New York

“Outsiders: Art Beyond the Norms”

Rosa Esman Gallery

I doubt that there is any art that is beyond social norms, or unassimilable; the question is, what are the terms of its assimilation? The important point about outsider art, or the art of the insane, is that it can only be assimilated as “crazy,” that is, as pathological. To label an art “outsider” is to make it socially serviceable by showing it to mark the boundaries of the inside—the “rational.” But it does something more: it shows us, by comparison, the inside’s triviality, as well as the hidden pathology in, or disguised outsider character of, much art privileged to be inside art history. Thus this exhibition of outsider art was valuable as a demonstration of the ambiguity of the normal in art, and as a reminder that we regard any art as durably normative at our own risk.

What could be seen as abnormal—crazy—in the art exhibited here? Unsortable clutter, as in François Burland. The depiction of monsters that don’t belong to any known mythological realm, as in Ted Gordon. Inveterate incoherence, as in J. B. Murry. Obsession with detail, as in John Podhorsky. And, in all the artists represented here, a sense of the pleasure of fantasy for fantasy’s sake—an abandonment of any pretense to reality, however much certain details in their work may look realistic. “Art beyond the norms” is weirdly semiotic art—art that uses signs of reality to float free of it and thus look “fantastic.”

In the last analysis, outsider art points to the arbitrariness of art—the absurdity of art, yet the strange ease with which we displace ourselves into it. For me, this was the interesting thing about this exhibition: it suggested the touch of madness that art must have if it is to be persuasive—convincing in itself, and as the embodiment of something important that is not itself (such as the unconscious). It suggested that the liberation of madness will redeem art for us, give it something more than a strictly commercial or esthetic point. Primitive and naive arts were supposed to do this redemptive job; now, explicitly insane art is intended to show that there is a secret sanity, a necessity, to art: the sanity of rebellion against arbitrary norms, the sanity of being directly in touch with the unconscious, the sanity of being (helplessly?) different.

There is a certain irony in seeing outsider art in an insider art gallery. What will insider art do when outsider art is no longer seen as different, as beyond the norms, but the true, secret norm itself? Inside out and outside in, art will once again seem beside the point and to the point of modem existence, always looking for a secret source to rejuvenate itself. There is something of Post-Modernist melancholy in the institutional situation of outsider art—which is, after all, art that we think of as made by people who are or ought to be institutionalized.

Donald Kuspit