Art’s Outsides: A Reflection in Six Parts
Investigating the idea of outsides when art is concerned might seem like a futile endeavor at best, a hare-brained waste of time at worst. But that initial insight should not stop us from entering this particular fray: the cycle of outsides becoming part of what happens on the perceived inside, the push and pull between margin and center, has been considered the defining dialectic of 20th-century art history: “Modern art operated not only as a machine of inclusion of everything that was not regarded as art before its emergence but also a machine of exclusion,” writes Boris Groys.[i] This essay is concerned with some of the occasions, terms, and arbiters of these exclusions.
So join me on a stroll through art’s outsides: from the historical entanglements of art with the space outside of the status quo, to the institutionally sanctioned “outsider art;” from hip street artists who opt out of commerce but cannot say no to fame, to provincial provocateurs whose peculiar marginalization ironically results from their best efforts to show that they, too, belong on the inside; reluctant and enthusiastic outsiders, then, artists who investigate (because they can afford to) the appeal of stepping out—Alec Soth and Justin Newhall–and curators who anxiously construe A Theory of Values, so the title of last year’s Minnesota Biennial, aimed to prove that the state’s art scene is just as good as anywhere else. Ultimately, the ethos of outsider-dom resonates deeply with American history and our troubled political present where self-proclaimed rogues wreak havoc on cultural discourse.
But beware: this essay refuses to stay put. An unruly text, ambulatory in character, it keeps straying, spilling, sprawling, defeating at every turn the urge to control, box in, contain.
“Imagine Otherwise,” the imperative (if not battle cry) of much modernist art making effectively pinpoints art’s infatuation with thinking outside the box. Basically, art — through creatively critical interventions, presented in symbolic form — was to point the way to more or less utopian alternatives to the current status quo. A few decades and prefixes (think post-, semi-, off-, alter- etc.) later, the imperative persists, despite much arguing over the waning popularity of such grand alternatives.[ii] Recently, “imagine otherwise” has been resurrected by Nicolas Bourriaud, who argues that vacuous utopian hopes have given way to micro-utopian interventions, staged by practitioners of relational aesthetics whose work exhorts us to learn how to inhabit the world in a better way since we no longer believe we can change it.[iii] Or, as scholar Rita Raley writes, the urgent calls for big revolutions have been replaced with tactical temporary disruptions and disturbances, meaningful inconveniences that, in the best case scenario, push us into imagining otherwise.[iv]
What these resurrections share is their humility: a temporary intervention, an ephemeral opening in the conventional grid of life. Art’s ambition to serve as a space of critical alterity — an outside of the ideological sort—seems to have passed: “As an alternative form of symbolic expression, fine art appears to operate in critical relation to the values of the mainstream. But in fact, it functions as hegemony’s most loyal and useful ‘opposition.’”[v] Has art become a kind of critical court jester, trickster or clown, who speaks inconvenient truths that are easily ignored but eagerly pointed to for evidence that, of course, we have oppositional viewpoints?[vi]
Not even the until recently unthinkable return of ethics into aesthetic discourse has stopped the domestication of art’s formerly critical outsides — and the seamless incorporation of putatively radical content into an arty-party culture, replete with celebrities and art stars. While I personally don’t mind a good party, are there any outsides left? Or is inevitable complicity indeed (still and again) the state of art in the new century?
Sociologically speaking, those vested with cultural or symbolic capital—the forever elusive “distinction” Pierre Bourdieu devoted some 500 pages to in his seminal study of taste—continue their efforts to convince those with economic capital that their cultural capital is indeed as valuable as they make it out to be.[vii]
This construction of value has an ambivalent relationship to our idea of outsides: on the one hand, the outside is prized as different, where prestigious symbolic capital sways its economic counterpart. But on the other hand, the arena where symbolic capital is concocted relies on guarding its boundaries against impostors and, well, there you have it, outsiders. Here, the outsider is not the chic rebel but the misfit, amateur, reject, hobbyist, wannabe—not to be confused with the perfectly acceptable “outsider artist.” Those habitually not admitted to art’s illustrious ‘inside’ include craftspeople, working-class makers, or artists whose work does not fit into the various ethnic categories set up for admittance.[viii] Yet all of these various outsiders could conceivably find themselves in a situation where circumstances may allow them to capitalize on their difference and leverage it into commercial and/or critical success. Not all outsiders want to, though, since aforementioned “circumstances” may well conceal a whole host of quasi-imperialist narratives of “discovering” artists and turning outsiders into insiders. Hence aside from artists clamoring to get “in,” there are those who stubbornly refuse to abide by rules and standards at odds with their convictions. Here is where we enter the realm of street artists, non-commercial artists, or people who do not even call what they make ‘art.’[ix]
So, in a nutshell, the boundaries are both policed and permeable, fluid and permanent, occasionally open to manipulation—at the right time, by the right people—and frustratingly inflexible.
One master of such boundary manipulation is photographer Alec Soth, whose recent retrospective at the Walker Art Center, From Here To There, ended in early January of 2011. Soth is the rare artist who is commercially successful while also earning critical acclaim for the depth and visual poetry of his work. As the consummate insider — Soth is a member of the Magnum photography collective and represented by New York’s prestigious Gagosian gallery — his recent work portrays those who have stepped off the grid: wild-bearded hermits, cave dwellers, and woodsmen.[x] The photographs were accompanied by a set of carved-out books that, in their secretive insides, contain a short tract on how to step off the grid. Significantly, this piece is titled Broken Manual.
But Soth went a step further in indulging this particular fantasy of an outside to art-world fame: disguised by the pseudonym Lester B. Morrison — whose initials LBM coincide with those of Little Brown Mushroom, the publishing press the entrepreneurially-spirited Soth has founded — Soth’s work was included in the 2010 Minnesota Biennial, A Theory of Values, which opened two weeks after the Walker Art Center’s retrospective did. Soth went as far as hiring someone to impersonate Morrison, a backwoodsman prone to praying to “Grandfather Rabbit,” to attend the opening reception at the Soap Factory.[xi] While not without conceptual interest, this doppelganger shtick is reminiscent of insider jokes, traded with the ease of those who can afford to indulge both fantasies of going off the grid and playing artsy charades.
The romance of dropping out and off the grid is as old as, if not older than, the American Dream itself. Did not all European settlers of long ago revert to “savagery” before being reborn as quintessential Americans, as an influential 18th-century treatise, Frederick Jackson Turner’s “frontier thesis,” argued? While the frontier may no longer lie in the Wild West of movie-fame, the idea of enduring civilization’s utmost edge, where domesticated inside meets dangerous outside, has not faded. While Soth’s Broken Manual confronts us with a longing look at modern-day hermits — a kind of sympathetic freak show that capitalizes on a culture’s not-so-secret infatuation with dropping out, “going rogue” as political parlance may have it — Justin Newhall’s Northern Studies literally takes us to the edge of the inhabitable world: to Churchill, the town of polar bear fame, located on Canada’s Hudson Bay.
The photographs that make up Northern Studies, on view at Franklin Artworks until January 22, 2011, are the result of Newhall’s following in the footsteps of famed pianist and composer Glenn Gould, whose unconventional radio documentary The Idea of North first aired in 1967. Inspired by Gould’s audio collage — an hour-long piece that layers the voices of five people who have firsthand experience of Canada’s northernmost expanse in a contrapuntal composition (a favorite of Gould’s musical hero, J.S. Bach) — Newhall traveled, repeatedly, by train and plane, to Churchill. Gould’s voice appears in The Idea of North as well, stating, early on, that, without any immediate experience of the North, it remained for him a “convenient place to dream about.”
The only dream-like quality in Newhall’s photographs is the absence of people. It is as if the idea of North, though translated into poignant and poetic visuals, still depends on a landscape devoid of humans, outside of civilization. And yet the traces of civilization abound: houses dwarfed by snow drifts; decrepit rocket launchers that resemble ruins of ancient civilizations; the grotesquely weather-proof buggies used for polar bear watching excursions; the faded photographic evidence of experiments in social engineering gone terribly awry.
In no small part, the poetry of these photographs stems from their melancholic air. A saggy couch in the Center for Northern Studies sits underneath a poster of the cosmos; never mind the stars outside. The aurora borealis, another one of Churchill’s main attractions, appears tacked to a wall as a poster hanging above a stack of Star Wars video tapes. The North may be out there, wild and wonderful and sublime, but in here, science and entertainment join forces to explain, make manageable, and domesticate Gould’s convenient dream. There is something gently humorous in these images that nonetheless have an edge of profundity that cuts to the core of the human condition: the longing, the dread and dreams, the futility, and the resilience, embodied by the human-sized conifers that serve as prickly stand-ins for actual people.
Hearing Newhall talk about this work — the bears were not as bad as the bugs, he says, given that the land is one big bog when it’s not frozen — demystifies the idea of North but leaves intact the mystery of that all too human longing for an elsewhere, an outside. Ultimately, what Newhall’s Northern Studies seem to ask, in a roundabout way, is why we continue to be drawn to those elemental, intense experiences at the edge of the familiar, where white-outs erase any of the reliable reference points that we customarily use to navigate our world.
Like Soth, Newhall can afford to take this beautifully calibrated look — a visual fugue, if you want — at the North as a metaphor for the lure of the outside. Newhall, too, takes this look as a nationally and internationally successful Midwestern artist whose Minneapolis-based education makes him, he claims, “provincial.” Yet there is nothing provincial about the way Newhall — and Soth — own the place they call home and make work that goes “from here to there.” While they may be insiders of the art world, their work not only flirts with rugged outsider-dom but allows for subtle ways to understand the appeal of both geographically remote or culturally over-determined places (here I am thinking of Soth’s Niagara series), literally and metaphorically. This interest in place and site-specificity, far outside the glamorous meccas of the art world, could not be farther from the provincial, a concept near and dear to U.S. American cultural history.
Provincialism is as American as apple pie, traveling with the first European settlers and haunting their self-conscious attempts to create a culture equal in sophistication to that of the Old World left behind. Briefly put, a provincial culture is an imitative one, a culture that establishes and seeks to conserve standards and values by looking elsewhere, to the perceived inside of cultural distinction and achievement.[ix] Thus provincialism, while trying to conserve cultural standards, effectively construes a derivative and diluted culture—a cultural outside.
Albert J. von Frank describes the provincial situation this way: “The irony… lay in the fact that as soon as one becomes self-conscious and defensive about one’s culture, one’s relation to it is irreversibly altered; it tends then to become artificial and petrified, and the very thing the individual had sought to preserve has suddenly become something quite different” (7). By insisting on conserving a level of excellence that may have made sense in its original setting and circumstance, the provincialist obstinately enforces a standard that, rather than allowing for culture to flourish, stunts and stultifies its growth. Deviations from the that elusive albeit persistent model of excellence were demeaned as merely provincial. Indeed, “the ‘provincialism’ which the conservatives deplore is not provincialism, but the beginning of an indigenous literature,” observes Hamlin Garland.[xii]
I include this short discussion of provincialism because, while many of the outsides and insides touched upon in this essay are beyond individual control, we can sway the way we understand our relationship to culture in general and art specifically. Yet the provincialist, the reluctant outsider who wants so badly to belong on the inside, effectively makes his or her own plight: namely, by disavowing culturally and/or regionally distinctive qualities, practices, and concerns. The 2010 Minnesota Biennial, A Theory of Values, offers valuable insight into the present-day workings of provincial consciousness, that, by postulating an idealized inside elsewhere/anywhere, effectively construes its own cultural otherness and outside.[xiii]
Notoriously tricky to curate, biennials demand a choice between showing a broad survey and a focused selection of work. The first risks fragmentation for the sake of being representational, the other tends to reveal more about curatorial preferences than the full spectrum of artistic practices. Kris Douglas and Scott Stulen, co-curators of the 2010 Minnesota Biennial, suggestively titled A Theory of Values, opted for coherence and chose to present a formally and conceptually narrow sliver of art bring made in Minnesota in 2010. Inspired by a short story by Minnesota author Sinclair Lewis, Douglas and Stulen selected work by artists who, like the story’s main character, have chosen to stay put despite the lure of a bigger, better elsewhere. Valuing this place, its Midwestern identity and work ethic, is part of the theory this biennial proposes.
Yet the curators’ choices also profess a preference for a particular kind of aesthetic: the work on view is sparse, reductionist, abstract, and often made of modest materials. The artists’ formal investigations seem carefully calibrated to capitalize on the venue’s unique properties: the Soap Factory’s exposed brick walls and gnarly wooden floors effectively set the stage for an experience deeply indebted to the industrial roots of the region. But for all the lip service paid to the importance of place and staying put, A Theory of Values does little more than flirt with Midwestern identity. In the interview printed in the exhibition’s catalog, Stulen carefully distances the show from any trace of regionalism: “I don’t think it reads like a ‘Minnesota exhibition,” he says. “This work could be shown in a contemporary gallery anywhere.” And that, presumably, is a good thing. But when Stulen explains that “because you can look at anything, everyone ends up looking at the same stuff, talking about the same artists, participating in the same conversations, aware of the same trends,” this pervasive sameness seems to detract rather than add value to the work on view.
The disavowal of geographic distinction points to the tension underlying the show as a whole: yes to highly formalized negotiations of place and identity, but only as long as they could have been made anywhere, safely inside a matrix of sameness, acceptability, a balance of power that upholds the status quo and, ironically, introduces the specter of provincialism into negotiating this particular look at Minnesotan art-making.
The only piece explicitly concerned with Minnesotan identity was Karl Unnasch’s Near Mint Condition, a tractor with stained-glass windows that references the history of transforming prairie into farmland, driven by the seductive/destructive doctrine of manifest destiny. Other work on view resists such literalism but shares a dry sense of humor.
Ute Bertog, German-born artist, paints language games in thick oils, with a tangible gusto for texture. Joe Smith dresses up a crude plywood platform in silver mylar strips. Propped up sideways, the platform’s pristinely white, reflective surface no longer serves any function other than suggesting a tongue-in-cheek metaphor for fine art itself.
Alec Soth, as previously mentioned, appears in the guise of his oddball alter ego Lester B. Morrison, “artist, poet, and hermit.” Fictional backwoodsmen aside, Andy Messerschmidt, a resident of Ely in Minnesota’s far north — here the dream of north meets with reality — is represented by two bodies of work: a series of landscapes, complete with regional architecture — churches, half-timbered houses—and obsessively detailed tondo drawings on MDF panels. The latter’s mystifying utopian architecture not only transcends place but, in their reference to Star Wars’ Death Star, question the value of progress for progress’ sake. This beautifully rendered negotiation of hope — for an elsewhere that might not exist — doubt — what if it doesn’t? — and transcendence — let’s do this anyway — eases all fears initially raised by the specter of provincialism inherent in disavowing place in search of a bigger, brighter elsewhere.
A Theory of Values, then, is one of the many possible stories that could be told about art making in Minnesota in 2010. Whether it is the “most innovative,” as the curators claim, or simply imitative of an elusive elsewhere, should remain subject to debate.
To end, let’s re-consider: do art’s outsides matter? Yes, to those trying to get in, to those busy maintaining the boundaries between insiders and outsiders, and, last but not least, to those trying to step off the grid. Is it easier to explore and flirt with the idea of an outside while represented by prestigious galleries? Yes; complicity rules — in art as in contemporary cultural politics. The real question this reflection of outsides and insides leads me to is this: since neither is going to go away anytime soon, what kinds of insiders and outsiders do we want to be? Those who, as Jonathan Franzen puts it, “are about ridiculing people who have the bad manners not to want to be cool like us”[xiv] or those who understand the constraints and opportunities both insides and outsides afford? Outsides are not a given but actively made, and it falls to us to examine carefully our — at times involuntary — involvement in their production and maintenance.
Acknowledgment: Part of this essay was previously published in Artpulse, Winter issue 2010.
[i] Boris Groys goes on to argue that “the field of modern art is not a pluralistic field but a field strictly structured according to the logic of contradiction.” The balance of power required to keep this system going, favors anything that establishes or maintains the balance of power and tends to exclude or try to outweigh anything that distorts this balance.” (Art Power 2)
[ii] The demise of the “other space” that art putatively used to afford to artists, a non-conformist, alienated space at odds with the dominant culture, is still being mourned in, for instance, Donald Kuspit’s The End of Art, 2004.
[iii] Nicolas Bourriaud, Relational Aesthetics. 13.
[iv] Raley asks, “How does one express dissent and conceive of revolutionary transformation while distancing oneself form one’s forbears, whose lingering nostalgia for their own storming of the barricades, not to mention their idealistic belief in the possibility of visible and permanent social change, seems quaint, if even a trifle embarrassing?” In Tactical Media, she goes on to discuss a number of projects that, as she puts it, “are not oriented toward the grand, sweeping revolutionary event; rather they engage in a micropolitics of disruption, intervention, and education” (Tactical Media, 1).
[v] Johanna Drucker, Sweet Dreams, 21.
[vi] As Benjamin Buchloh writes, “the clown functions as a social archetype of the artist as an essentially powerless, docile, and entertaining figure performing his acts of subversion and mockery from an undialectical fixation on utopian thought” (“Figures of Authority, Ciphers of Regression,” October 16 (spring 1981), 53.)
[vii] I am guilty of greatly simplifying Bourdieu’s ideas on this matter here. For a full analysis of his idea of a field and is inherent tensions, see “The Intellectual Field: A World Apart” (1990), in Theory in Contemporary Art since 1985, edited by Zoya Kocur and Simon Leung.
[viii] For one in-depth study of the various exclusions that have come to define European and North American ideas of fine art, see Larry Shiner’s The Invention of Art, in particular chapter 15, “Beyond art and craft?”
[ix] A particularly illuminating discussion of this ‘outside’ of art can be found in Mira Schor’s recent book, A Decade of Negative Thinking. Here, Schor compares videos made in the context of fine art—Omer Fast’s The Casting (2007) and Julia Meltzer and David Thorne’s Not a matter of if but when: brief records of time in which expectations were repeatedly raised and lowered and people grew exhausted from never knowing if the moment was at hand or still to come, with Rami Farah (2007)—with those made out of political necessity but with no aspirations to be read or understood as art, such as Ze Frank’s Red Alert (2004).
[x] Apparently, there are no female drop-outs who let themselves be found for the purposes of this photographic study. [xi] I am grateful for Kris Douglas, curator of the Rochester Art Center, for divulging this particular piece of information to me in a phone conversation.
[xii] Quoted in Albert J. von Frank, The Sacred game: Provincialism and Frontier Consciousness in American Literature, 1630-1860. Cambridge and New York: Cambridge UP, 1985, 9.
[xiii] The dynamics of home-made outsides can also be seen at work in Shannon Gilley’s synopsis of the panel discussion on Minnesota identity in the Arts, in this constellation of quodlibetica.
[xiv] Jonathan Franzen, Freedom, 202.