If you're familiar with the contemporary art world, you've heard the term, Outsider Art. Grandma Moses, Henry Darger and Adolf Wolfi all qualify as outsiders because they lack formal training or because they produced their work in isolation from the art community of their day. Wikipedia tells us,
"[Outsiders are] self-taught or naive art makers who were never institutionalized. Typically, those labeled as Outsider Artists have little or no contact with the institutions of the mainstream art world, they often employ unique materials or fabrication techniques; much Outsider Art illustrates extreme mental states, unconventional ideas, or elaborate fantasy worlds."Given the above interpretation, many grandmothers - not just Moses - can be dubbed Outsider Artists. Their choice of subject matter need not be fantastic. Their professional psychiatric evaluation need not be damning. In fact, as defined above, the term is rather nebulous; we can safely lump together the uncredentialed, the insane, the fey and the fringe.
Some critics argue for a return to a more refined definition, one more closely associated with Adolf Wolfi and Jean Dubuffet, the prominent 20th century artist who championed Art Brut. Dubuffet defined Art Brut as "those [art]works created from solitude and from pure and authentic creative impulses...where the worries of competition, acclaim and social promotion do not interfere." Dubuffet's Art Brut rubric can not then be extended to Grandma Moses, who after being discovered experienced a meteoric rise in the art world. Henry Darger, however, by day steady in his janitorial routine and by night immersed in his violent and voluptuary fairy world, passes muster.
Despite potential confusion, I prefer the more open-ended use of the term, Outsider Artist, because the barrier between Outsider and Insider, if you will, is semi-permeable. In my opinion folk artists, renowned decoy carvers, wildlife artists, Sunday painters and unrecognized "street" artists are all Outsiders. But there is another, less acknowledged class of art world outsider. This caste is part of the art world, but, unwilling to participate in reindeer games, they are the Insider Outsider Artists.
In "Homer's Wars," (The New Yorker, October 31, 2005) Adam Gopnik suggests that Winslow Homer's reputation suffered because the artist "withdrew from the world." In fact, Homer did not flee the world. He only moved to Prout's Neck, Maine, so that he could spend more time outdoors. But by leaving New York City, the artist left art world social circles behind. Elsewhere in the article, Gopnik makes clear this tie between locale and art world relevance. "If [the contemporary art world is] to return [Homer] to the command of American art, it might be as a more urbane and cosmopolitan figure than he is usually allowed to be, an artist first and an American second." In other words, Gopnik feels that it's high time the art world admit Homer into the pantheon of beloved artistic forefathers, the painter's rural transgressions forgiven, his proclivity for "outdoor scenes" overlooked. For most of the nearly one hundred years since his death, Winslow Homer has been an Insider Outsider and now, at last, he is being considered for full-scale embrace.
Lee Bontecou is a similar, but more recent example. After achieving prominence in the 1960s, she moved from New York City to rural Pennsylvania and soon vanished from the art world radar. Until the recent MOMA-QNS retrospective, she was happy in obscurity, teaching and making art away from the noise, the parties and the intrigue.
And so I finally arrive at the inspiration for this post, David Rimanelli's "On The Ground: New York" article in the December 2005 issue of ArtForum. Rimanelli is a gifted writer; I enjoyed reading his thoughts on the New York art world, circa 2005. Unfortunately, the "sceneterism" he celebrates is easy to abhor. Rimanelli identifies Gavin Brown, the now prominent New York dealer, and the gallery scene Brown built, as an impetus for sea change. "[Gavin] Brown, who moved to New York from London in 1988, succeeded in delivering to New York more than another neutral exhibition space; he created a situation that encouraged partying, louche behavior, and fuck-you antics." Rimanelli admits that "much of [the Gavin Brown's Enterprise] scenester mayhem was inescapably juvenile, and you probably met more assholes than charmers," but he still seems enthused, even energized, by the current rebirth of art world sceneterism. He writes, "Live Through This: New York in the Year 2005...is without doubt my favorite art book of the year...[though] the enterprise inevitably fictionalizes its subjects. That's why the extensive party pics and fucked-upness pics - dirty, sexy, fashionable, stupid, drunk, druggy - serve the overall project as much as the sections devoted to individual artists."
In the past two years, I attended several openings at Rivington Arms, the upstart gallery on the Lower East Side, where, as Rimanelli puts it, "there was no shortage of [Lower East Side] hipster mayhem...as the crowds of would-be beautiful-and-damned kids spilled out of the exceedingly modest space and into the street, leading to frequent visits from the police." Kicking off an evening of excess with an opening can be fun, but these events, like the evenings themselves, blend together; if you've been to twenty LES openings, you've been to them all. Openings are parties for the artists and their friends but, as any art world player will tell you, they are principally opportunities to network. For some artists, however, the social component of an art career is tedious and even painful. After six years of New York thrills, I admire most (and identify with) the artist who tells me she plans to skip out on an opening to get work done in the studio.
Unfortunately, staying close to the studio is not the preferred way to make it in the art world today. You're as likely to be "discovered" ripping rails off the shirtless bodies of passed out mates in LES bathrooms as you are via shows and word of mouth. Again turning to Rimanelli, "Deitch Projects, on Grand Street in SoHo, remains the grandest thoroughfare for the transmission of young scenesterism to collectors, curators, and museums...Deitch's critics usually suggest that he is the avatar of the vampire-dealer leeching the energies of young, untried, even unworthy artists and repackaging them as chattels for the demon market." I don't know Jeffrey Deitch. I doubt I'd even recognize him. I've had my arm throttled by excited friends as they whisper-shout into my ear, "Oh, there's Deitch! Jeffrey Deitch is just behind you!," but who gives a shit, really? In those situations it's all I can do to focus on my beer and breathe through any emerging social anxiety. I don't know enough about the man to agree or disagree with the critical characterization of Deitch that Rimanelli describes, but the "demon market," attended by myriad pressures, is very real.
Several artist-teachers in graduate school told me that I'm the sort of artist who "makes it" - if ever; better knock on wood, here - only after the bottom of the art market falls out, when the scenesters have returned to 9-to-5 jobs and the fashion magazines cease featuring young painters in designer labels. Perhaps they are right. Perhaps the financial excess of the moment - at least in the art world - led to our consumptive, fuck-all posturing. Perhaps the slow-burn artists will reappear after the art world stops flocking south to Miami or north to Skowhegan for sex, drugs, good gossip and cash money. But I doubt it. After all, "making it" is forever a combination of talent, luck and working it (or good connections). This recipe remains constant, true even in the financially lean times or those oft-cited "good ol' days." Furthermore, contrary to so much popular opinion, the slow-burn artists are with us today; some of them are cleverly disguised as scenesters, perhaps, but they are there.
Until you actually start down the road to art world embrace, then, you remain an Insider Outsider, no matter the parties you go to or the company you keep. Honestly, I don't consider it an altogether unattractive position. Then again, we all want to make a living at what we enjoy - or what we've been burdened with - so the desire of the Insider Outsider to be an Insider can work against her desire to remain self sufficient, unencumbered by the latest art world bullshit. After all, too much jockeying for position, as opposed to art making, can turn everything inside out.
Photo credit: photograph by Dash Snow, represented by Rivington Arms
 Given that we also associate mental instability with the term institution, I find it amusing that Outsider Artists are those "who were never institutionalized," particularly because those of us who have survived educational institutions can make a convincing argument that it is itself damning. Frances Stark's description of the graduate school situation in Los Angeles is exemplary. "We have no fewer than nine art schools in the region with competitive MFA programs, meaning that every year an average of about 180 (mostly) young artists complete their studies. So every two years LA churns out 360 degreed individuals - and that makes for a massive circle. That vastness doesn't even account for the city's cadre of legendary artist-teachers, who are in the business of exhaling those circles like so many dissipating smoke rings...Who can deny that fits of nostalgia occasionally prompt us to long for smaller circles, for times when connecting and creating ties was somehow more organic?"