14 December 2008
Colin Hambrook evaluates the achievement of 'Outside In' – an expanding programme of opportunities for marginalised artists, initiated by Pallant House Gallery, Chichester.
Outsider Art is close to my heart. I spent long, fruitless decades in a desert, producing artwork which I had no way of keeping, let alone doing anything with, because I had no roof over my head and nowhere to keep the work I was making. A lot of it got given away; a lot got lost or destroyed. It was work of a high quality in terms of draughtsmanship and use of materials. It was work that conveyed a massive window into my inner world – as someone whose life story is pretty extraordinary and challenging – certainly by middle class standards.
And Outsider Art was the label I was handed by the Art School system, and the gallery system. It was their way of dismissing what I was producing and where I was coming from. And it was a big reason why I spent so many years in a state of homelessness with over 100 temporary addresses and a string of psychiatric labels, over a 20 year period, between my late teens and late thirties. I just could never find a way in. I was dismissed with the accusation that I didn’t have an understanding of the history of art; that my ideas were not thought through; that my work had no real integrity to it. I got told by the Heads of Art at Brighton Art College, who kept me waiting in a corridor for over 4 hours, that the work was an end in itself and had nowhere to go. At a time when they had Alan Davie, the supreme appropriator of religious and spiritual iconography, in residence, they blandly told me they could see no substance to my argument that my painting held a personal spiritual vision.
The only emotional reaction I ever got from an art tutor, was at the Sir John Cass School of Art in Whitechapel, where I had limited use of a studio for a short while in the mid 1980s. He simply looked at the drawings with a huge admiring smile on his face and said ‘that is so beautiful.’ I was taken aback. The only kind of reaction I had ever had before from tutors was to ask why I insisted on making so many ‘grey drawings.’ The only honest rejection I ever got at an Art School interview was at Camberwell where I was told directly that they couldn’t accept me because they had too many of my demographic.
My style of expression just wasn’t in vogue at the time. Largely I was fighting a middle-class old boys’ network of has-beens and never-weres, whose only concept of what Art is, was driven by the ideas of art academics and what’s trendy at the Venice Biennale. Certain individuals – like Saatchi – made a pile from manipulating the ignorance, ineptitude and downright absence of imagination of those who have the power to accept and reject. Even when feminist ideas began to have an influence in the late 1980s, the concept of the personal being political didn’t extend to those dealing with issues beyond a very narrow perimeter of human experience. As a result Feminist art challenged the hegemony of the white, male-oriented system and opened up opportunities for women artists; but little, if any work ended up on show in major galleries that reflected an experience of – for instance - being disabled by society. Jo Spense < http://hosted.aware.easynet.co.uk/jospence/ > - the British artist who used photography to question the medical model of disability, as she went through treatment for cancer, was one of the few exceptions.
The fact that Art is about creativity; is about lived human experience; is about conveying an emotional experience of what it means to be alive, is lost on those who speak the Artspeak, have the contacts and hold the purse strings. That’s not to dismiss the work of many hundreds of fine artists who have managed to walk a line between context and creativity and find a way to have their talents exploited; to get exposure and to make a living. But, in terms of challenging the art world to look at art practice from a wider perspective, the gauntlet Duchamp threw down with his Fountain < http://www.tate.org.uk/servlet/ViewWork?workid=26850&tabview=text > possibly still remains unsurpassed. Ultimately, the question the urinal posed to the collectors and the curators of Art in 1917, became just another argument for exploitation. The values Duchamp was subverting became rationalised and absorbed. Now, the art world recognises that the more outrageous artists’ ideas are; the more press coverage will be found. So, for example, it is expected, as a matter of form, that the Turner prize nominees will, in some superficial way, mock the idea of what is and what isn’t Art.
Who knows, in the long run, what the effect the growing awareness and appreciation of Outsider Art, will have on the way that art is valued. It is very encouraging that the work Marc Steene, Kate Hadley and the 'Outside In' team are doing, is bringing in collaboration with a whole range of galleries, including Tate Modern. Collections of Outsider Art have been gaining recognition ever since Prinzhorn and Dubuffet fell in love during the first half of the 20th Century. The curators who came along after - Roger Cardinal (who coined the term Outsider Art), Monika Kinley and Victor Musgrave set a curatorial precedent to collect work by individual outsider artists. But, as far as I am aware, this is the first time that a public art gallery has set out to nurture talent from within the local community; artists, some of whom never had the confidence before, to step inside an art gallery.
'Outside In' is about a much broader debate on inclusion. There is a battle to be fought over the influence the academic system has over the way that we value art; and the right of those excluded by virtue of physical and attitudinal barriers to find acknowledgement as artists. Within the disability arts sector, we’ve spent a lot of time promoting the concept of the disability artist – as an artist whose work is informed by an experience of disability. 'Outside In' redirects that notion in favour of addressing the marginalised artist. When we first talked through the criteria for judging the competition, we agreed early on, that it was important that artists should be allowed to self-identify. It is not for a panel to judge the individual; only the quality of the work. We soon came to an agreement that a key factor for selection, was the clarity and uniqueness of the artists’ voice that came through the work. Rather than being solely decorative, it had to convey something about the artists’ life and perception of the world. We were looking for originality in the way art materials were used and the way composition was made. We were also looking for intuitive responses in the work; which reflected personal values, rather than studied responses that reflected an art historical perspective.
What we got in the six award winners for the first year of 'Outside In', was a series of residencies and exhibitions from artists who would never have been able to realise that opportunity previously. The competition was held in collaboration with Creative Response - a Surrey and Sussex-based organisation who run art workshops designed to give people on the margins of society access and support to use the arts as a form of expression. Personally, it gives me a great hope that others with similar life experiences to my own will find opportunities that have been denied. It is a terrific and encouraging achievement that in a small, conservative town, like Chichester, there is some recognition of how a gallery can stick its neck out to create opportunities for those living on the margins of the community; and in so doing establish a precedent for an expanding programme of work which hopes to roll out through the South-East region in 2009, and nationally in 2011.