Tuesday, October 30, 2012


Vivi-Mari Carpelan: "Important English Furniture", collage 1993

My previous article on outsider art has made me think a little about art criticism. If you start out with the assumption that an exhibition is going to comprise a specific group within society, then you have presumably set some specific premises for the process of selecting and judging the art work that these people are presenting. 

I think Outside In is doing a great job in attempting to disregard an artist's background. Basically, if an artist feels they belong with this group, then they are welcome. I guess one can assume that only disadvantaged people would want to take this opportunity. I've had to discard my hopeless attempts at fitting in in the normal world and admit that I could really use a support group that is designed for people who cannot function like "normal" people. This decision wasn't that easy to make.

At least in theory, an artist's history isn't important to the Outside In team - some of the outsider artists have been educated within the arts and therefore do not fit in with the old definition of outsider artists as being self-taught. It's just a new and progressive way of looking at this type of art and it's certainly moving in the right direction. Many of us have complicated and difficult lives that prevent us from being fully functioning artists with the aim of becoming acknowledged professionals. I may have had some training in art colleges, and that seems to count when I present my work to the general art world. We all know how artist's today seem to get onto the career wagon just from having had a successful degree show. Those of us who aren't such young promising artists with the luxury of having such a show, are often disregarded. Even for a normally functioning artist it can be incredibly difficult to get anywhere if they are over 30. 

Of course, if I have to deal with people within the normal art world, I make an effort to appear as professional as possible or at least secretly hope that my CV will be impressive enough and that I managed to use the right buzz words. Yet the truth of the matter is that I'm not very good at communicating my intentions in a way that would fit in with the contemporary art scene (this is especially hard without compromising my true self), and I don't have all that fancy stuff on my CV that seem to matter so much these days, for instance awards and commissions. My actual training in fine arts is also minimal and I basically taught myself how to express myself artistically rather than commercially. I don't suppose anyone at Outside In really cares what background I have, as I'm sure they care only about my present life circumstances. Yet I can't help but wonder whether there is some kind of agenda at the back of the minds of the judges to award art work that doesn't appear to be backed up by formal training.

Vivi-Mari Carpelan: "Xclusion",
handmade collage with artist's photograph,
copyright 2012
The question around exclusion versus inclusion within the art world is not simple. How do you create a new paradigm for art criticism? Outsider art is a reactionary movement that attempts to reject typical value systems within the art world, but how far can you go in being reactionary without losing touch with society at large? How is such art to be judged if it's not judged in accordance with a general consensus within the art world? All this raises the question whether this kind of art can be judged and written about in the same way as any other art. 

I think there are ways in which experts can judge a piece of art in a fair manner, although they may not all agree. In other words, there is an objective stance which is independent of the art market or art world today but also of any knowledge about the artist. Being able to have an acute eye for good art but also disregard any knowledge of the artist's life, reputation and former achievements isn't easy, but it can be done. 

I do believe that art work has to be able to stand on its own regardless what predicament  artists finds themselves in. I have often wished that my art would be judged with the understanding that I have limitations and that this comes across as imperfection in my work. But this is never going to happen and shouldn't happen either. I can only hope that the imperfections are only obvious to myself. I can only hope that my message is strong enough to make people think highly of what I do. I obviously don't want to be a pity case! I do however think that it's great that my art is being seen by people who intentionally look for meaning and value that is based in a concern for the equality of all artistic people. On the one hand, you are being supported in the difficult task of getting your art out there. On the other, your art is being seen as potentially supportive of humanistic values and judged on the basis of the human message your art sends out (either by contents or through its pure expressiveness - or both). While this process of inclusion may not always be 100% successful, I do think it's revolutionary and will hopefully become more and more influential. Won't people eventually get tired of conceptual art without a connection to true human sentiments and ethics?

I hope these attempts won't be jeopardized by the inclusion of the wrong kind of art work, i.e. work that is only therapeutic and not really artistic. I think there is a real danger in allowing immature work due to matters of equality to be displayed along side with highly proficient work, as the former can drag down the standard and how it's all being seen by other authorities in the arts. This revolution has to be a truly serious minded and not give any reason for ridicule from other serious institutions. I realize this may not be entirely possible in the world of today, as someone out there is bound to find a reason to disregard such noble efforts. But there are ways in which these things can progress more smoothly and one is for instance the inclusion of outsider art in a prestigious gallery such as Pallant House. The beautiful presentation of art work in this gallery raises the social profile of unusual work considerably. Another  thing is not getting stuck with being politically correct and pleasing members of society who are guilt ridden or driven by anger (i.e. strong negative affects as opposed to positive and more constructive ones). 

Instead of standing on the barricades shouting that everyone should be equal one must work towards a real and genuine interaction with opposing forces that builds up a sense of trust and benevolence. I'm not sure how it's supposed to work in practice, but I do know that you need to show that your efforts are serious minded and that your art has a clear message that would benefit society. You don't throw this message in people's faces but gentle offer it for people to ponder. The hardest thing is to get that sort of work in front of people. In today's climate, people don't want to know about complicated world views or deviant personalities, poverty, or any kind of illness. It's hardly surprising since life is hard and most of us get a fair share of suffering regardless. Therefore it's of the utmost importance that what you have to say somehow rings a bell for that potential audience. A sense of recognition and sympathy is what opens people up. It's all about connecting. Without connection there is hardly ever any form of compassion, and without compassion there is no social progress. That's just my humble opinion.

Vivi-Mari Carpelan: "Marilyn and Picasso", collage 1993
Read this interview with Bobby Baker, a performance artist who was one of the Judges at Outside In National; some years back she "went mad" and used drawing on her way to recovery - she's talking about the process of making art about mental illness and the question about being an outsider or an insider.