This exhibition is exploitive. If ‘outsider’ art should be institutionally recognized why separate it at all? The Bonovitz’s are just rich people interested in collecting cheap artwork under the mask of anthropology. The PMA should invest in young contemporary artist that truly pushes the buttons of its old people demographic.”

In light of that unhappy thought, thumbing through the catalog, and appreciating the fact that there is a catalog of this quality to thumb through, one can’t help thanking goodness for a dose of vanity.

This review originally appeared in The Outsider, published by Intuit: The Center for Intuitive and Outsider Art.

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