Learning from the Art of Self-Taught Artists

By Ulbricht, J. | Art Education, July 2000 | Go to article overview

Learning from the Art of Self-Taught Artists


Ulbricht, J., Art Education


There seems to be a growing interest among artists, curators, and the public in the art of self taught artists that is reminiscent of art educators' long standing interest in child art Evidence of this can be seen in a growing number of museum and gallery art exhibitions featuring the art of self taught artists, plus an increasing number of articles and presentations on the subject. Of note is the traveling exhibit "Self Taught Artists of the 20th Century" originated in 1998 by the Museum of Folk Art in New York. Featured in the exhibition are several works by each of 146 self taught artists including Grandma Moses, Howard Finster, and Horace Pippin. A similar exhibition, "Spirited Journeys," was organized by Lynne Adele (199 for the Archer M. Huntington Art

Gallery (now the Blanton Museum of Art) in Austin, Texas. Additional exhibits of work by self taught artists can be seen in some museums and galleries including the American Visionary Art Museum in Baltimore, Maryland. Testament to the growing interest is an increasing number of related books, articles and presentations (Hall & Metcalf,1994; Brackman & Dwigans,1999; Delacruz,1999; Jones, in press; Krug & Parker,1998-99; McNeill & Zeigler,1999).

It is the purpose of this article to (a) trace the history of our concern for art of self taught artists, (b) speculate on the growth of our developing interest, and (c) analyze the relationship between art of self taught artists and the teaching of art in schools.

Art by self taught artists includes art created outside the structure of the mainstream art world-but not necessarily outside the broader cultural mainstream. Art by self taught artists has been associated with primitive, folk, community based, grassroots, and outsider art. Although often used interchangeably, each term listed has its derivation and meaning.

History

According to Danto (1998) up until the beginning of Modernism, Western artists used techniques such as perspective, foreshortening, and chiaroscuro to make technically realistic art. To produce realistic art Pre-Modern artists needed all of the skills previously developed. After the invention of the daguerreotype in 1839, the realist Paul Delaroche declared realistic painting to be dead. After 1839, it seemed that Modern artists slowly began to stylistically deconstruct their concern for technical achievement in art and thus it became increasingly abstract (p. 20).

In the deconstruction process artists focused on the exploration of art elements such as color, light, shape, and form, much as scientists investigated the elements of matter including the molecule and atom to learn more about the universe. Increasingly, new elements were identified and investigated further.

After World War II, Clement Greenberg advocated a form of art that was devoid of outside influences. Starting in the early 1970s, Allan Kaprow (1993) wrote a series of articles on the "education of the un-artist" The focus of each was about the need for artists to become purer by unlearning everything their art training and professional associations had taught them.

As artists strove for purity of form, primitive and child art were seen as examples worth emulating because they were assumed to be unspoiled and came from pure invention. Children were seen as having innate artistic abilities. When surrealism was popular, proponents said that children and the insane produced more authentic art than was produced by trained artists. Instead of artists teaching children how to draw and paint, Western artists learned from children (Fineberg,1997).

In addition to the influence of child art, early Modern artists such as Pablo Picasso began to collect, explore, and employ concepts and imagery drawn from various cultures. Although the work of many Modern artists became increasingly abstract, some artists incorporated recognizable popular imagery in their work.

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