Speaking in Tongues
Every time I am asked to talk about outsider art, I am reminded of the old joke about the crazy guy in the mental hospital. Trapped in his cell, the madman keeps knocking on the door, shouting at the doctors: “Are you insane? Quick, open up! You’ve locked yourselves inside!”
It doesn’t take the antipsychiatry movement to remind us that normality and difference are always relative and result from hegemony and hierarchies of power. As Michel Foucault wrote, to understand the doctor and the institutions the doctor represents, we should talk to the patient: it is not psychology that can tell the truth about madness, but rather madness that holds the truth about psychology. Likewise, examining what we regard as outsider art can help us understand the restrictive terms we have applied to the discipline of art history and to the very definition of art. In other words, probing the accepted distinctions between canonical art and the practices that don’t abide by its orthodoxy can lead us to question the rigidity of the categories we force onto art. I think of this approach as a way to advocate for diversity or an attempt to improve one’s vocabulary or increase the range of one’s own voice.
Tracing the boundaries and no-man’s-lands within and around the current definition of art means not only rethinking its essence, but also, if possible, expanding its contours. For many artists of the historical avant-garde—such as the Surrealists or Jean Dubuffet—engaging with outsider art was a way of letting the barbarians into the civilized border of the empire. Today we have to find ways to challenge the very notion of boundary and map, creating a new cartography that better attests to the complexity and richness of the territory. And—like the scholar in Kafka’s story about the Great Wall of China—we know that every boundary can be transformed into the foundation for a new Tower of Babel, in which difference and multilinguism will again reign.
As a curator, I have involuntarily become a figurehead for outsider art after a decade or so of showing, alongside the work of professional contemporary artists, the work of non-professional artists, as well as various artifacts and manifestations of material culture. The most notable example of this approach may be the exhibition I curated for the 2013 Venice Biennale, whose title, “The Encyclopedic Palace,” was borrowed from a work by Marino Auriti, a mechanic by profession and painter by passion who in his free time had created the model of a museum meant to hold all human knowledge. The 2013 Biennale centered on a series of questions that I find fundamental to the understanding of art. Who has the right to call oneself an artist? Who has the right, or perhaps the duty, to create images? And what purpose do images have, especially in a culture that seems to be suffocating under the burden of its own iconophilia?
At the 2013 Venice Biennale, the main exhibition opened with two artworks by amateurs, a term that I prefer to the more problematic “outsider artist.” (What are artists, whether eccentric or not, dilettantes or professionals, but lovers of images? And what is art if not a way to spend time in ways one loves?) In fact, the crucial question was not so much about the makers, but whether or not these two objects were even to be considered art in the first place. One was Auriti’s “Encyclopedic Palace,” and the other was the Red Book by Carl Gustav Jung. The Red Book is an illuminated codex, containing over a decade of the Swiss psychologist’s visions, hallucinations, and images from his unconscious. I included Jung’s Red Book to undermine accepted definitions about normality and professionalism: Jung’s book proves that in fact a doctor can produce images that would be typically qualified as outsiderish, or even insane. My aim was not to compare Jung to a madman or to treat the doctor as a patient, but to suggest that distinctions between art and non-art, between orthodoxy and unorthodoxy, are artificial and often pointless—or at the very least, incapable of accounting for a vast range of phenomena that escape our rigid categories of interpretation.
To put it simply, I like to think that every artist, whether professional or amateur, is self-taught. All artists teach themselves and teach their hands (or perhaps it is the hands that teach the artist) new ways of shaping matter and materials. In that moment when hand meets material, Auriti, Jung, Aloïse [Corbaz], or Picasso were not all that different: each had to teach himself to obtain what he wanted from the materials he had chosen.
One of the reasons I’ve embraced the art of autodidacts with such enthusiasm is that very often their works are based on the rejection of any sense of taste and this rejection is precisely what makes their works most akin to the best examples of professional art, and vice versa. Duchamp saw taste—good or bad—as the greatest enemy of art, while, according to legend, Picasso said that taste was a problem best left to ice cream makers. With their rejection of taste, the artworks of both amateurs and the greatest professional artists equally rattle the accepted hierarchies of art and culture to their foundations.
This rejection becomes even more important at a time when artistic value and market value are too often confused. Today many museums and auction houses seem to celebrate a static notion of the masterpiece, by which a work is reduced to a mere reflection of itself, stripped of any critical power, and admired for its economic and symbolic worth, to which the public kowtows in bovine stupor. It is against the masterpiece as a self-reflexive tautology (the work is a masterpiece and must be admired as such, as if it were a pure object, severed from history, superior to its peers, beautiful and costly, but also useless for anything other than endorsing its presumed importance) that we must struggle today. And it is through this rejection of the artwork as static and authoritative that what we call outsider art can come to our aid, because this work still has the power to overturn accepted definitions. The art of dilettantes and autodidacts reminds us that artworks exist precisely to shake up borders and definitions. Art should be allowed to palpitate in ambiguity, rather than being corralled into an immediately recognizable, easily classifiable product. An artwork is a subversion of categories, not an ossification of them: the work of self-taught artists renders all the more explicit the sabotaging of definitions that is at the core of all art.
It is for these reasons that I think it is essential to treat masterpieces as amateur art, but not to do the opposite. That is, the point is not simply to regard outsider or amateur art as if it were art worthy of the highest esteem, but to treat the major arts as if they were minor: we must treat the masterpiece as an outsider, and not the outsider as a masterpiece. Only in this way can we restore the urgency and devastating critical power of art. Today art is too often reduced to pure visual entertainment. Treating any art as minor can help us keep its subversive power alive. The task is to consider all artworks as if they were minor: we should aim not at assimilating outsider art into the “major” canon, but at dissolving the canon—or multiplying it and fragmenting it—with the help of outsider art. Knock the masterpieces off their pedestals and look at all art as part of a broader and more complex fabric of images.
When I talk about minor arts, I am not just thinking about the decorative arts or other art forms that are typically left outside the canon of fine or academic art. Rather, I’m thinking of a visual analogue to what Deleuze and Guattari, writing about Kafka, called a “minor literature,” engaged in a constant rejection and undermining of accepted definitions that they called a “deterritorialization of language.” “Only the minor is great and revolutionary,” they wrote, adding that what a minor literature evokes is the sense of “being like a foreigner in one’s own language.” Perhaps it is time to be in art like an outsider, remaining outside any definition and continuing to emphasize the one-sidedness of normative categories, while also learning to speak in tongues or at least in a foreign language.
In the 1990s, Swiss artist Thomas Hirschhorn visited the Collection de l‘Art Brut in Lausanne and wrote a scathing work of criticism, addressing not the works in the museum but the idea of assimilating outsider art into the canon. Hirschhorn urges us not to take home the stray dogs of outsider art, but to let them be stray, and to learn from them how to free all the dogs that have been domesticated by museums.
Proust said that the best novels always seemed written in a foreign language, and I believe that’s the responsibility of art and the responsibility we have towards art—to keep its foreignness alive.
is the Artistic Director of the New Museum in New York and Director of the Nicola Trussardi Foundation in Milan.