Op Ed

Privilege and Otherness: Outside the Thin, White Lines

“Everybody is a genius. But if you judge a fish by its ability to climb a tree, it will spend its whole life believing that it is stupid.” Albert Einstein

In my last essay, I talked about the place that privilege and otherness has within the art world and how it’s often overlooked. After the suggestion of commenter @aristotlescrab, I decided to further explore the relationship and defined boundaries of mainstream artists, outsider artists, and the art world. Valuable art has always been closed off to a privileged few. The worth of it is measured by certain standards of success, usually of financial or class gains. This success also ends up defining what we collectively should and should not vest our interest in, much like fashion, publishing, advertising and media. When we define art by the process of creating it without certain attempts to become part of this system, it is often relegated to a different realm of “outsider” art or “second tier” art. Depending on which way the cultural wind blows, sometimes the artists are eventually acknowledged and sometimes not.

Success within the contemporary art world, the one represented by shiny ArtForum covers, sexy museum retrospectives and financial wealth, means tilting one’s view to meet a certain degree of what has been presented thus far as the “success factor.” This means being judged against an art history that has defined “good” and “successful” within terms of predominant Western terms – value historically designated by a heterosexual, white, male agenda. Guerilla Girls activist, Romaine Brooks, best described the measurement of success through quality:

Success in art is a matter of luck and timing as well as being good or having talent. Why do white men seem to have all the luck? It’s not just a happy accident. Thus far, and throughout history, the system has been set up to support and promote the work of white male artists. That is their luck. In the old days of Western culture, it was patronage and the atelier system “¦ once enough money has been invested in a certain artist, everyone mobilizes to keep that artist’s name out front and consequently in history. The artists who make it in this way begin to define quality.

History, while presented as solid, is not fixed and the way we deem things worthy of remembering is always questionable. A great example of the art hierarchy system in place is one of the more recent debates of art and craft. “Craft,” always deemed woman’s work, never held a place in popular culture until recently with the rise in DIY ethics, Etsy, and artists looking at different ways of representing visual commentary as backlash to popular aesthetics. Craft has taken off into the world of art ““ but with a hitch. Craft is still somewhat a dirty word, relegating itself to Judy Chicago-like plates and stereotypical women’s work, garnering as much respect as doing the dishes and raising children. The criticism caws that it certainly is not as serious as “high art” and it still has yet to find its “place” within the mainstream art world. There have always been stringent lines drawn in the debate of letting quality speak for itself, even though quality has always had very similar voices. When you deconstruct this, the statement of not finding a place within the mainstream, you unwrap a quagmire of issues that not only plague art, but society and culture at large.

One of the best examples of distinctions of  “high art” and “other art” is with the genre of “Outsider Artists.” The term is defined as art created outside the boundaries of official culture. This can range from self-taught or naïve artists, artists with little or no contact with the mainstream art world or artists who are mentally ill, imprisoned, or disabled. Outsider art is accepted to a certain degree by the art world based on its otherness; the idea that it fits neatly into a much larger mainstream culture only if it keeps its place.  Its authenticity, rawness, and simplicity are touted as its importance – all semi-reminiscent of the label “primal” art –  something that while important in its context, is considered simpler. In many ways, it is the same type of thinking that besots the tropes of the noble savage. We see it projected on Native American art as being “more spiritual,” African-American art as “more soulful,” and women’s art as “more emotional.”  There is simplicity and soulfulness, but seriousness is never implied. Any intellectual or actual connection to their art is in a way denied; it becomes a happenstance hobby, even a child-like response to the world, as opposed to an actual engagement with art making. Much like the tropes mentioned above, it becomes exotic for the same reasons it is not accepted by mainstream art culture.

There is a certain amount of privilege of being able to prescribe the label of  “outsider,” further reinforcing the notion that some people’s art is not part of the mainstream because of their class, education, or mental state. The term “outsider” means one who is an other, but can be accepted with limitations by the mainstream. Outsider art, in a way, is otherness that has not been capitalized on yet. While the terms of these limits are slowly opening up to allow more in, often the unacknowledged history of racism and sexism within the term has gone without examination. For example, Alfred McMoore, a now recognized “outsider artist” who in fact spent most of his life making a living from selling his art and was even featured in museums while alive. Yet, somehow, even by the idea of success, he is still an outsider due to the fact he had no formal training and did not follow the traditional path to commercial success. The underlying text of deeper class, race, and able-ist issues are often put aside for the sake of marketing the outsider to the insider.

Is there a fetishizing of certain characteristics of outsider art? Mental illness has always been linked with creativity and nothing makes for a good story more than a “crazy” artist being linked to genius. While issues of race and class are progressively getting better, there is still a certain amount of pandering to the “simpleness” of outsider or outside art, an opinion that included even graffiti artists until very recently. As viewers, the best thing we can do is question the motives of what is being presented to us. Outsider art is not bad, but why exactly is it being presented that way? Why is it that for some, the only way to participate in mainstream art culture is through a second tier system?  As Georgia O’Keefe of the Guerilla Girls would say:

The tendency to reduce the art of an era to a few ‘geniuses’ and their masterpieces is myopic. There are many, many significant artists. We’re not going to forget Rembrandt and Michelangelo. We just want to move them over to make room.

Image Credit – Morguefile

4 replies on “Privilege and Otherness: Outside the Thin, White Lines”

In literature (esp. poetry) I think about this a lot–there was a lot of “great literature” from a time when mostly dudes had the access to write (or at least get attention for) their work, and then we descriptively found some traits they shared, and those became prescriptive–good poetry does these things (like: follows formal conventions but plays with the strict formal pattern in interesting and relevant ways). So then a female poet does something either strictly formal (oh, uncreative) or non-formal (she can’t master the form!) and is considered less good. I think this is even more obvious with novels–the Bildungsroman is super based on white, fairly privileged, hetero, mostly British, male experience so that novels that don’t follow that pattern don’t fit into the prescriptive model for a “good” coming-of-age novel.

I think the literary world is very biased. I’d like to write fiction, for example, but I don’t want to be stuck in that “Urban fiction section” that they have for the “black books”. I think at the end of the day people are biased, they have privileges that they don’t want to give up and enjoy and that’s why it leaks into these other areas.

I’m constantly amazed that the art world still works this way. Its like they’ve learned nothing from history constantly showing them that these “outsider artists” who were looked down upon by the art world at the time proved to be much more relevant to the future of art than those the art world of that time was heralding. Also my art history professor didn’t care for the term outsider artist he often used grassroots artist instead. Its still exclusionary but not quite a negative which is a step in the right direction I guess.

Leave a Reply