Here’s that troublesome question again: How and why is some art labeled “outsider?”
What is this art and its creators outside of?
If an artist has no formal art training does that automatically make his/her art outsider art?
The phrase, outsider art, is every bit as troublesome as the term, “the other” that is often bandied about in scholarly works. As one reads Kate Withstandley’s, The Outsider Renaissance (click on the link to access the article), certain questions arise: Who determines these labels? Are these art works outsider, intuitive, not fine art? Why not simply call them art?
There is nothing “outsider” about the last three pieces below nor is there anything “insider” about the two above. The only difference between the two sets of paintings is that the first is by prominent Bay Area artist, Nathan Olivera, while the second is by what the art world labels outsider artists. None is better or worse than the other so why differentiate? I might very well have posted some of Picasso’s paintings, sculptures and potteries and asked the same question with an added twist, “If you didn’t know who the artist was, would/wouldn’t you call this outsider art?”
Outsider Inside, Insider Outside
New York artist Jean-Michel Basquiat was at one time considered an outsider, that is, until he became a part of Warhol’s world. Basquiat, genius that he was, knew that he needed exposure and so, he actively tried to get inside Warhol’s world. Would he have become an insider artist if Warhol had excluded him? Would the art establishment, the critics, museums and galleries have taken him as seriously as they did if he had not been a part of Warhol’s crowd? Left on his own, would the art world have realized that Basquiat deserved to be noticed the way an artist like Picasso deserved to be noticed?
Mekking Monkey Face
What price did Jean-Michel Basquiat pay to move from being an outsider to an insider artist? Was this Warhol monkey face portrait, for example, part of the price he paid to become famous? In Jamaica, “mekking monkey face” is simply clowning around and making silly faces. It is the pastime of children. The name of the game notwithstanding, I have yet to see a Jamaican child mek monkey face so that (s)he actually looks like a monkey. Their clowning around has more to do with mouth and eye gestures and distortions. What’s more, I haven’t seen any child use props to mek monkey face like Basquiat and Warhol did in this photograph. Add the out-sized ears to the distorted eyes, nose and mouth and you get a transformation from human to animal.
Whose idea was it that Basquiat strike this pose? Was it his? Was it Warhol’s? Were photographer and subject in collusion? Is one being coerced by the other to make/take the photograph? For what reason did sitter and photographer create this image? Certainly this cannot be an attempt by Basquiat to be taken seriously by the art world. Noticed, maybe, but taken seriously? I doubt it. Yet another question to consider is this: Did Warhol photograph anyone else in this particular pose? If not, why? Why Jean-Michel Basquiat and not Mick Jagger, Edie Sedgwick or any of his other sitters?
This photograph is the only one I’ve seen where Warhol’s sitter strikes this pose. Why this sitter and why this pose? Is Basquiat, maybe Warhol as well, making a statement, confronting the status quo? Are they deliberately drawing attention to Basquiat’s status as an outsider times two in the art world? Whatever the case, the portrait does not sit well. (See my previous post, “Mammy and Myths: Oh Andy!” for more on Warhol and Basquiat and the making of myths.)
Note: The large Olivera painting is the property of Stanford University. You can view it in their contemporary art gallery at the Cantor Museum.