A couple of weeks ago I went to see the Outsider Art exhibit at the Philadelphia Museum of Art. The exhibition is fantastic, but what I couldn’t shake was this doubt about the term “outsider art”. According to Dictionary.com “outsider art” is defined as “art produced by self-taught artists who are not part of the artistic establishment.” I can get behind that definition. The phrase was coined in 1972 by art critic Roger Cardinal, and it is the English adaption of art brut, a French term meaning “rough art” or “raw art” first used by artist Jean Dubuffet. He defined such artists as those living outside the realm of the contempoarary art world- including art from inmates and insane-asylums. Most of the artists in the PMA exhibit were self taught and lived beyond the mainstream of the art world. It’s challenging, though, because the viewer is experiencing the work within a mainstream art institution. Does this very fact change the way the art should be perceived. Does that not place their work within a conversation with the rest of the art world? Context is everything in art. How would my understanding of the pieces change if I came across them in those contexts in which they were made? Most of these artists were discovered posthumously, but what about those artists still alive and creating work? Even though the label says outsider, the work has been brought inside. Perhaps those artists are simply unaware or uninterested in the conversations happening in the art world.
I also couldn’t help but notice how male dominated the exhibit was. It made me wonder if female “outsider art” gets labeled, instead, as “craft” which demotes it from the realm of “fine art” all together. Where were the quilters of Gee’s Bend? Or Aloïse Corbaz, a Swiss woman included in Jean Dubuffet’s original catalog of outsider artists? This particular exhibit was dedicated to the collection of Jill and Sheldon Bonovitz, so there will inevitably be holes, but the fact remains that it’s a thin line between what we consider craft and what we consider outsider art. I would speculate that female artists, more often than not, end up stuck in the craft classification rather than elevated to fine art status.
Regardless of these questions, the work in the show is excellent. The flow of the exhibition works well, and the museum did a good job highlighting each individual artist while also tying together common threads.
In the first room Eugene Von Bruenchenhein was featured, which set the tone for the show. Not only were his chicken bone thrones just what you hoped to see from an outsider artist, but his manifesto was also intriguing. The write up on him said they found this on a plaque hanging in his kitchen:Eugene Von Bruenchenhein Free Lance Artist Poet and Sculptor Inovator [sic] Arrow Maker and Plant Man Bone Artifacts Constructor Photographer and Architect Philosopher
I love the simplicity of that statement. It made me want to write my own 8 line manifesto (will do in a later post).