Monday, 1 September 2008

Monument to the outsider

The term Outsider Art can in itself seem contradictory. Are all artists not outsiders of society by default? How can there be artists outside the sphere of art? Does it not defy the purpose of art (to question, to cast the flashlight on irregularities in society & within ourselves)? If outsider art exists, then it implies its bipolar opposite co-exists to define the term outsider - an art establishment with consistent art rules and conventions that shuns art which does not comply with the rules. Even though art by definition rejects convention, not so?
All right, I’m not too naive to be shocked to discover there is something such as conventions within art or an art society which dictates the flavour of the year, but as an idealist still appalled by its existence. Ideally art would never have to be compared to other works of to be deemed successful. Assuming that the purpose of art is success (financially?). Art could also be just a means of expression and the mere process of artmaking would then be considered as fulfilling its purpose.
But how important is it to be understood? Do we just want to babble, translate the emotional burden we carry and feel lighter to have been able to express it? Or do we want someone to hear it, see it and understand it? If art is communication, and communication is the imparting(read giving) of knowledge there must be someone at the other end to receive it. (Although I can’t deny that hearing a echo after your scream through the cliff isn’t pleasant).
Outsider artists are defined by their lack of formal art knowledge, thus most of their work is saturated with personal symbols. The work they produce is expression first, not intended to be sold and re-sold. But I still believe they want to be recognised as the creator of the work, and they would love it if their work is appreciated for its emotional strength and artistic value.
South Africa’s most famous outsider artist to date is Helen Martins. Even though the town of Nieu-Bethesda shunned from the eccentric woman with the cement garden, it is probarly the singular claim to fame of the little Karoo town today. Her house and garden is spilled with camels and owls - her favourite animal symbols derived from biblical, William Blake & Omar Khayyam readings. Although she didn’t receive the recognition she so desperately craved during her lifetime, she requested that the Owl House should be preserved like a museum, and that is exactly what it is today. Would she ever have known that tourists flock the little town in the present day just to admire her work?
There are many other monuments of outsiders found throughout the world - Casa da flor, The Orange Show, the stamp house, Chief Rollling Mountain Thunder...
What is appealing about The Orange Show in Houston, Texas, USA, is that it is still evolving. It is a visionary imaginative art project that involves hundreds of people without formal art education and has grown into a colourful festival of imagination. In this way the ‘outsider’ has been brought in from the cold and invited all his homeless friends with him saying art is for everyone who wishes to express and enjoy another way of communicating.