February 25, 2021

Outsider Art in the Art Market: Provocations in Art – Discussion at the @RoyalAcademy

Joseph Cornell’s exhibition, Wanderlust, at the Royal Academy of Arts, London has set in motion a series of talks. On Friday 24th July I went to the final one, Outsider Art in the Art Market, Provocations in Art. It was an hour long panel discussion considering, “What the new spaces are for outsider art and what the responsibilities are for those involved in the interpretation, collection, curation and sale of these works within the context of today’s art world.”

The panel of five consisted of John Maizels, Editor of Raw Vision magazine, who also undertook the role of facilitator for this discussion; Thomas Roeske, Director of the Prinzhorn Collection; Marc Steene, Director of Pallant House; Jane England, Director of England & Co gallery and artist Ian Sherman.

As we were taking our seats a man walked in and attempted to sit down in front of me, his name was Carlo, I overheard.

A woman rushed up to him and said, “I think you may be in the wrong room.”

“No,” he replied simply, resuming his standing position.

“But,” she continued, “the lady on the door said you might be.”

“No, I’m in the right room.” Carlo said.

The lady looked a little confused and flustered.

The older man next to Carlo confirmed to the woman that in fact he was in the correct place. The older man smiled, as did I, before he proceeded to flick through Raw Vision an Outsider Art magazine, which had been placed on each of our chairs and funnily enough contained a 6 page article on the artwork of Carlo Keshishian.

The Outsider Art scene is one which, as the name suggests, is outside the traditional art world and where artists are self-taught. Raw Vision magazine provides a simple explanation as to its beginnings, “Outsider Art emerged from the work of a few enlightened psychiatrists in the mid and late nineteenth century. Gradually it became clear that some psychiatric patients were spontaneously producing artworks – often on found scraps of paper – of unusual quality and power.” Soon after, “It was Jean Dubuffet who realised that spontaneous, original and uninfluenced creation was not just the preserve of the mentally ill.” (1996-2015 Raw Vision Magazine.) Dubuffet coined the term ‘Art Brut’ or ‘Raw Art’.

What do we consider Outsider Art and does Joseph Cornell fit in?

There is blurring of the boundaries with some artists as to whether they are considered Outsider artists or not and Joseph Cornell now falls firmly in this category, the discussion opens with this. Jane’s definition of an Outsider artist is, “Art produced by untrained artists who have taught themselves, who are disparate,” and produces. “Art for art sake.” She considers the term Outsider Art to be more “elastic.” Her opinion on Joseph Cornell is that, “Even when he entered the art world, he was friends with Duchamp and had his own art dealer so I don’t really think he was completely mainstream but he was part of the conversation.”

Mark doesn’t answer the question directly but questions the question and judgements themselves. “I find it difficult because it’s a collection of people making judgements on others. Focus on the individual.”

Artist, Ian doesn’t describe himself as an Outsider artist. His reasons are an echo of what Mark was saying. “I used to destroy my work because it didn’t fit in.” Others tried to categorise him but as he got older he decided he didn’t want to be, “Taken over by doctrines of conformity.”

Why has the interest in Outsider Art changed recently?

Jane believes, “Artists have used Outsider artists for their own use for years. Picasso used African art.” On considering the Outsider artists she feels, “You don’t’ want the back story to become more important than the work.” One of the main reasons Outsider Art is more popular is because, “At the Venice Biennale 2 years ago, the curator included a vast number of Outsider artists.”

Mark reminds us in Paris their classification is more rigid and he would often hear people asking if an artwork has been produced by someone who had mental issues before they’d even consider buying the work. He said, “It was like they needed the box ticked.”

Thomas is worried about the capitalist nature and is fearful, “Art will be pressed into the fame and lost.”

Although not directly answering the question, Mark wants, “Honest creativity not techniques and form. It should be emancipating and liberating.”

All the artists on this panel are extremely passionate about Outsider Art and fit the art for art’s sake rationale. They have a true passion for artistic nature and creativity. This warms my heart. Many talks and discussions on art get very intellectual and the academics sometimes forget that art, by its very nature, speaks to us all in different ways. Whether we have any art knowledge or not we still have the capacity to experience it.

What are our responsibilities?

Another heartfelt and passionate response by Mark as he reminds us to, “Respect the artist and art.” For him it is essential to continue the, “Discovery and reaching out to artists who find it difficult to enter the art world and market.” Jane concurs saying she will continue exhibiting their work in her gallery.

Thomas expresses how good examples of how to treat art and artists by curators and to educate others in the art world is vital. While John thinks it is important to present work in the best possible way, for example, the way he has tried to do in Raw Vision magazine.

Ian states his responsibility would be to stay true to his visual art obsessions, whatever they may be.

The discussion ends with some questions from the floor. One of these stands out.

Could Outsider Art shed light on the human condition, bearing in mind there is no perfect human?

Jane feels you can experience the human condition by sharing someone’s inner vision. Mark tells of compulsive and obsessive works which provides insight and understanding which may never usually be experienced otherwise. Thomas sees Outsider Art as a complicated and reflective process, one where the artist is looking in as well as out.

I don’t think in an hour anyone could answer all of the questions which were initially set out but Joseph Cornell’s exhibition was a great catalyst for a debate. These discussions are a good opener to topics which need further thought. The main message I got from the panel was that Outsider Art needs to be considered respectfully as art on its own terms.

By Helen Shewry


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