Are you a creative sort who never made it to art school? Do you live in a tar-papered lean-to in rural Montana? Are you heavily medicated and/or retired and/or known to the police? Congratulations -- you're an outsider artist, and this is your moment.
Outsider art -- or, to be reductive, folk art made by the unschooled (and frequently unskilled) -- is the hottest art phenomenon to sweep galleries and academies since the identity art craze of the eighties and nineties. The poor, alienated, ignorant and mentally marginal are the new "ethnics"; their otherness as remote and alluring to privileged art buyers as any African mask.
A basic Google search of the phrase "outsider art" generates an astounding 191,000 responses, including Raw Vision magazine -- a glossy trade publication promoting art by people who can't or don't read glossy art magazines. Gammon Records has just released Songs in the Key of Z: The Curious Universe of Outsider Music, a two-volume compendium of amateur -- often just plain bad -- music made by buskers, school children and karaoke-loving politicians.
Montreal's Zeke's Gallery operates on a first-show-only policy that often results in exhibits by people who wander in off the street.
In Toronto, the Show Gallery, a long-running, non-profit exhibition space used by art-therapy clients and other non-professional artists, is now competing for buyers' dollars with the newly opened Bracket Gallery, a more upscale folk/outsider retailer. And the kids behind Winnipeg's Royal Art Lodge are merely the latest artists to successfully ape the weird, deranged look and morbid but childish exuberance of outsider art and turn it into a (two-headed) cash cow. Everything parvenu is new again.
Even arts administrators are getting in on the flea-bitten fun. Public funding for community art, i.e. projects that embrace, say, the poetic aspirations of steel workers or dental hygienists' need to collage away the stress, is at an all time high -- prompting many professional artists to worry that conventional art resources are being cut to pay for feel-good neighbourhood murals.
Although community-art activists point out, correctly, that their projects do not create a new class of artist -- that, in fact, community art, which emphasizes group work, is very different from outsider art, which is predominantly done by loners -- the popularization of creativity, and the shared raw aesthetic, means the two camps frequently cross and cross-fertilize.
Is the outsider craze a positive sign of a new democracy in the arts, or merely a symptom of advanced and destructive jadedness, the mixed message of a culture turned overly suspicious of professionalism and education that nevertheless remains enthralled by romantic ideas of "authenticity"? And who decides what makes an outsider artist, or whether or not postmodernism leaves the crude and crusty outsider look, like any other, up for grabs by insiders?
The ramifications for practicing, schooled artists are keen. Andrew Harwood, a Toronto installation artist and gallery owner, calls the outsider-art boom "Nothing new -- except maybe to Toronto."
"People have been collecting outsider art for years," Harwood continues. "It's part of an overall fascination with insanity and mental illness that's in everything in our culture from drawings by street people to A Beautiful Mind. On another level, to be less judgmental, outsider art does meet a genuine emotional need for a lot of collectors. We're living in a highly technological society, and people have a natural desire for hand-made things, for art that is seemingly innocent, emotional and digestible."
But how innocent can art be when it is so smartly packaged?
"The outsider art movement is a movement that can't escape self-consciousness," Harwood says. "That's why at times it might be perceived as phony or insincere. Anything that is about questioning self-awareness or status in creativity has to be suspicious because the question is itself an informed one. On the other hand, there are schooled artists appropriating the outsider style who are very conscious of what they are doing."
"But getting into a who's-more-outside competition is stupid," Harwood says, adding that "for all intents and purposes I'm an outsider artist, by the loosest definition, because I've spent time in a mental hospital. But I don't make work about it."
An interesting case in the outsider/insider dilemma is the work of ceramic sculptor Ron Taggart, who goes by the name Roanoke. With a suite of vibrant, frantic and beautifully crafted historical dioramas on display at the Bracket Gallery, Taggart is being marketed as a hot new outsider artist -- if only by his association with Bracket.
Taggart's biography depicts him as a retired worker who began to make elaborate clay recreations of famous battles and landscapes as a hobby. He is self-taught, and his art betrays a trait common to much outsider art -- the need to cram every available space with visual information. Not schooled in the art-college maxim that less is more, many outsider artists fill their canvases, or, in Taggart's case, clay maquettes, with as much art as they can muster -- as if to give the potential buyer top value for their dollar.
So, it looks like outsider art -- especially with its wild, incongruous colouring and apocalyptic subject matter, such as the battle of Pearl Harbor or King Kong's trip to NYC -- but at the same time there is no denying Taggart's abundant talent for modeling and the careful planning behind each piece. Questions of skill, and its cousin, the more tricky "professionalism," are not applicable here, as are any questions of hobby-making versus artistic dedication. Besides, Taggart already has an impressive résumé of shows for an emerging artist, with prices peaking at $2,200. Where's the outsider in this picture?
Taggart's work is a perfect example of the crossroads faced by the outsider art movement. How should lines be drawn between professionals and outsiders, and should they be drawn at all? If skill is the marker, then Taggart is a pro. If schooling, and the self-conscious intellectualizing it generates, are the index, then Taggart is a folk artist. Clearly, the outsider movement's next step is to create spaces for its own stars -- a step that may make the whole outsider enterprise as irrelevant as its artists were once invisible.