Collecting Work by Self-Taught Artists:
Past, Present & Future

By Jane Kallir
John Kane
Calling the Scouts, 1933
18 x 22"
Galerie St. Etienne

Work by self-taught artists first began to be collected seriously in the early decades of the twentieth century. Although a broad array of nonacademic art—folk craft, amateur painting, and art by the mentally ill—existed in prior eras, the arbiters of high culture paid such lowly creations no mind. Art was the unchallenged purview of the European aristocracy and, in democratic America, of the educated moneyed classes. During the nineteenth century, however, the readjustment of class boundaries occasioned by industrialization and the mingling of disparate populations through migration and imperialism sparked heretofore unknown confrontations between dominant and subservient peoples. The simultaneous need and inability to deal with the “other” became a leitmotif of twentieth-century history, stimulating a concomitant surge of interest in work of self-taught artists on the part of the cultural elite.

The waves of interest in self-taught artists that recurred throughout the twentieth century tended to emphasize differing aspects of the “other.” The first “outsider” to be brought “inside” was the famous toll collector Henri Rousseau. Embraced by Pablo Picasso in France and Vassily Kandinsky in Germany, the painter was the original “naïf,” a paragon of childlike innocence. It was Kandinsky, a prolific theorist, who promulgated the notion that artists without formal training are better able to capture the “inner resonance” of their subjects than those whose spontaneity has been dulled by rote schooling. After World War I, a darker view of the outsider emerged, courtesy of the psychiatrists Hans Prinzhorn and Walter Morgenthaler. Working, respectively, at the Heidelberg Psychiatric Clinic, in Germany, and at the Waldau Clinic, in Bern, Switzerland, these two doctors sought access to the creative depths by studying the art of mental patients. The harnessing of unconscious impulses became a primary goal of the Surrealists, many of whom were familiar with Prinzhorn’s and Morgenthaler’s research.

Surrealism spawned the preeminent post–World War II champion of outsiders, the artist Jean Dubuffet. Art brut (raw art), the term he coined to describe art untainted by received culture, was a direct response to the insanity of global war. Despairing of civilization, Dubuffet looked to its margins for hope and inspiration, which he found in the work of mental patients, spiritual mediums, and extreme outcasts. In effect, he melded the two prewar conceptions of the art of the self-taught, ascribing primordial innocence and purity to the work of social deviants. Art brut in turn spawned “outsider art,” the title chosen by the British art historian Roger Cardinal for the first English-language book on art brut, published in 1972. However, something was literally lost in translation and in the transplantation of the genre from Europe to the United States.

Mainstream recognition of nonacademic art was a European import that was welcomed to the United States rather belatedly and, in the process, given a uniquely American interpretation. Like their European counterparts, America’s early modernists used “naive” art to ratify their own unorthodox formal experiments. But in the depths of the Depression, when America’s first homegrown self-taught painters were “discovered,” the genre quickly became a repository for all sorts of notions about national identity. Self-taught artists of the 1930s represented native ingenuity, freedom, and individualism. In the United States, where class divisions are more commonly denied than in Europe, these artists bolstered the myth of egalitarianism.

Grandma Moses
Stone Boat, 1952
signed lower right
oil on pressed wood, 18 x 24"
Galerie St. Etienne

Just as the art-world elite lauded working-class artists during the Depression, the same elite promoted African American creators in the late 1980s and 1990s, when America was struggling to overcome its legacy of entrenched racism. Whereas in Europe a sharp rift developed between proponents of “naive” art and avatars of art brut, Americans were far less inclined to engage in such theoretical hairsplitting. To them, folk art, “naive” art, and outsider art were all different expressions of pretty much the same thing. The term art brut is used rarely in the United States, and then chiefly to denote foreign phenomena. Those who have a serious professional commitment to what is amorphously referred to as “the field” also attempt to distance themselves from the term outsider, preferring the more neutral, if also problematic, adjective “self-taught.”

Unfortunately all the approaches to the work of self-taught artists that emerged during the twentieth century suffered from the same inherent contradictions. The ascription of intrinsic purity to self-taught artists was not objectively verifiable, and it clashed head on with the fact of external influence. As it turns out, many self-taught artists teach themselves in exactly the same way that trained artists do: they look at things and then poach from an array of preexisting sources. Only for self-taught artists, those sources are ad hoc rather than selected by the art world’s educational superstructure. By denying self-taught artists’ processes and influences, the doctrine of purity made it impossible to study their work seriously. The “other” was acknowledged, even petted and pampered by the mainstream, but at the same time safely ensconced in a subordinate position.

Despite the modernists’ rejection of traditional academic training, for most of the twentieth century the barriers between the mainstream and the “other” held firm. Today, however, those barriers have become far less meaningful. Contemporary artists give all cultural sources equal weight, drawing no distinction between “high” and “low” art. Artists are encouraged to take their inspiration from anything and everything that moves them, reaching back in time through all of art history and absorbing more recent visual phenomena like cartoons, comics, and film. “New media” such as video and computers are welcomed into an arena once dominated by painting and sculpture, as are formerly “inferior” modes of expression like photography. Debased, non-art materials—pipe cleaners, feathers, beads, mailing tubes, and the like—proliferate in the work of both amateur and professional artists. Curators and critics now follow paths blazed in an increasingly decentralized multinational arena. Globalization has for the first time created a true “art world,” forcing a new confrontation with the “other,” in terms of both individual players and diverse traditions.

The current approach to self-taught artists is in many respects an extension of the heterogeneity born of globalization and as such differs decisively from earlier modernist attitudes to the genre. Mainstream contemporary art and art of the self-taught are joined by similarities of form as well as content. Today the most substantive difference between insiders and outsiders may be the way that their work is labeled and marketed. The act of segregating outsiders according to their biographies has become increasingly pointless. The minor detail of having gone to art school—or not—seems similarly irrelevant when all the world’s a school.

Recent donations of private collections to public institutions—the Barrett Collection to Harvard Art Museums, the Bonovitz Collection to the Philadelphia Art Museum, and the Petullo Collection to the Milwaukee Art Museum—reflect the nascent melding of outsider and insider traditions. The presence of these stellar collections in encyclopedic institutions implicitly links them to the broader international sweep of art history. No longer separate, it is to be hoped that self-taught artists will in the future be treated as the equals of their mainstream colleagues.

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