From its inception, modern art has labored under a burdensome paradox. Born of an heroic effort to break forever the stranglehold of a moribund academic tradition, the movement decreed that art should henceforth be ruled not by external dictates, but by its own intrinsic nature, be that the formal qualities of pigment and canvas, or the expressive desires of the individual creator. Yet connoiseurship inevitably imposes rules, and modernism was not long in the world before critics and academics began to codify its willful lawlessness, establishing new structures to which young artists felt compelled to conform. As a consequence, the avant garde has periodically been forced to renew itself by shattering the orthodoxies of its immediate predecessors. It is at such moments--and the present is surely one of them--that non-academic art assumes particular relevance.
It may well be that not since the 1920s and 1930s, when modern art first began to be taken seriously, has its non-academic counterpart received so much attention from the arbiters of “high” culture. Before World War I, artists such as Pablo Picasso in France and Wassily Kandinsky in Germany paved the way for the acceptance of non-academic painting by championing the work of the self-taught artist Henri Rousseau. Interest was also expressed in a broad array of previously outcast objects, including tribal artifacts, European folk crafts, children’s daubings, the creations of the mentally ill and commercial art. During the period between the world wars, when modern art arrived in force on American shores, non-academic work was welcomed with almost equal enthusiasm. The attempt to find an American version of Rousseau was launched in 1927, when an indigent housepainter, John Kane, was admitted to the prestigious Carnegie International Exhibition. The Museum of Modern Art endorsed the non-academic phenomenon with several groundbreaking exhibitions: The Art of the Common Man in 1932, and Masters of Popular Painting in 1938 surveyed, respectively, the work of self-taught artists from 1750 to 1900 and from 1900 to the present. Many of the dealers who pioneered in this area--not only Otto Kallir (founder of the Galerie St. Etienne), but also Valentine Dudensing, Sidney Janis and Klaus Perls--did so in tandem with the promotion of international modernism.
The first wave of non-academic art appreciation crested in the mid 1940s. By that time, any number of museums and galleries had gotten into the act. However, following the advent of Abstract Expressionism, the tide began to turn, with the art world elite favoring non-objective work over the generally figurative efforts of self-taught artists. The extreme popularity of Grandma Moses (first shown at the Galerie St. Etienne in 1940), in particular, seemed to drive a wedge between the comparatively easy creations of non-academics and the far tougher demands of “serious” art. Though many members of the avant-garde continued to admire and even to collect non-academic art, in the public’s mind the two areas became increasing separated. The Museum of Modern Art abandoned its sympathetic exhibition program following a controversial 1943 retrospective of paintings by retired garment-worker Morris Hirshfield, and many museums subsequently consigned their non-academic holdings to storage.
Yet even while historians of the avant-garde were busy concealing its ties to the non-academic tradition, institutions (such as the Museum of American Folk Art) devoted exclusively to the latter field were helping to establish its legitimacy. This turn of events was a mixed blessing. As civil rights advocates learned long ago, “separate but equal” is an oxymoron, and so long as non-academic art remained segregated from the entities that upheld the modernist canon, it would never overcome the stigma of inferiority. On the other hand, attempts to trace the connections between academic modernism and its non-academic antecedents--such as the much maligned Primitivism and High/Low exhibitions at the Museum of Modern Art--reinforced the existing hierarchy rather than dealing with non-academic work on its own terms.
The recent Parallel Visions exhibition at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, though building on the precedent of the two aforementioned MOMA shows, diverges from them in that it takes non-academic work as its point of departure and, rather than delineating formal relationships, attempts the admittedly daunting tasking of charting the “moral” influences of this genre on modern art. As a group, these exhibitions constitute the first concerted attempt in roughly half a century to bring the two fields--once intimately allied--back together. The current infatuation with so-called “outsider” art, which has been building for the past decade, is further confirmation that the work of non-academics is ripe for reappraisal. Yet one must not be misled into believing that there is anything intrinsically new about this sudden surge of interest. Non-academic art has been with us for decades, and the latest wave of enthusiasm differs from it predecessors chiefly in intensity and focus.
Over the years, many terms have been used to describe non-academic art, and each term, carrying with it certain biases, simultaneously served to redefine the genre. Henri Rousseau was the original “naive,” and observers attributed to him and French successors such as André Bauchant, Camille Bombois and Louis Vivin a childlike simplicity that was as insulting as it was preposterous. “Primitive,” the term of choice in the United States when artists such as Kane, Moses, Hirshfield and Horace Pippin came on the scene, was even more offensive and consequently short-lived. For years, scholars made an uneasy peace with the term “folk art,” recognizing that it properly applied only to crafts and collective traditions, but stretching it to cover the idiosyncratic phenomenon of the self-taught or semi-trained professional painters who proliferated in America prior to the turn of this century. The now fashionable term “outsider,” like “naive” and “primitive,” has distinctly pejorative connotations, implying extreme social, economic or mental impairment and a comparison with a white, middle-class standard that is belied by the true diversity of contemporary American culture.
It is no coincidence that many of the words used to describe non-academic art allude to personality, for it is largely personal circumstance that determines whether an artist will be academic or not. Most artists in nineteenth-century America simply had no choice: there were no museums or art schools here, and Europe was too far away to provide viable training for any but the wealthiest. The invention of photography and commercial lithography eliminated, virtually overnight, the market for such semi-skilled painters, and the first generation of twentieth century non-academics, both in the U.S. and in Europe, initially had little hope of commercial success. Economic hardship for the most part prevented them from pursuing art early on, and many began to paint only late in life, when more lucrative work became scarce. Unlike the insane and compulsive visionaries, they viewed picture making as an end in itself: they systematically studied whatever visual sources (usually books and magazines) they happened across; they were concerned with formal questions and with mastering technical skills; and the best of them demonstrated a progressive development not unlike that seen in the work of trained painters.
The artists who are today classified as outsiders always existed alongside the other non-academics, though it took appreciably longer for their work to travel from the annals of psychiatry to the walls of museums and galleries. Adolf Wölfli, who created his forty-five volume illustrated autobiography and 800 ancillary drawings while confined to the Waldau Psychiatric Clinic in Bern, Switzerland, between 1895 and 1930, may be considered the father of the twentieth-century outsiders, and perhaps also the greatest of them. A similarly arcane documentary creation was Henry Darger’s 15,000-page illustrated chronicle of a mythical battle between the chaste “Vivian Girls” and the evil, child-enslaving Glandelinians. Wölfli, Darger and other outsiders such as Minnie Evans, Howard Finster, Martin Ramirez, Bill Traylor, Scottie Wilson and Joseph Yoakum were primarily concerned with expressing obsessive inner visions, often of a religious or pathological nature. To the extent that these artists lived beyond the pale of social norms, they remained somehow above conventional artistic ambition; they could not be readily corrupted, though they could be (and many were) exploited. As the media in the late twentieth century have penetrated even the most isolated lives, untarnished creativity, it would seem, may be found only in the work of those who are emotionally disconnected. The newfound obsession with outsiders is really a testament to the extreme difficulty of making true non-academic art in the modern world.
The present exhibition unites works by several types of non-academic artists--European and American, late and early twentieth-century, sane and insane. As the show demonstrates, outsiders constitute only one facet of a broad tradition that has flourished throughout this century. Interest in this tradition is cyclical, typically beginning with a desire to revivify “high” art by seeking its primordial roots in the work of untrained artists. Laudable though the egalitarian impulse may be, it implies a lack of quality control that in the past has always proved the downfall of non-academic boomlets. Indiscriminate inclusivity is in the end no better than elitist exclusivity. The best non-academic artists, however, can easily withstand the scrutiny usually reserved for their schooled colleagues, and they deserve--indeed demand--to be studied seriously.