The latest in Alan Yentob’s ‘Imagine’ series on BBC One attempted to examine how we define ‘Outsider Art’ asking “Why in 2013 is Outsider Art finally being feted by the art establishment, and what took it so long?” Michelle Kopczyk gives a critical analysis of how the programme failed to provide answers.
The programme explores the label ‘Outsider Art’ in contemporary terms through interviews with a small number of artists, curators, and gallery owners from across the globe.
It starts by asking people the question ‘What is Outsider Art?’ and no one can define it. The private life of the artist Carlo Zinelli is profiled to help answer the question. Zinelli was a farmer who had fought in the Spanish Civil War and returned shell shocked. Zinelli’s work was shown at the 2013 Venice Biennale by the Museum of Everything. People at the Biennale were interviewed, and agreed that it was good that the Biennale included marginalised artists alongside accepted artists.
Throughout the programme contemporary ‘Outsider’ artists are profiled to demonstrate what Outsider art is, such as, a Japanese sculptor who is autistic and an exhibitor at the Biennale; artists with developmental disabilities making art in group centres and selling it abroad; artists with psychiatric disorders who live and work in support homes where private life is managed and kept separate from their thriving art practice.
We also meet Joe Coleman, a painter, who identifies as an Outsider artist but is banned from exhibiting at Outsider art fairs because he sells his work at high prices to earn a living. Conversely, Henry Boxer, an art dealer, is interviewed and says New York based artist Ionel Talpazan shot himself in the foot by selling his work on the street for cheap, instead of holding off until he (Boxer) could sell it at a higher price. The conclusion seems to be that the art market punishes Talpazan because he is poor and curators punish Coleman because he is not.
The narrator Alan Yentob says “these artists, people with developmental disabilities, psychiatric disorders, untrained ability, who are poor… create and inhabit their own worlds with such conviction it becomes recognisable to us – we are invited to step inside”. The programme closes with an inexplicable animation of Yentob walking as selected artwork from the programme whirls around him.
What may have begun as an innocent attempt to categorise art has turned into a label that further ostracises artists. For instance, women-only art shows reinforce the idea of ‘other’ thus create assumptions of what the artwork is going to be about. Labels like ‘Outsider’ reinforce theories of ‘disability’.
Theories are fluid because they are rooted in systems of belief, and belief is a combination of experience, ignorance and prejudice. This explains why artists like Van Gogh and Toulouse-Lautrec are not treated as Outsider artists—Van Gogh had a psychiatric disorder, Toulouse-Lautrec had a physical disability—the popularity of their work supersedes their private lives. Their work is labelled ‘great art’, which is a norm; they cannot be labelled as ‘other’, it is an oxymoron.
The programme would have been much more interesting if it explored the nexus of experience and creativity, a connection that is not adequately understood, along with our compulsion to categorise and label what we do not understand and treat as ‘Other’ by contrasting the situation between Joe Coleman and Ionel Talpazan.