While on a tour of the Asheville Art Museum, our guide stopped at a piece.
“And this is one of the many examples of outsider art we house here.”
That phrase again. The usual discussion ensued regarding what it means to be an outsider.
As a cross disciplinary artist, maybe the term has a particularly sour ring for me. Still, I’ve been in and around the art world enough to know that while there are actually insiders, there are countless cliques within the clique before you get to the real inside. I’ll remind you that the aforementioned exchange did not occur at The Met, for example.
So it’s like an onion but often much smellier. And with more tears.
One Man’s Insider Is Another Man’s Outsider
After all, for most people, artists are outsiders. They’ve been perceived as being on the fringes of society for years. That probably shouldn’t be the case. In the interests of innovation, there is a role for art making – or at least a better appreciation of the creative process – across various industries. And similarly, the art world itself benefits when outside perspectives band together for a common cause. Think of the boards that govern countless arts organizations.
Regardless, there are art world luminaries who remain critical of some who decide to call themselves artists. For these luminaries and tastemakers, those artists are not to be considered artists or at least serious artists, because they do not meet certain criteria.
The problem is that a democratization of art making, appreciation, and criticism has been underway during the last two decades. More about that later.
Artist Criteria . . . Or, Disqualifying Criteria
The requirements to be an artist differ from person to person. However, disqualifying characteristics tend to reside in these general categories:
- Lack of formal arts education.
- Employment outside of an art practice.
- Professional or financial success outside of the art world that funds an art practice.
Actively Accepted Artist Labels
Often, in an effort to settle the resulting debate or at least suspend the issue diplomatically, other terminology is employed. One may encounter any of the following generally accepted labels:
- Sunday Painter – Those not in the art world know may be unaware just how derogatory this term is understood to be.
- Hobbyist – Practically the same as not an artist or not a serious artist.
- Outsider Artist – Though folk artists such as Howard Finster are included in this group, so are the clinically insane who “happen” to make art. This is not a joke. The term was coined by Jean Dubuffet in what was probably a genuine effort to embrace creative works made without generally recognized art world exposure or its confines.
- Self-Taught – Essentially a sub-category of outsider artist.
- Naive Art – Essentially a sub-category of outsider art. For whatever reason, you may view a group exhibition of naive art, but you will be less likely to see someone referenced as a naive artist.
A great book on the subject of the outsider, self-taught, and naive genres is . . . wait for it . . . Outsider Art: Spontaneous Alternatives by Colin Rhodes.
Artists in Boxes
If I search for David Byrne’s Rei Momo on Amazon, I discover that I can find it in the following categories: Alternative Rock, Jazz Fusion, Pop, Rock, and World Music. In the days when I could have bought Rei Momo at a brick and mortar record shop, I would have been most likely to find it in the Rock section.
David Byrne also produces visual work – not just music. So, today, if I go to David Byrne’s website, I can peruse the Art and Books section. He also happens to have a Film and Theater section. Now, tell me: Who is David Byrne? What does he do?
The reality is that the ways in which we process information have changed dramatically – and quickly – thanks largely to rapid advances in communication technologies. Yes, we’re speaking in broad terms about the Internet, mobile devices, and social media.
As a result of the influx of information, we as humans are discovering that the concept of tags often works better than the concept of categories. Categories worked pretty well once in the record shop. Now, categories are still helpful, but tags help our brains filter out all the results from the expanded number of information channels.
And not only do we process information differently, we (including David Byrne) also learn a lot differently – and faster – than we used to.
Think about it: Now more than ever before, because of those technological advances impacting both communications and productivity, people like David Byrne can be both defined and identified by more than a handful of experiential characteristics or properties.
And that’s where we get to the first big sticking point: Education.
Updated March 17, 2016.