pseudopodium
. . . Outsider Art

. . .

Talking to yourself in a public place (prompts via NQPAOFU and Alamut and David Auerbach)

Insider Art is art produced to fit the particular marketplace in which it's exhibited. Outsider Art fetishizes the disconnect between the artist's assumed goals and the audience's assumed attitude.

Of course, most inedible artifacts have at least some chance of outliving or being shipped outside their original context. Which is to say that, just like all writing eventually becomes readable as Literature, all art eventually becomes viewable as Outsider Art. But that's in the long run, which is notoriously hard to plan for.

In the short run of our lives as producers and consumers, what we'd like -- what we turn to these models of artmaking for -- are rules that will guarantee success and relief. Unfortunately, neither model guarantees anything but occasional outbursts of wistfulness or petulance: industry pressure usually leads to disappointing results and, in contrast, purely personal initiative almost always leads to disappointing results. Back-and-forth-ing between "insular self-absorption" and "meeting expectations" is what most artists seem to compromise on, but, as critic Nora Charles concluded in her exhaustive genre investigation, "it's all pretty unsatisfactory."

For completely other reasons, a correspondent directed me this morning to the critical work of Gerald Burns, but, coincidentally, the only online piece I can find by him is this truly horrid poem addressed to his old Harvard classmate the Unabomber:

Just yesterday a young maybe gifted writer said he'd write a poem
about Nabisco executive offers, sock it to 'em. I told him Socrates said
a cobbler has two jobs, making shoes and persuading people to buy them.
"Writing is the easy part." Buried in a mimeo'd magazing isn't an action,
and told him at least you had distribution. He liked the wit of that.

. . .
Why'd you do it isn't interesting. I know why you did,
pretty much. It's much the reason I write poems in sections.
Paleface Potter

So why I don't want to persuade people to buy my shoes must be much the reason I don't send letter bombs...? Insular self-absorption looks better all the time.

. . .

To unclench our previous entry on the transformation of Insider Art to Outsider Art....

The process can always be side-stepped by looking at artifacts as History: History, like Cheese, is capable of digesting all. But inasmuch as we try to keep our receptiveness aesthetic instead of historical -- focused on surface pleasure rather than background book-larnin' -- when faced with an artifact imported from outside our assumed position, narrative impulse veers us towards seeing the alien context as the alienated individual and the artist as Outsider (rather than ourselves as Importer).

Some examples:

To be fair, one reason Spicer's group allegiance doesn't stick to his reputation is that his group was so dismal. Which brings up the biggest problem with deciding that you're not going to rest easy with being a solitary crackpot: who you end up with. I mean, the insular self-absorption of an attic painter or bedroom songwriter at least tends to make a talentless crank more affable. The real problem is when talentless cranks band into an insular group, cheering on each other's mediocrity and adding an ugly self-righteous odor to their formerly fairly innocuous waste product.

And unless you're talking bestsellers and movie deals and posters on bathroom walls, it's awfully hard to be sure you've made it off an insular group and onto the mainland. "Professional" or not, in my cartography, the arts and book reviewers of the semi-major media look just as self-congratulatory and determinedly deluded as any communal gallery, small press magazine, indie rock scene, little theater group, or crosslinking weblog....

. . .

Errata

As a certified holder of a Bachelor of Mathematics certificate, I can confidently assert that rationality exists only as a way to juggle all the words one feels compelled to throw into the air. But even that certificate is no guarantee of success, and the Outsider Art go-round left a hatchet, a raw egg, and a beach ball on my face.

Most of the muddle was caused by my smudging across questions of production (what do we notice? what attitude do we take? what markets do we approach?) and questions of consumption (how do we notice? how do we understand? how do we enjoy?) as if all of 'em were one big really dumb question.

Thus, Doug Asherman points out that I claim that the worst thing is the formation and mutual support of a mediocre group, when the really REALLY worst thing is when the mediocre group manages to convince larger groups to take it even more seriously than it takes itself.

Regarding "insularity," David Chess suggests

that there is no "mainland" at all, except in the sense of a particularly large (or visible, or well-funded, or populous) island.
(In fact when we're talking The New York Review of Books it's not even that large an island; it's just that the islanders think it's centrally located.... Minifesto: I'm not sure that a decentered self is necessary for ethical living, but I'm pretty sure that a decentered self-image is.)

And giving David Auerbach the last long word:

With all respect, I want to reframe your insider/outsider argument, because I'm not eager to see another generation of writers inspired by Colin Wilson's The Outsider willing themselves into solipsistic states of media attention and minor celebrity. I'd like to displace the insider/outsider dichotomy into the realm of 'material'. There's a quote from John Crowley's review of Lanark that I'm thinking of:
It is more like the great homemade books, the all-encompassing works that have always been constructed not of mainstream materials but of the author's own peculiar mud and straw: Pilgrim's Progress, say, or Branch Cabell's Jurgen.
I'm willing to admit that the considerations of the intellectual market matter only once you've rejected the satisfactoriness of Borges' "Secret Miracle" [....] But at that point the question of whether the creation of something was approached from the insider or outsider standpoint is more one of idiom than anything else. Or to put it another way, you can't be Kaspar Hauser and Ian Curtis at the same time. (And for a different take, I just read the conclusion of Kim Deitch's latest serial in Zero Zero, which "solves" the problem under discussion by inverting both Heinlein's "Unpleasant Profession of Jonathan Hoag" and Charles Fort -- rather than "We are property," it is "We are entertainment.")

But the outsider brand, in its two forms--

--From without--

The Jack Spicer bit is priceless, but all those "Crazy Buddhist art. Crazy Hindu art. Crazy Medieval German art." fall more under the rubric of exotica rather than "outsiderism," I'd say. What the two have in common is a desire to attach the label of foreignness to the work. I think this is less a narrative conceit (as you say) than an impulse on behalf of both the producers & consumers to mythologize & escape. And it's going on contemporaneously too: what Richard Ford & David Foster Wallace have in common is a mythologizing of everyday materials, albeit in very different form. It's not very good mythologizing (Richard Yates did it best, and most honestly, in my view), but it's still an updated variant on what Mailer, Updike, Oates, and the rest of those geezers have been earning accolades for for years. The dominant short story paradigm in most of the anthologies these days seems to be (1) the "I'm so real" Carver-derived approach of Tilghman, Offutt, and many others whose names I've forgotten, or (2) the creepy, sub-supernatural angstploitation of Lorrie Moore, Ann Beattie, David Gates, and I suppose Russell Banks. Both are variants on the same impulse to impose a private "outsider" view on ordinary materials through sheer will -- because that's the only thing that can make it worthwhile. It's a lousy approach. I think the consequent turn to the exotic stems from the same cause -- when people get fed up with the fakery of the above, they turn to the irreducibly foreign.

And then there's people like our friend Jandek who apparently achieve some level of commodification by being fetishized by collectors, and the ensuing debate over whether he and others are the "real [foreign] thing" or not. It's very important to the consumers that they are -- what could he possibly have to say if he were just like you and me?

Granted, I think America (north and south) is more prone to mythology than the Europeans or Asians (hence our great legacy of comic books & comic strips!), but the current crop of writers is too civilized to do it honestly. So while they're too self-conscious to apply the label to themselves even as they incorporate it into their fiction, those who feel it...

--From within--

still don't use it as a primary marker in their work, though they may try. I look at Bruno Schulz's work and compare it to Beckett's, and while I see them trying for similar effects, I think Beckett is more successful. This despite Schulz's Kafka-like isolation and Beckett's (relative) integration into the various scenes around him. I'm tempted to see the issue, then, as irrelevant to the quality of the work being produced -- though it may just be that Beckett was just such a prima facie genius to everyone around him that he could have been totally maladjusted and still fit in.

Thomas Bernhard, on the other hand, is a writer who I think really hurt his work by being so socially involved in Austrian theater and politics, but I don't think that it was socialization per se that damages his books so much as an innate desire to throw obscene epithets at other people. With or without the opportunity to hurl them from a respected position in Austrian letters, I think his work would've suffered the same.

. . .

Jeepers, Creepers, and Peepers

"The Cuteness of the Avant-Garde" by Sianne Ngai,
Critical Inquiry Summer 2005, Vol. 31, Issue 4

Aesthetic theorists and researchers traditionally start from the Beautiful and Sublime. Having tangled questions of taste with investigations of experience, they then traditonally fall face-first into complete muddle.

So, as simultan kindly surmised I would, I like what Ngai's doing with Minor Aesthetic Categories. All I have to add to her essay relates to what it specifically isn't about. I mean, it says "the Avant-Garde" right in the title; I can't complain I was misled. But I think its High Art focus leads it to romanticize, overstate the centrality of, and miss some distinctions in cute-directed violence.

* * *

Impugning sincerity is tricky business. Goths genuinely are cute, and I'm sure as many kids go to art school because they're goths as the other way round. Nevertheless, sincere or not, there's no challenge when a contemporary fine-artist brutalizes the cute, or pretends it's a menace. In some cases, as Ngai kind of admits, it's macho-brat kicking against being perceived as trivial. In a lot of cases, it's just a cut-rate version of surrealism's habitual degradation of the desired. In all cases, it's easier to market "edgy" than "adorable".

In contrast, I admire Joe Brainard and Frank O'Hara for the conviction of their cuteness for refusing to buckle under fear of what the guys would say.

There are other artists, true, some inside, some outside high art circles, that I admire for the conviction with which they beat cuteness up. These come in two flavors.

  1. Kids who torture and maim their own toys. There's a lot of self-loathing in the play. Two obvious (and contrasting) examples from underground comix would be Vaughn Bodé and Rory Hayes.
  2. Kids who torture and maim other kids' toys. Here resentment is more important than identification: Tex Avery's sympathies didn't lie with the Disneyesque Sammy Squirrel. Although partly inspired by a photo of the director as an ugly baby, I have to believe similar hostility fueled the most hideous of all cuteness desecrations: Bob Clampett's original Tweety Bird. With its huge eyes and feet, sticky nakedness, and horrid leer, the creature's regressed past fluffy chick to fertilized egg: NEOTENY GONE TOO FAR.
Lizard About to Blow Balls Off at Flower: Vaughn Bode
Type 1
Shit-Eating Grin: Bob Clampett unit
Type 2

* * *

cute, a. 2. (orig. U.S. colloq. and Schoolboy slang.) Used of things in same way as CUNNING a. 6.

Gertrude Stein's book answered the riddle "What's cuter than a button?" Minima Moralia, on the other hand, I'd call cunning.

As those near synonyms (and as shithouse rats) indicate, "acute"'s move to "cute" was aphetic but not antonymic. (Speaking of etyomology, a scholar who keeps the OED so close as Ngai does will, I hope, be entertained to learn that "till" is not a shortening of "until".) The cutey-pie's wide eyes and soft skin signal receptivity and resilience.

Cute Eugene the Jeep is quiet, sure, but also indestructible and omniscient. Doghouse Reilly is notoriously cute. Young John Wayne is by no means harmless, but he's observant, non-judgmental, and cute, whereas old John Wayne is damaged, vindictive, and decidedly not cute. When Charlie Chaplin shambles on broken at the end of City Lights, he's definitely harmless, but he's no longer cute.

In nineteenth century North America, where both usages began, I suppose an infant might've seemed "cunning" in its sheer makedness: the extent to which the infant manages to resemble a perfectly engineered doll. "What a piece of work is a baby!" But the OED's "acute" citations seem to instead point towards "sensitive to impressions" and "having nice or quick discernment."

The most surefire "Awwww!" shot in movies is the one which shows an audience of children spellbound by a movie. And here's Chris summarizing a recent study of folk comparative psychology:

The baby scored really high on experience (higher, in fact, than the adult humans, including "you"), but really low on agency. This seems to imply that people feel like babies are experiencing everything, but have no will. I'm not exactly sure what to make of that.

More than just the viewers' vulnerability associates aesthetic response with cuteness.

Responses

I will try to express myself in some mode of life or art as freely as I can, and as wholly as I can, using for my defence the only arms I allow myself to use silence, exile, and cute.

 

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