The Amateur Hour

The term ‘outsider artist’ is tired – but it may soon take on new meaning 

In January this year, I took part in a public discussion titled ‘The Shifting Centre’. It was organized by the Outsider Art Fair and the Swiss Institute, New York, and was held the same week that Christie’s staged its first-ever sale of ‘Outsider and Vernacular Art’. The panel was chaired by artist, critic and frieze contributing editor Chris Wiley, who asked me and my co-panelists – curators Massimiliano Gioni (New Museum), Jens Hoffmann (Jewish Museum) and Amanda Hunt (Studio Museum Harlem) – whether so-called ‘outsider art’ had begun to be accepted by ‘mainstream’ art venues and, if so, how institutions were exhibiting and collecting it.

Within a few minutes of conversation, we found ourselves circling back to first principles: what defines an ‘outsider artist’, anyway? Art school qualifications? State of mind or physical health? And who gets to make that call? Critics, curators, dealers? The artist? (That three quarters of the panel was made up of white guys like me spoke volumes about how the term ‘outsider’ might apply to questions of race, gender and under-representation in the professional art world.) A lively discussion with the audience failed to create a workable definition, although the spatial metaphor of ‘inside’ versus ‘outside’ was flapping wildly in the wind by the end. One thing remained clear: as if we didn’t already know it, the contemporary art world that I work in – the one of museums, art maga- zines, fairs, commercial galleries – has a conflicted relationship with its institutions. This art world celebrates the rebel and the dissident. It claims to look out for the marginalized and to stand guard against political oppression. It speaks the language of the subversive, the trailblazer and the destroyer of convention. Yet, it also pays attention to which institution gave an artist their MFA. It cares about the decisions museums and venerable biennials make regarding what to show and how they ratify careers and reputations. It bestows awards on artists and looks to its curators for judgement and guidance. It argues over who gets to write art history, which critics and historians shape the canon and, in doing so, argues for the right to institutional respectability. It relies on governments, trusts, private companies and wealthy patrons to help fund its activities. 

History is partly to blame for these internal tensions. The legacy of artists working for powerful institutions such as the monarchy and the church left deep psychological scars on the professional art world. These scars ache when exposed to the romantic cliché of the artist as lone rebel or the modernist ideal of the artist-innovator. Later 20th-century models of the artist complicate matters further: the artist as intellectual expert – architect, philosopher, political activist – or as canny business operator. Throw into the mix the curator and the critic: experts, authenticators, key holders to the institutional gates. All of this, and more, is set against a background of social tumult: revolutions and dictatorships under which artists were dissidents; superpowers who used vanguard art to political ends (as the CIA did during the Cold War with abstract expressionism in the 1950s); the rise of popular culture, and the examples of creative lives it highlighted. It provided attractive models of righteous underground purists and challengers to social mores, of cash-rich drop-outs and superficial sell-outs. 

Discussions about ‘outsider’ and ‘mainstream’ art rarely allow a peek over the garden fence to see what’s going on in music, design, film and literature. But comparison with other fields productively complicates this debate in the visual arts. One rarely hears about ‘outsider dance’, yet ‘vernacular’ architecture and design are recognized fields of study. Literary types argue over the value of creative-writing courses but the term ‘outsider writing’ is not used widely. Is there such a thing as ‘outsider theatre’ or is that what we mean when we refer to ‘amateur dramatics’? Return, for a moment, to the history of pop music. Blues, jazz, rock and electronic music were, and continue to be, made almost exclusively by people who have trained themselves on their instrument or learned their craft on the job, apprenticeship-style. The history of pop, in a sense, is a history of the amateur, in the best sense of the word – a person who loves what they do. Pop represents the stories of bedroom pioneers and pub autodidacts who did not go through a professional education in order to pursue their vocation, largely because there wasn’t one to go through in the first place. 

There are lessons for the art world to take from this. If the cost of an art-school education continues to rise, the social diver- sity of the art world will narrow – not just the diversity of artists working in these countries, but those who move sideways from art-making into curating or other important jobs running our arts institutions. Mobility will seize up, access to positions of influence willclose down. Class homogeneity will reign. If the power to make and show art is not to remain only with those who come from affluent backgrounds, then the art world needs to take a long, hard look at institutional attitudes towards that tired old label of ‘outsider art’. Otherwise, before too long, many artists are not going to be able to afford professional training. Some will pass through more nimble, affordable, alternative systems for art education, but many will be self-taught – provided they have the tenacity or have had the encouragement to continue making work from an early age. They will all be outsiders because the inside has been priced beyond their reach. What professionals need to take seriously is that we stand on the cusp of the age of the amateur – and it is in their hands that the future diversity of art lies. 

Dan Fox is a writer who lives in New York, USA. His latest book is Limbo (2018).

Issue 178

First published in Issue 178

April 2016

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