Sacred Monsters

Outsider Art, Neuve Invention and the Nature of the Inner Life

by Michael Bonesteel.

(originally published, using these same images, in Outsider Magazine by Intuit. Reprinted with permission.)

"I value only those artists who really are artists, that is, who consciously or unconsciously, in an entirely original form, embody the expression of their inner life; who work only for this end and cannot work otherwise." -- Wassily Kandinsky

The market-driven need to milk a cash cow has lumped a number of often estranged bedfellows -- traditional and contemporary folk artists, European-style art brut artists, African-American vernacular artists of the rural south, and, occasionally, ethnic artists from various world cultures -- into one trendy and bankable category called "outsider art." Although the term "visionary" may be applied to certain artists within all four groups, the only term that encompasses them all is "self-taught art," a category as broad as "academic art" or "commercial art" and just as vague. But the good thing about throwing all three or four types of self-taught art into one category is the fact that together they present a strong and visible alternative to the art of academia. Perhaps "alternative art" or "alt art," to borrow a term from contemporary music, is what we should call this work. It's about as accurate or as inaccurate as anything else.

One of the most interesting developments in this emerging field occurred in New York at the 2003 Outsider Art Fair, when the organizers of the fair appointed an advisory committee to determine what is and what is not outsider art. This was done in response to repeated criticism by The New York Times that the quality of the fair had become compromised by the lack of standards and what amounted to an "anything goes" policy. The advisory committee outlawed the work of Joe Coleman and Matt Lamb, among others (and the late work of Reverend Howard Finster), on the grounds that it was not done by true outsiders. Lamb is a self-taught artist, yet he was cited for being a successful businessman with a strong awareness of marketing techniques. The official reason for Coleman's ejection was that he was exposed to two and a half years of formal art training.

Both of these supposed violations -- too strong a connection to the commercial or academic art worlds -- were originally recognized by the godfather of art brut/outsider art himself, Jean Dubuffet. Never mind the fact that Dubuffet also was highly critical of people who made money off of such artists; on those grounds, the entire Outsider Art Fair would have to be shut down. But it does seem a little ludicrous that the organizers of the fair should get up on a moral high horse regarding what is authentic outsider art, considering they have co-opted the term "outsider art" and are contributing to the commodification of an art form once conceived to be the antithesis of that found in the commercial art world. The supreme irony of the situation is that, despite Joe Coleman's brief stint in art school, which really contributed very little to his development as an artist, he more of a true art brut outsider than most of the artists exhibiting at the Outsider Art Fair.

Dubuffet himself recognized a spiritual connection between the authentic art brut artist and the renegade, academically contaminated artist who resides on the margins of mainstream artistic culture. Initially allowing them into the fold, Dubuffet later segregated these art-world mavericks from the pure art brut artists through a kind of aesthetic cleansing, physically removing them from the others and placing them into an "annex." Into this annex he also put art brut artists who, over time, had drifted into commercial or academic realms (if applied now to the Outsider Art Fair, such a determination would disqualify most of the living artists participating in it). Later, the rather inadequate term neuve invention ("fresh invention") was concocted to identify these mixed breeds, but by then an association between art brut and many neuve invention artists had become established through years of being exhibited together.

After Dubuffet died, Roger Cardinal picked up the torch and maneuvered the field in a more liberal direction, lumping such neuve invention artists as Friedrich Schroder-Sonnenstern, Rosemarie Koczy, and Michel Nedjar into a category he considered to be art brut's English-speaking equivalent, outsider art. The broader category of outsider art gradually assimilated work that would not have met Dubuffet's stringent criteria, but Cardinal would not go so far as to include contemporary folk artists, as had the Outsider Art Fair. In recent exhibitions elsewhere, curators like Roger Manley have included neuve invention-type artists such as Coleman, Alex Grey, and Reverend McKendree Robbins Long under the auspices of outsider and visionary art. Is this a bad thing? Ostensibly, the reason we come up with terms and categories for different kinds of art is to help us understand it better. But when our zeal to establish rules and regulations about such things prohibits our understanding of what the art is about, it may be time for a re-evaulation. This article is offered as a corrective, not to dispute the observations of Dubuffet or Cardinal -- or, for that matter, those of the Outsider Art Fair's organizers or advisory committee -- regarding what is or what is not outsider art, but to reevaluate why such art was considered significant in the first place.

When Dubuffet backpedaled to come up with his neuve invention category, it pointed up a fundamental flaw in the art brut paradigm. The possession or lack of academic training is ultimately a superficial difference between art brut and neuve invention. And, technically speaking, the notion that there is such a thing as non-cultural art is improbable, for no artist lives in a vacuum. The source of the authenticity that Dubuffet saw in both art brut and neuve invention was most likely not the result of eschewing cultural conventions or even sanity. The source was, and continues to be, something much greater. Plumbing the unconscious for artistic inspiration has become a modernist cliche as well as the touchstone of art brut, and yet its veracity endures and is verified every time an artist of any stripe delves the depths of the psyche and creates, unflichingly, through an intuitive inner vision.

The source of the authenticity that Dubuffet saw in both art brut and neuve invention was most likely not the result of eschewing cultural conventions or even sanity. The source was, and continues to be, something much greater.

Often what is produced is so irrevocably original and artistically valid that it seems irrelevant and unimportant whether the method that brought it about was self-taught or academic. What is important is whether that art has that spiritual connection with the inner life that Kandinsky alludes to in the opening quotation of this article, for that is the catalyst that will ultimately transform the art work into something original, striking, and uncontrovertibly authentic.

As a receptacle for all our repressed impulses and fears, fantasies and nightmares, the unconscious mind also contains, if one cares to visit it with the proper respect, a transcendent path to the soul. It also contains what Benedetto Croce called "lyrical intuition." Herbert Read described it as an act of creation in which "the personality, and indeed, the spirituality of the artist is revealed." Even Clement Greenburg wrote: "What is the ultimate source of value or quality in art? ... Not skill, training, or anything else having to do with execution or performance, but conception alone. ... Inspiration or conception remains the only factor in the creation of a successful work that cannot be copied or imitated." These modernist theoreticians were pinpointing what they saw as the essence of art.

Echoing the gut-level spontaneity of the sexual act in the psychic realm, the artist's creative intuition transfers a spark of life from him/herself to that which is created and strikes a similarly intuitive chord of recognition in the discerning viewer. And this last part is crucial, for the final meaning of all art lies within the psyche of the beholder. Through the artwork, energy from deep within the artist's psyche is transmitted to an equally deep place in the viewer's psyche, where a kind of fertilization takes place. The result is the creation of an entirely unique aesthetic phenomenon born of both artist and viewer together.

When Dubuffet came to the Arts Club of Chicago in 1951 to deliver his famous "Anticultural Positions" lecture, he also visited the Art Institute of Chicago and saw a painting by Ivan Albright called That Which I Should Have Done I Did Not Do (The Door). Dubuffet called it a "striking example of a work that is worth going to the ends of the earth to see." He went on to say that the profound strangeness of Albright's work had such convincing authority that it threw into question the "reality" of the normal world around him. Coming from a man who believed that the only authentic art was made by creators of art brut -- mental patients, mediumistic visionaries, and eccentric misfits -- individuals uncorrupted by the suffocating aspects of Western culture ("asphixiante culture"), this observation should not be dismissed lightly. Dubuffet clearly recognized in the academically-trained Albright a kindred spirit to his artists brut.

As a receptacle of all our repressed impulses and fears, fantasies and nightmares, the unconscious mind also contains, if one cares to visit it with the proper respect, a transcendental path to the soul.

Without a doubt, Albright could never have realized his remarkable works of art without mastering the formal aspects of painting. His particular vision required the mastery and discipline of traditional painterly techniques, and yet these formal devices were only a means to an end. Had he not learned them by taking art classes, he would have invented, and no doubt did invent, some semblance of them himself, as many self-taught artists have done. Albright's biographer, Michael Croydon, writes: "In spite of Albright's undeniable mastery of technique, it must be borne in mind that we gain further understanding of his work is we recall the prerequisites for a primitive painter; that he be impervious to outside influences and that, therefore, he draw his pictorial integrity and his means of expression from within himself."

As it is, he takes these painterly techniques and makes them his own, subverts them and, in some cases, turns them on their heads. Technique is never an end in itself; his art is never just painterly surface. Rather, it is about the content of his vision, a world he builds from the bottom up, often literally, by painstakingly constructing life-sized models for the still lifes that are to be the subjects of his paintings. In many respects, Albright's art is nothing short of a critique of the material world and the way of all flesh. Death is the last and final reality of life. Albright had no belief whatsoever in the traditional concept of chronological time. It was his expressed desire to consolidate all of a person's attributes, from cradle to corpse, in one hair-raising moment. A fixation upon death, and its foreshadow among and within the living, becomes Albright's main theme, culminating in his two masterpieces, That Which I Should Have Done I Did Not Do (The Door) (1931-41) and Poor Room -- There is No Time, No End, No Today, No Yesterday, No Tomorrow, Only the Forever, and Forever, and Forever Without End (The Window) (1942-32, 1948-55, 1957-63). The Door and The Window are portals to the metaphysical realm of death and the psychological realms of nightmare and madness. In both works, the door sill and window sill are modeled upon discarded gravestones.

Coleman's work elicits much the same kind of shock today that Albright's breakthrough work produced -- as did the work of Henry Darger, Francis Bacon, Frida Kahlo, Odilon Redon, Matthias Grunewald, Hieronymus Bosch, and countless others courageous enough to release the sacred monsters from the deepest centers of their psyches. Coleman's artwork makes one uncomfortable. It shows us things we don't want to see; then again, so do gratuitously graphic horror movies, but not as well and not with as much of a moral insight as Coleman possesses. It is not always readily apparent in much of his exquisitely realized, gorgeous, and grisly paintings, containing just about every atrocity imaginable, but behind his profound nihilism and gone-to-hell Catholicism is a history of paternal brutalization and unnatural maternal closeness. Sensitized to man's inhumanity to itself, Coleman believes that, through overpopulation, humankind has become a cancer on the planet. Its cities are tumors and a lack of ecological respect is killing mother earth. And when a parasite kills its host, it kills itself, which is why, Coleman claims, we are not living in an Aquarian Age or an Information Age but rather in an Age of Death; the End Times, when war and violence, disease and sickness have the upper hand. In this respect, his apocalyptic message is as dire as that of any born-again outsider, from Howard Finster to Frank Bruno to Norbert Kox to William Thomas Thompson.

Postmodern cynicism notwithstanding, beauty is still truth, and truth beauty; and a terrible truth makes for a terrible beauty. But we are all better for its having been made, for it reminds us that real art will always be about those things that concern us most deeply, the eternal dualities of life and death, love and hate, body and spirit, beauty and ugliness, anguish and ecstasy. Real art will always spring from the inner life, from -- dare we name it? -- the soul. And it will be made by those who are able to get in touch with that place within themselves and know how to transfuse it into their artistic instruments of choice. That is the only training that is required. Everything else is embellishment. The creative process is essentially a spiritual process. The bodies of work Albright and Coleman created are glowing testimonials to the rewards of creating from rich inner lives. Both are artists of consummate technique, but they know that great art is not, and never was, about technique. It is about soul. It is about expressing one's inner life. Which they do magnificently.

Michael Bonesteel is the author of Henry Darger: Art and Selected Writings (Rizzoli, 2000) and the co-curator of "Golden Blessings of Old Age & Out of the Mouths of Babes," at Baltimore's American Visionary Art Museum.