I can’t believe it’s almost a year since I wrote this blog post for the Huffington Post describing the areas of Outsider Art that I’m hoping to look at during my time in the US and Japan.
Things have developed since then, but the basic premise is still the same.
It seemed to take forever for the letter to arrive, but when it did it was worth the wait: “Dear Angela, I am delighted to let you know that you have been awarded a 2017 Winston Churchill Travelling Fellowship. Very many congratulations.
Those words mark the start of an exciting adventure! The letter went on to invite me to attend a seminar just a few weeks later, during which I would meet the other successful recipients along with Churchill Fellows who had completed their travels this past year.
Weeks before, as I sat waiting to be called into my final Churchill interview, I met one of my fellow applicants who was also waiting to be called in. Despite our nerves, we started talking about our projects and right there and then. I remember thinking ‘If I don’t get my project funding I really hope she does’. Her project was to travel to the USA to research culturally appropriate services for black women with multiple complex needs. You can imagine the smile on my face when I walked into the seminar for successful applicants to see her familiar face as I walked in. It was her – Geraldine Esdailee.
The Winston Churchill Memorial Trust states that it funds individuals from the UK to “Travel to learn – return to inspire. We fund British citizens to investigate inspiring practice in other countries, and return with innovative ideas for the benefit of people across the UK”. This year has awarded 150 Travelling Fellowships across the UK totalling £1.4 million. The Fellows will be travelling to 49 countries between them, across six continents, where they will carry out a wide range of projects, designed to benefit their communities and professions in the UK. The average length of a Fellowship is six weeks, but I will probably be away for closer to eight.
My project will bring together my experience of working both in mental health and the Arts as I visit New York, Chicago, San Francisco and Tokyo to look at Outsider Art practice. The definition of Outsider Art is often subject to debate as discussed by Priscilla Frank in What Is The Meaning Of Outsider Art? The Genre With A Story, Not A Style. First used in 1972 by Roger Cardinal as the title of his book, Outsider Art was an exact translation of the term ‘Art Brut’ used to describe artwork produced by untrained artists since 1948.
Some have argued that the term Outsider Art is itself exclusive and not inclusive, serving as a divisive term rather than a useful label. Outsider Art is often viewed as work produced not only by formally untrained artists, but also by those who often face physical or mental health challenges.
As you can imagine, it would be impossible to thoroughly investigate all Outsider Art in just 7 weeks, so the scope of my work will specifically look at Outsider Artists with mental health challenges, exploring 5 specific aspects;
1. Is the label Outsider Art useful? Does it help us to navigate the complex intersections between health and creativity, work and wellbeing, mainstream and marginality?
2. How is Outsider Art best curated? Should convention mean diagnosis/biographical details are included on labels and interpretation?
3. What are the ethical and moral considerations of exhibiting Outsider Art, especially in a commercial setting, managing finances, the expectations of the artist and the gallery?
4. What are the clinical and therapeutic implications of Outsider Art? What is the source of the tension between formal art therapy and facilitating Outsider Art. Should we in the UK adopt a non-interventionist approach?
5. Should Outsider Art be more closely aligned with public health services in the UK as it is in Japan? How/should we make this happen?
…and so my journey begins, almost 10 months before my first plane takes off in January 2018. It will be almost a year filled with forging links in the places I’ll visit; talking to artists, curators and mental health professionals working in the field in the UK and making sure I can share what I witness in the USA and Japan when I return.
Yes, it’s an unusual name for a blog, so I thought I’d explain where it came from.
On the first night I arrived here in New York, on my Travel Scholarship, I was invited to the premiere of Eternity Has No Door Of Escape, a fascinating film by Director Arthur Borgins, which charts the history of Outsider Art:
Outsider art challenges established art historical categories and artistic movements. A translation of the French “art brut”, a term coined by Jean Dubuffet in the aftermath of the Second World War, this label was applied to works produced by artists suffering from mental illness, practitioners of Spiritism, and self-taught visionaries. It compels us to question our aesthetic and cultural norms, and the place attributed to madness in our society. This documentary retraces the tumultuous history of art brut and introduces us to some of its pivotal figures Jean Dubuffet, André Breton, Hans Prinzhorn, Harald Szeemann… based on analyses, interviews, and a treasure trove of rare archival footage, often previously unreleased. It allows us to encounter leading experts in the field, and the key places and institutions where its history unfolded and continues to unfold, in France, Switzerland, Germany, and Belgium. This documentary is also an invitation to lose ourselves in a maze of universes beyond logic and reason, in the works of Adolf Wölfli, Aloïse Corbaz, Augustin Lesage, August Natterer… Art brut is too often overlooked by art history. This documentary allows us to make the acquaintance of this enigmatic, disquieting stranger, and to raise questions about the mysteries of artistic creation.
The film was a trip through most, but not all, of the significant historic moments that have helped to position this type of work in the contemporary art world today. There is a definite European, particularly French, focus which was both welcomed and informative.
Following the viewing, there was a Q & A session with New York based art dealer, curator and author Jane Kallir, Harvard’s Raphael Koenig and the film’s Director Arthur Borgins. It was during this discussion that an audience member asked the panel about how useful the term Outsider Art was in categorising this type of art work. Taking a deep breath, Chair of the discussion Koenig described this inevitable part of the Q & A as term warfare. Jane Kallir added that “this discussion has been going on for years and I suppose this is still the art that doesn’t know its name.’
Of course, she was right. This debate has gone on for years with terms like Art Brut, Visionary Art, Outsider Art, Non-Academic Art, Self-Taught Art….all being used to describe this type of work and it’s artists’ various iterations. Each name seems loaded, not in a way that the artists feel comfortable or happy with, but rather to encapsulate what the art market or the dealers need – a catch-all phrase that brings together a critical mass of diverse work that is now unified in the international Outsider Art Fairs in Paris and New York – which incidentally is the starting point for my trip.
From all that I’ve read and seen, I still feel that none of these terms actually fully encompass the work. An alternative view of Outsider Art is ‘You know it when you see it’, which I admit isn’t a satisfactory theoretical or scientific way to categorise artwork.
Later this week I’m meeting with Becca Hoffman, the Director of the Outsider Art Fairs, to get her take on the name and contemporary definition of Outsider Art. I’ll report back after our conversation.