Friday, September 11, 2009

Outsiders art - worth looking into

IN SEPTEMBER 2006, the Halle Saint Pierre in Paris hosted a survey of Australian outsider artists. The event was organised by Orange Regional Gallery, without a cent of support from the Australia Council. At the same time, the council spent $1.3 million to see works by Aboriginal artists copied onto the walls and ceiling of the Musee du Quai Branly's administration building. Shortly afterwards, more than $2 million was found to send three artists - and numerous bureaucrats and curators - to the Venice Biennale.
Needless to say, the two latter events were hailed as extraordinary triumphs for Australian art abroad, although it is difficult to find much corroboration outside of the Ozco press releases. The Australian outsiders show, which cost about $40,000, having been assisted by the Gordon Darling Foundation, was well received in Paris but hardly made a ripple in Australia. This is a familiar story for outsider artists in this country.
Outsider art is the English-language term for that movement the French artist, Jean Dubuffet, dubbed "l'Art brut" or "raw art". To provide the most basic of definitions, outsider art is made by people who work outside of the accepted art networks and institutions. In many cases, the artists suffer from mental illness or disability but the list also includes prisoners, hermits and anyone who simply doesn't fit.
There has always been a stigma associated with psychiatric illness and this is reflected in the institutional neglect of outsider art. A few years ago, I lent support to a project that proposed a museum of outsider art for Parramatta. The idea was obviously not sexy for the local council, which is now talking about spending millions on a centre for digital media - a proposal that has the capacity to be an expensive white elephant. It does, however, have the clean, "modern" veneer beloved of politicians and bureaucrats.
This attitude is also found in public galleries that have acquired vast quantities of work by insiders such as Mike Parr, who strive to emulate the unselfconscious creative processes of outsiders. They have been less willing to see merit in the genuine article. In other words, while funding bodies and museums have supported all kinds of "radical" art, they have hesitated to get behind anything too conspicuously raw.
The National Gallery of Australia possesses a small outsider collection, thanks to a bequest from Peter Fay, who donated part of his private holdings in 2003. Another notable patron is the art dealer Stuart Purves, who has acquired hundreds of works from the Art Projects workshop in Melbourne.

The steady growth of local interest in outsider art mirrors a worldwide escalation of exhibitions in private and public venues, dedicated workshops and publications. In the past few years, I've seen exhibitions by outsiders such as Henry Darger and Augustin Lesage in Paris and a survey at London's Whitechapel Gallery that put outsiders alongside some of the biggest names in modern art.
If one had to speculate as to why outsider art is becoming more prominent, one need only look at the upper echelons of the contemporary art world where there now exists a cosy - almost conspiratorial - relationship between the big-name artists and the marketplace. In the 1970s, conceptual artists went to extraordinary lengths to avoid making objects that could be co-opted by the art market. Nowadays the game is to make a piece of glittering kitsch or a contemptuous daub and charge the highest possible price. More often than not, some rich but shallow "investor" will buy it. Selling junk to the super-rich is considered to be not only profitable but "subversive".
Welcome to the modern world, where all forms of greed and corporate barbarity are justified by the "dismal science" of economics. For certain artists and curators, the grotesque spectacle of such a society, in which everything is measured in monetary terms, holds a perverse fascination. This trend has created an audience of "outsiders" who look to
art for a more immediate form of experience. They seek an art that is moving or challenging - that appeals to the heart rather than one's fashion sense..."

How outsiders get a raw deal - John McDonald September 6, 2008 - The Sydney Morning Herald
copyright John McDonald - used with permission

I had to borrow this remarkable and rare article to make the point that Australia is ten years behind the world when it comes to art. A few years have already past. Intelligent art investors and collectors will no doubt realise that and get in early.