Judith Scott, Untitled, n.d.

        WHAT’S IN A NAME?

[Presented Oct. 8 in Oakland, Ca.at “Margins and Mainstreams: Disability Art Today,” American Folk Art Society Conference, hosted by The Creative Growth Art Center.]

Disability Art, as in the title of this symposium, is a new term for me. I think I know what it means: art by those with disabilities, art by the physically, mentally, and emotionally disabled.

But do we need yet another art term? Elsewhere in my work as an art critic, artist and poet I have been busily de-defining or un-defining both art and artist, by my practice or sometimes by examining the definitions that exist or are continually being proposed.

Since the excellent work done by the Creative Growth Art Center involves not only teaching art to the disabled but also marketing that art, on one level the term Disability Art makes sense. I first became aware of the Creative Growth Art Center because of the bound and wrapped sculptures of Judith Scott: mission accomplished. Scott has Down’s Syndrome and had to be rescued from a state institution by her once long-lost twin sister. Whether we call Scott an Outsider Artist or a Disability Artist, her sculptures are superior to most art-school art now clogging up the art system.

Yet I always worry about terminology. As I have often said, taxonomy is destiny, so I’d like to question if we really need another term. Won’t Folk Art or Outsider Art do? But please beware. Once we examine the words we are using, we are unable to ignore that meanings — and categories –are unstable.

Let’s begin with Folk Art, which I define, rather academically,as art made for local communities by academically untrained artists in those communities. I specify “local communities” because we now have nonlocal communities such as those formed through the internet. And, of course, there are nonlocal communities of doctors, lawyers, poets, artists, art collectors, gay men and lesbians, and persons with various political views, specific tastes in music, and even specialized art collectors held together by print publications, conferences, resorts, and rumor.

Tourist Art is iffy, because it is not made for the locals. But we’ll pass on that.

I also say “academically untrained artists” becausefolk artists are not really self-taught, but learn their skills through an apprentice system rather than through formal attendance at an art school or academy.

Now to make matters more complicated, the definition of Folk Art appears to havebeen expanded by The American Museum of Folk Art in New York to include art that has been variously labeled as Art Brut, Outsider Art, Grassroots Art, and even Visionary Art. Art in these categories is more often than not situated against local communities and is generally thought to be made by lone-wolf rather than community artists. I assume this means the American Folk Art Museum is now embracing all art by persons without academic training.But one never knows, since currently their exhibition is of jewelry (and hardly even art jewelry), of a kind made by those who have gone to one design school or another.       

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An aside:

We know that various state and national officials are now examining nonprofits for conflicts of interest and other sins. Might they also look at whether or not a museum follows its mission statement? Not only is the Folk Art museum showing commercial jewelry, the Guggenheim is showing Aztec art. Will MoMA get away with showing the art of ancient China? Will the Cooper-Hewitt show photography?

The former American Craft Museum may be ahead of the curve: it changed its name to the Museum of the Arts and Design and thus, with the exception of items of natural history,it can without guilt show practically anything, even craft.

Other museums might get into trouble.

If I were a donor to or a dues paying member of the Museum of Birds Nests and suddenly my institutionhad an exhibition of automobile tires, I would feel more than cheated: I’d feel swindled and not want totoss them money ever again. As a former museum person and nonprofit executive, I know how difficult it is to raise money and can easily understand the temptation to yield to the nearest salesman carrying a briefcase full of bucks. But don’t average donors deserve some protection? Isn’t a Birds Nests museum that shows automobile tires guilty of false advertising?

        A Continuum of Disabilities

I assume the proposed category Disability Art also requires the “academically untrained”proviso, here meaning art made by persons who have not been to art school (but allowing those who have been helped by the Creative Growth Art Center).

I think it would be best to exclude the work of art-school artists, for in fact there is a rather large number ofacademically trained artists — what I call art-school artists — who also have disabilities of one sort or another, usually not severe enough to require institutionalization or needing specialized therapy (or at least not yet), but which could be seen as handicaps.

I do not mean to denigrate or make light of really serious disabilities, but to indicate that disabilities exist on a continuum. Also I sometimes like to make fun of art-school artists.

I was once startled and enlightened at a craft conference attended by perhaps 400 or so crafts artists. The former head of a now-discontinued craft section of the National Endowment for the Arts asked the assembled crafters to raise their hands if they suffered from dyslexia or other learning disabilities. I would estimate that at least 80 percent of those present owned up.

The speaker went on to say that this once again confirmed her thesis, developed when she was at the NEA, that crafts artists almost universally suffer from dyslexia and other learning disabilities. She added, if I remember correctly, that perhaps crafts work was a way of compensating for other modes of expression and understanding, and that perhaps — there was a gasp — that the crafts could play a key part in art therapy once again.

The shock here was not about disability-consciousness, but at the term art therapy, because, you see, even craft, if it is to be art, is not supposed to provide social benefit. I myself don’t shrink from the term art therapy, since I do not believe that art must be pure and above use, or even that it can be.

I wonder what the results would be if all artists were polled.Perhaps not 80 percentbut maybe 79 percent would wave their hands if they were being honest. I base my guess on many years of teaching art students who, if not exactly artists, are would-be artists. But also upon the lack of reading skills displayed through the manner in which painters and sculptors react to art criticism, even when it is about their own work. And even when it is favorable. You usually have to spell out: yes, this means I like you, I love you.

I can’t really count how many studio visits I have made in my 40-year career as an art critic, but I can assure you I am always shocked at the paucity of visible reading material. Many artists have no books at all, even in their living quarters. The only books they may have are books about themselves.

There are other kinds of disabilities I find endemic among art-school artists: egomania, pathological competitiveness, and greed. But we had better not go along that path, because I am in the minority as seeing these character traits as disabilities: they may indeed prepare artists for the road to success in the art world. They are, however, disabilities if one sees soul-growth as a goal just a bit higher than acquiring a blue-chip gallery, a BMW, a summer house in the Hamptons, an Abrams picture book, and a museum retrospective.

I will always stick to the view that artists make art in spite of their disabilities rather than because of them. This goes for the egomaniacal, super-competitive, greedy artists we all know about as well as for those who have medically diagnosed physical or mental impairments of one kind or another. Their art is their health. It is, I would propose, people who do not make art, compose and/or interpret music, or write and/or readpoetry who are disabled. The poet Ted Berrigan spoke of those who don’t write poems as being partially crippled, which certainly does turn things around.


Another point:

Can we limit our definitions of Outsider Art or Disability Art by including only those artmakers who are under some form of institutional care?

If so, what do we do about someone like the Japanese artist Kusama, whom no one considers an Outsider Artist or Disability Artist? She is most famous for her naked street performances, her use of polka-dots, her mirrored rooms, and for encrusting various objects with small-scale stuffed penises. For many years she has lived in a mental institution in Japan. Of course, she committed herself and seems to be able to come and go at will. Since her family is enormously wealthy, she can pay her own keep.

What I am suggesting is that the main difference between Kusama and, let’s say, Martin Ramirez (whose intense drawings and collages are generally classified as Art Brut, Outsider or Visionary)is not art-world exposure, but personal wealth. It is odd indeed that most Outsider Artists are poor, when we know that the rich can be just as crazy as the poor, and perhaps even more so. The rich have the money to protect themselves from the state and/or medical interference.

In the ’70s, I would show my students slides of unidentified art works and defy them to decide which paintings and sculptures were by women artists. I think that now one could also show an array of unidentified artworks that would be impossible to separate into Outsider versus Insider art.

Obsessiveness? Many mainstream artists display obsessiveness in their art. (I would include Sol LeWitt, Chuck Close.) Centralized or nonhierarchical imagery? Confusion of animal/human categories? Use of nonart materials? Mythomania? All of these characteristics can be found in art-school art.

On the other side of the coin, as it were, Outsider Artists (and I will use this category to include Disability Artists as they are now being marketed) are expected to provide the unexpected, to be original and not to care about any possible audience. Thus they are not very different from artists of avant-garde Insider Art. In fact, a case can be made that Outsider Art is now a part of Insider Art. Art-school art has opened up to include antiformal strategies, obsessiveness, and even myth, so strictly on the basis of what we are looking at we cannot tell Outsider Art from Insider Art. We need the added knowledge of a lack of Insider training and of psychological if not social and cultural isolation.

On the other hand, one could say that Insider Art, unlike Outsider Art, is always inspired by existing models, no matter how far-flung, and is usually art-about-art. The difficulty is that now those models can be Outsider Art or Art Brut, as Jean Dubuffet called the art he so cleverly imitated.

       The Sincerity Problem

But in a final paradox, I don’t want you to worry too much about imitations, appropriations, or even outright fakes — and there are such. Anytime there is money to be made or a leg to be pulled, fakes will appear. I have heard of at least one art-school artist (he is actually a professor of art) who has a nice little Outsider Art career under another name. But my paradox is this: sometimes the intention of the artist or even his or her sincerity is of no importance.

As a very young man, I was very excited to make my first studio visit. The artist was a boyfriend of a friend, and he made a lot of money painting Madonnas for the Washington Square Outdoor Art Show — where Franz Kline got his start, but which went immediately downhill to become the biggest shlock fest in America. My friend’s boyfriend had a bigger studio behind his Madonna studio: this is my real art, he said, I am really an abstract painter. The joke on him was that his Madonnas were actually better than his bad but seriously executed abstract expressionism.

Then too I am reminded of Ern Malley, my favorite Australian poet from the ’30s. He didn’t actually exist, but was a hoax created by two really bad conservative poets, James McAuley and Harold Stewart. Which would you prefer: “The Revolution, now betrayed?/By whom misled, by what dismayed?” by McAuley or “When the hysterical vision strikes/The fa├žade of an era, it manifests/ Its insidious relations” by “Ern Malley”?

Which would you prefer: “Now in the brazen zenith hung, the sun/ Clashes the cymbals of the solar disc…” by Stewart or this gem by Malley: “I have been bitter with you, my brother,/Remembering that saying of Lenin when the shadow/ was already on his face: ‘The emotions are not skilled workers’ “?

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