Trends Fairs Comment United Kingdom

Outsider artists are coming in

The untrained, excluded and idiosyncratic are becoming ever more influential

Alfred Jensen's Twelve Events in a Dual Universe, 1978, in the Hayward Gallery's "An Alternative Guide to the Universe". Photo: © ARS, NY and DACS, London 2013

“Organic intellectual” is the term coined a few years ago to describe thinkers and poets and other creative spirits who are illiterate or excluded from the academy for different reasons. Would “organic” now make a good substitute for “outsider” or “brut” when it comes to the art that is filling some of the most praised and compelling recent shows?

“The Encyclopaedic Palace” at this year’s Venice Biennale, organised by Massimiliano Gioni, displays a Borgesian labyrinth of unverifiable knowledges, a kind of vast library of apocryphal gospels in pictures and sculptures. Gioni has taken the title from a work by the 20th-century artist Marino Auriti, an Italian emigré and mechanic whose dates of birth and death are not known. Auriti’s intricate model of his visionary city, encompassing all human discoveries, occupies the entrance to the show in the Arsenale, and leads to further imagined systems of beauty and truth created by autodidacts, outliers, alternative people, who are often vulnerable, sometimes socially excluded through damage or crime or mental trouble. They have imagined and constructed detailed accounts of reality according to highly idiosyncratic personal obsessions and epiphanies. The works share certain aesthetic features: haptic handicraft, a sense of an animate universe infusing scavenged and hoarded materials with haunted vitality and, above all, a fear of the void leading to obsessive repetition, seriality and dense, often calligraphic patterning across the plane, plaiting through the dimensions in an effort to totalise and confronting every possible eventuality. Gioni’s has been widely praised as the best Biennale for years.

Poor, harsh, unrecorded lives

At London’s Hayward Gallery, “An Alternative Guide to the Universe”, a startling show assembled with characteristic bravura by Ralph Rugoff, anticipated Gioni’s, and overlapped with it in its selection of some artists. Meanwhile, Mark Leckey’s touching and witty touring exhibition, “The Universal Addressability of Dumb Things”, offered another semi-ironised but intense artist’s archive. These shows turn out for our inspection abandoned glory-holes and attics, and recall rummage sales, yard sales and cabinets of curiosities. The Museum of Everything was included in the Hayward show in the small space upstairs, and its guiding spirit, James Brett, has been in the forefront of the new enthusiasm for the untaught, organic, virtuously maverick and often ungarlanded artist. Jeremy Deller’s quest for folk arts is related to this omnivorous inquisitiveness, though his heart lies with the ordinary, even banal artefact at the point when it too takes off into the curious, the wonderful.

This hunger for art beyond the art world inverts the art world’s appetite for more of the celebrity names; it exists in symbiosis with the addictive hyper-consumerism and glamour of the art fairs. In some ways, the poor, harsh, unrecorded lives of the “organic artists” reflect, as in a dark mirror, the shadow cast by the luxury and glitter of the successful global stars; the outsiders bring back to consciousness the conditions of making art for many artists in the past and in the present. Shows of organic artists are acting to remind us what is at stake and what should be at stake.

Art beyond the art circuits also offers a different answer to the sharp question: what is art for? The fairs adulterate the old ideal of art: hedge-fund investors piling up Rothkos make us feel badly; Damien Hirst as diamond geezer is embarrassing, and sobering. Yes, money has to be made, artists have to live. But like the Vatican bank and the church rattling its collecting boxes, fairs remind us of Jesus raging against the traders in the temple, and ideas about art’s purposes are constantly struggling to flee the status of commodity, to reinvigorate art’s integrity. The organic artists stand for this hope, even when their prices begin to soar: they did not—do not—do it for the money.

Magical transformation

The growing anthropological approach to art’s functions dominates this turn to alternative organicism and the attempts to discover and exhibit art that is not intertwined with commerce, mass hypnotism and fashion. According to this view, art—only some of it graphic—is made to assure the well-being of society or the group; art is event, not representation, and revelatory to the point of changing what we know and how we experience the world. The artefact becomes a magic instrument that does not reproduce what is out there, but projects what it dreams and transforms what it touches. It can truly provide a “guide to the universe”.

Aby Warburg, Roger Caillois and Alfred Gell are the dominant maîtres à penser of this approach. From different angles, all three writers go far beyond Prinzhorn’s concept of asylum inmates’ creativity, or Dubuffet’s hopes for Art Brut, and their direct influence shows, I think, in the choices curators are making from artists so far outside the established circuitry.

Warburg famously experienced a revelation when he attended Hopi dances in Arizona in the l890s, Caillois wrote widely and deeply about the relation between games and the sacred, and Gell studied Maori war canoes and their elaborately carved, riddling prows: this was “technology as enchantment”, he wrote.

Successful, recognised figures increasingly mimic organic outliers, shamanic processes and homemade style in an attempted flight from being commodity producers; curators are increasingly mixing the outsiders with their admirers—the insiders. Unfortunately, there are very many reasons for disquiet about this dynamic, as curators, collectors and spectators rush to exhibit—to possess—the crazy minds of others. But one principal difficulty, which colours the relation to art fairs, is that the art market is infinitely expansive, and there may be no art that can be safe from its ardent and loving embrace.

The writer is an author, a professor of literature at the University of Essex and a trustee of the National Portrait Gallery, London

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