Creativity, Institutions, and Outsider Art


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Artist Judith Scott with Cocoon

In the image of authentic creativity found in Art Brut, as promoted by Jean Dubuffet, genuinely creative art is motivated by insubordination, and by a maverick self-assertion that is profoundly anti-social. Institutions do not foster true creativity, even where they are supposed to (schools, colleges, academies); but those institutions that embody the most oppressive aspects of society (prisons, or psychiatric hospitals) are, paradoxically the ones in which this defiant, idiosyncratic form of creativity can take on its most striking and original forms.

In this way what I shall call “negative institutions”–ones in which the rejects of society are shut away from the rest of us–function unconsciously as oases within which a wild creativity can flourish. The majority of inmates may seem to have surrendered to the authority embodied in the institution; but an exceptional minority somehow manages to defy it by one kind of creative riposte or another, something that works against the regime of indifference characteristic of such institutions.

So-called “psychotic art” is the most obvious example of this defiant creativity, certainly according to Dubuffet. But here we immediately encounter a contradiction: on the one hand such work is characterised by an eccentricity or perversity that seems utterly individual; on the other, it is supposed to have a compulsive or obsessive character, and may even, according to some psychiatrists (Morgenthaler, Bader & Navratil) obey ‘laws’ of which the individual artist is unaware.

Actually, this creative tension between the uniquely self-expressive and the automatic or unconscious is one that we also encounter in Modernism: in the Surrealist practice of automatism, or in other ways of deliberately renouncing conscious control such as drug intoxication. But in the conventional psychiatric picture of psychosis such mechanisms are often seen as purely instinctual or unconscious. In addition, the peculiar expressivity of such art is often ascribed to the distorted perceptions or thought processes of the patient/artist rather to any intention on their part.

There can be no doubt that Dubuffet rescued such work from its psychiatric confinement–both literally, by preserving it, and figuratively, by recognizing it as one of the most authentic forms of dissident artistic creativity. But was this discovery or kidnap?

Art Brut and Outsider Art are defined from the outside, by people (artists, collectors, dealers, etc.) other than those who created it, and the myth of creativity it serves to demonstrate is one that serves our needs, not those of the creators themselves. So the question remains, as to just where this creativity is really located: does it belong entirely to the artist, who for whatever reason (or unreason) was often unable or unwilling to offer any comment or explanation for their work, or does it belong more to us, the collectors and admirers of Art Brut?

Here we have to take into consideration the degree of intentionality that can be ascribed to such works: in calling them “art”, we are surely implying that some degree of choice or control, however obscure or intermittent, was being exercised. But might there not be forms of intentionality that are less easily associated with consciousness: ones that are found at the level of personal signature or facture, and that have what could be called an inarticulate or existential justification? Here we also have to take into account the fact that the “madness” that was historically, in the post-Renaissance concept of melancholy, associated with the artistic genius, is not the same thing as the madness identified in the psychopathological categories of psychiatry (enshrined in the American DSM). To complicate matters further, there is also, as the concept of melancholy recognized, a “madness” associated with the art-making process itself.

This madness involves the blurring of boundaries between inner and outer reality, the almost magical animation of the materials themselves, and the fact that the work seems to take on a life of its own. These are all phenomena regarded with suspicion by psychiatry (and later by psychoanalysis). This madness, with which many artists other than just Outsiders are familiar, occupies a no-man’s-land between conscious intention and the kinds of automatism or dictation that are often presented as unconscious “laws” which the artist obeys, whether they know it or not. In a sense the work does not belong purely and simply to the artist who creates it; but this factor is magnified when the artist either chooses not to, or is not in a position to offer, any comment on their work, which is often the case with Outsider Art.

Let’s take a well-known example from the world of art: the paintings made by Willem de Kooning during the last, Alzheimer-ridden stage of his life. The fact that he already had long career as a professional artist makes us inclined to accept that something of his previous experience was carried over into these paintings, even if the degree of conscious intention in them is uncertain. But what about someone who has no such art background, and who may have suffered early on from a severe form of handicap, such as extreme autism; someone like Judith Scott, who had no language and seemingly little awareness of the independent existence of others? Here we are confronted by limit cases that pose awkward questions, no matter how ‘original’ we may find some of their work.

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A work by Judith Scott from 1992 in “Make” at Ricco/Maresca

Add to this the fact that most such artists make their work within special studios where materials and technical assistance are provided, and even the possibility of exhibition or sales. Hence work is created which would not otherwise have seen the light of day. No doubt such studios are, in purely human terms, places where disadvantaged people can experience some measure of achievement and recognition (though I would not agree with Leo Navratil that this constitutes ‘art therapy’); but what are we doing when we call some of their production ‘Outsider Art’?

In one sense the Outsider status of such creators, like that of psychiatric patients, is confirmed by their institutionalization: they are people beyond the pale of the normal everyday world, and we are at once fascinated and appalled by their marginal situation. But, unlike the old-fashioned psychiatric hospitals from which Dubuffet harvested so much of his collection, these creators work in a benign, encouraging and social environment, and many of them must have some sense of an audience, even if it is those immediately around them.

Let me go back to what I called the ‘limit cases’: people whose ability to communicate on any level is uncertain, but who, for whatever reason, make drawings, paintings or objects. It cannot be denied that, in some cases at least, we may be faced with work that is largely determined by habit, obsessive routines or mechanical repetition; or by something that we cannot really identify. There is an analogy here with early child art (and indeed with primate art); although we may like to attribute them to some sort of “artistic” creativity, we have no idea what motivates these kinds of mark-making, and giving them this label has more to do with our need to project theories of creativity than with whatever prompted their production–and let’s remember that both children and chimps quickly learn to play games with us. So when we single out certain works because they look “original” to us, that is not in itself any guarantee that they are in fact individual self-expressions of the kind we associate with art. If anything, they are more like found objects.

Does saying this demean the people who produced them any more than calling their work “Outsider”? The link between institutionalized art-making, a presumed creativity and Outsider Art is sometimes a tenuous one; and the questions I am posing (to myself as well as you) need to be asked.

P7030004_1David Maclagan is a writer, artist, lecturer and retired art therapist, living in W Yorks. He has published numerous articles on Outsider Art, art and imagination and psychological aesthetics (the title of a book published in 2001 by Jessica Kingsley). His latest book Outsider Art: from the margins to the marketplace has just been published by Reaktion Books.