Interesting Ideas

Review — Outsider Art: Visionary Worlds and Trauma

Outsider Art: Visionary Worlds and Trauma, by Daniel Wojcik. University Press of Mississippi, Jackson, MS, 276 pages, 174 color illustrations, 2016. ISBN: 978-1496808066. Hardcover, $45

Can we agree that the art still sometimes known as outsider is much more interesting than what to call it? It might seem a simple enough proposition, yet arguments over the label continue to distract from the art, even among those who consider the debate mostly fruitless.

Daniel Wojcik’s book is a case in point. When it’s good, it’s very good, providing sensitive, thoughful accounts of the art and its creators, with real insights into the psychological, cultural and practical dimensions of their art making. Wojcik does consume a few too many precious pages diving into decades-old polemics, however, recounting the traditional indictment that charges the O word with elitism, exclusion and marginalization.

All the imperfect terms used to describe this (or almost any) art are bound to be off the mark-too broad or too simplistic, reductionist or vaporously general, elitist or blandly inclusive. Yet “outsider art” is entrenched, in part because it captures something distinguishing about the art, including its creation outside the mainstream art world by people who typically don’t consider themselves artists, at least at first. Stubbornly, it remains a convenient descriptor for dealers and collectors who would be exhausted by the ordeal of finding a label acceptable to scholars and critics who take labels far more seriously than they do.

Taking things seriously is part of a scholar’s job, of course, and the promotional narratives of dealers and shorthand enthusiasms of collectors are no substitutes for real research. But not all the problematic implications that can be unpacked from the term are necessarily intended by its users. Even if the rest of us don’t always go deep in our understanding of the art and artists, being shallow is not a moral failure, nor does it necessarily make you an elitist marginalizer.

It appears the battle will drag on until unconditional surrender is achieved among those who still call the art outsider. Even then, god still help you if your appreciation of the work is “formalist.” An emphasis on core artistic qualities rather than quality of cultural expression apparently insults an artist’s heritage, at least for those seen as having one, African Americans in particular.

Like many of his colleagues, Wojcik criticizes “the decontextualized and formalist approaches that continue to pervade the descriptions of outsider art,” disrespecting creators and denying their voices. Citing the art historian Kenneth Ames, he implies that formalist standards might be OK for “elite” artists, because they themselves embrace this “elitist mode.” But contextualization is apparently the form of appreciation preferred for others, even if it’s hard to imagine most self-taught artists finding it offensive to enjoy one of their pieces entirely on its own merits and separately from their cultural context.

Despite the whiff of paternalism in the passion for protecting these artists from formalist admiration, there is no doubt that how powerfully art expresses culture can contribute to its importance. But is that the only way to understand it? “Elite” artists often achieve greatness precisely in how they step outside or beyond their cultural moorings. Why isn’t the uniqueness of individual expression just as valued in the work of self-taught artists? Of three poles of understanding-biography, context, form-who is to say that only one or two matter or, even, that all must matter equally all the time? All three can be mutually enriching, but what to emphasize is a reasonable choice we can all make, with the right emphasis depending on our own context.

Wojcik is certainly correct to emphasize how a sympathetic understanding of an artist’s own thinking and environment helps elucidate their work. “Many individuals labeled as outsiders are actually ‘insiders’ within the context of their own communities, and they create art that draws upon common aesthetic and cultural traditions; but their ways of making things are unfamiliar and appear idiosyncratic to the urban and white-dominated community of outsider-art dealers, collectors and writers.”

That is true to a point, and true of some artists more than others. Howard Finster’s beliefs certainly seemed alien to many of his fans, yet it’s safe to assume that his self-presentation as a “stranger from another planet” meant stranger to his neighbors as well to urban elites. His fascination with aliens and his friendly incorporation of mainstream pop icons like Elvis, aliens and dinosaurs into religious iconography clearly separated Finster from his vernacular religious context-not a total disconnection but enough to move him somewhat outside north Georgia community norms, whatever you want to call his art. Wojcik is right to argue that Finster’s beliefs, including his views on aliens, were not unprecedented-and should be taken seriously-but at times he works a bit too hard at trying to make them seem conventional.

The impulse to normalize outsider artists is understandable given a not-uncommon tendency to patronize them as “special” in some vaguely mental or spiritual way. There’s also the art brut heritage of seeking wellsprings of creativity in asylums, those monuments to marginalization and otherness. Seeing any of these artists as untainted by culture, pure in spirit or magically authentic, is a reductionist barrier to understanding them and a misrepresentation of their actual existence.

Only someone in cultural denial doesn’t notice the strong presence of shared symbols and meanings in the work of a Martín Ramírez. Ditto for many artists of African American extraction, many of whom are undoubtedly far more comfortable within their communities than outsiders to those communities are liable to grasp.

Recognizing artists as people tied to a surrounding culture and community does not require squeezing out every last drop of otherness, however. The creativity of these artists (and their trained counterparts) really does set them apart from the vast majority of us who cannot hope to match anything like their artistic attainment or their visionary worldviews.

Is it the ways they are like everyone else that make them interesting-or the ways they are different? The best answer might be both, but insistence that any answer but the former is unethically marginalizing does no one any favors. It becomes its own form of marginalization by robbing these artists of their highly personal visions and agency, of the extraordinary idiosyncratic creativity they share with the artistic elite.

In this sense, it’s hard to accept that Jean Dubuffet’s celebration of “uncanny strangeness” was entirely untoward. The description doesn’t fit all self-taught artists, but no matter how hard you try to contextualize an artist like Adolf Wölfli, his work remains uncanny strange. Noticing this is not a “relentless fetishizing of difference,” as Wojcik quotes Joanne Cubbs with evident approval. Partly, it is responding to artists as normal human beings, who all exist on a continuum of eccentricity.

Living on the odder size of that continuum does not mean you are crazy. It’s not hard to sympathize with Ionel Talpazan’s objection to being labeled an outsider artist, which he took to mean he was being called psychotic, according to Wojcik. In fact, creation of alternate worlds is not unique to the insane, unless you consider, say, model railroad hobbyists to be insane. But if Talpazan was not psychotic-and I’ve heard no one assert he was-his obsession with UFOs is still arguably the very definition of weird.

That weirdness really has little to do with the quality or outsider status of his work; it’s just an obvious observation among sane adults (that group including Talpazan). It also doesn’t reframe everything about Talpazan as simply weird. Wojcik makes the very astute point that discounting his UFO-inflected worldview as mere eccentricity misses the coherent reality it represented for Talpazan. And via that reality he was able to penetrate and represent truths that should matter to all of us. That’s part of the very real impact of his art.

Wojcik’s assessment of Talpazan, his processes and perspectives is based on first-hand encounters and constitutes some of the strongest material in the book. He eloquently describes the power released when artists map for us inner worlds that can contain “vast alternative realities.” To the extent that sloppy use of labels makes it easier to trivialize that achievement, caution is advisable. Talpazan was a significant artist who well deserves extended consideration, and Wojcik here lives up to the promise in his book’s subtitle, exploring the significance and meaning of trauma for an artist’s visionary world.

But at times Wojcik seems caught in a trap of his own making as he tries mightily to normalize these artists while at the same time exploring the exceptional nature of their creations. The singular experience of trauma he takes as a primary subject has actually worked to set these creators apart. Their ability to reach out from trauma through the medium of art is both impressive and engaging. Several of the artists Wojcik considers fully recognize this, speaking themselves about the importance of their traumatic experiences and the therapeutic value of their art-making.

In the end this is a nicely illustrated book that is well sourced, well written and well illustrated, leading to hope that Wojcik’s next effort will see his formidable analytic powers less distracted by last century’s terminological arguments, so he can reveal more of the inner processes and evolution of these fabulous artists.