Academic journal article Western Folklore

Outsider Art, Vernacular Traditions, Trauma, and Creativity

Academic journal article Western Folklore

Outsider Art, Vernacular Traditions, Trauma, and Creativity

Article excerpt

During the last decade, scholars, art collectors, and the general public have become increasingly fascinated with "outsider artists," generally understood to refer to people with no formal artistic training, who are isolated from dominant culture and the mainstream art world, and who create art that is idiosyncratic or without precedent (Hall and Metcalf 1994:xii-xiv; Cardinal 1972; Thévoz 1976; Rhodes 2000:7-22; Russell 2001:17-20). Such art tends not to be based on community traditions and collective aesthetics, like folk art, but instead gives tangible form to a uniquely personal vision that often preoccupies the individual.1 Most literature about outsider artists views them as self-taught individuals who often begin creating things without regard to mainstream recognition or the marketplace. Even though many of these individuals may not consider themselves artists, their work now may sell for tens of thousands, or sometimes hundreds of thousands of dollars, as a growing industry of outsider art galleries, publications, museum exhibits, art fairs, and auctions increasingly promote this type of art (see Seilen 2000; Fine 2004).

The term outsider art was coined by Roger Cardinal in 1972 as an equivalent for the French term art brut, proposed by the modernist painter Jean Dubuffet in 1949. For Dubuffet, art brut ("raw art"), was made by people free of artistic training who were "untouched" by culture, and existed outside of or against cultural norms, thus serving as a critique of the pretentious and artificial nature of contemporary art (Dubuffet 1988). Although Dubuffet later modified his views somewhat, and while the term outsider art has been the subject of debate, the idea of "raw art," disconnected from society and cultural influences remains pervasive today in popular and scholarly publications.2

Many of the assumptions underlying the study and collection of outsider art are deeply problematic from the perspective of folklore studies. As various scholars have noted, the concept of outsider art, somehow produced completely free from societal influences, is inaccurate, elitist, and dehumanizing, emphasizing stereotypical notions of the insane or primitive "artist as Other," as pathological in relation to "normal" people and culture (Cubbs 1994; Metcalf 1994; Jones 1994:313-318; Russell 2001:17-23; Fine 2004:26-33). Furthermore, studies of outsider artists frequently focus on the formal qualities of their art, with surprisingly little attention given to the personal motivations and contextual influences on the process of creation. While some writers simply dismiss outsider art as being too idiosyncratic or deviant, others romanticize the eccentricity and outsider status of the artists, celebrating their unfettered creativity and authenticity (Cubbs 1994; Fine 2004:35-40, 56-61).

The behavioral perspective of folklore studies, advocated by Michael Owen Jones in his studies of folk art and "material behavior," offers a corrective to the decontextualized and dehumanizing portrayals of outsiders and the falsehood of non-cultural art created in isolation.3 The methodology and analysis that Jones applied in his study of the chairmaker Chester Cornett, The Hand Made Object and Its Maker (1975), set the standard for a behavioral approach to artistic expression and material culture. In this work, Jones attempts to examine nearly every influence on Cornett's art-traditional tools and technology, customer influences, personality, life history, and motivations, including the ways that Cornett used chairmaking to deal with personal difficulties and life trauma. In arguing for a behavioral perspective, Jones has repeatedly stated that folklorists must consider not only the objects that people make in terms of cultural contexts, but also the reasons for creating things; the processes by which objects are conceptualized and made; the relation of personality, psychological states, and social interaction to artifacts; the associations, symbolic meanings, and use of objects; and the dynamics of the creative event itself, among other things (Jones 1975, 1987, 1989, 1995, 1997; Georges and Jones 1995:229-312). …

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