Outsider Art

Everyone should take a day to immerse themselves in art.

As a writer, it is a creative pleasure to leave behind the world of words and dive into visual images. On a beautiful spring day, I found myself on a ferry enjoying the crisp sunshine heading to Randalls Island for the Frieze art fair. Stall after stall was awash in color and forms and shapes, some congruous and some incongruous. I responded to works that were aesthetically pleasing or evoked a primal response. Some a bit alarming, like the mermaids in the washing machine, where all I wanted to do was pull their pretty tails out of the horrid metal box.

While I am conceptually fascinated by contemporary art, there are times I see it as the emperor’s new clothes. I don’t see how painting a white canvas white is great art and sells for a huge amount of money. I don’t think I could write a poem that consisted of one word, “poem,” and find myself being considered a genius.

I found some of the art I was most drawn to in the category of “outsider art.” The images of Minnie Evans filled with bright colors and floral motifs came from her dream world with women both tribal and goddess-like. And Czech artist Anna Zemankova created dreamy botanical pastels.

The term “outsider art” is originally attributed to Roger Cardinal in 1972, and can mean anything from someone who is self-taught or has little or no contact with the mainstream art world or art institutions, to art made by people living with certain disabilities or on the outskirts of society, to work of the psychologically compromised. I was fascinated by the lives of some of these artists. They included a slave, a woman exiled for having an affair with a defrocked priest, a boy raised as a girl by a mother who didn’t want him to be drafted by the Nazis, and a schizophrenic, to name a few.

What their works have in common is rejection of documenting the world around them and instead creating their own world with images to provide order or comfort or beauty. Sadly, their transition from “outsider” to “inside” the world of gallerists and collectors often happened after their death or late in their lives, so they didn’t personally benefit from much recognition or monetary compensation.

What I find fascinating is the broader context of who decides which artist’s work is of value. There are no more Medicis, so for artists to survive they actually need to be able to sell their work. Who is the arbiter of their success and sets the market value? Like the unknown writer who sends a novel unsolicited to a publisher, an artist knocking on a gallery’s door with their portfolio doesn’t face great odds of success. As they say, it’s not so much what you know but who you know. And further, art buyers may not be looking for something to hang over their couch but to put in a storehouse in Delaware (tax shelter) hoping it will rise in value.

At some point you have to ask, is the system rigged? How many graffiti artists get noticed by Andy Warhol and go on to international fame like Jean-Michel Basquiat? Or a single mother living on the dole in England who wrote in notebooks in coffee shops to come up with Harry Potter? You can look at the price of real estate and justify, “Oh yes, six bedrooms and a lovely water view with that wine cellar and room to house my Birkin bag collection.” Yet what distinguishes one person’s canvas from another’s?

A ferry and Jitney ride back to the Hamptons led me to a bit of solace with the exhibit at the Southampton Arts Center, East End Collected5 and EEC Jr. Here was a group of talented local artists curated by Paton Miller whose work may not yet be on the Sotheby’s auction block but was as compelling as it was diverse.

In this case the insider art, at least in the Hamptons, opened its collective arms to give them not only a showcase for critical attention but to actually sell their work. Posthumous praise is fine but much more fun to be alive to enjoy your success.

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