As the Cincinnati Art Museum enters the last month of Isn’t It Great to Be an Artist?, the debut exhibit of its bold new Robert A. Lewis Collection of (mostly) folk and outsider art, the show has sparked much discussion about the perennial question of “What is art?”
As Julie Aronson, curator of American painting and sculpture, has said, opinion is divided. Some people wonder why the often-raw work of self-taught artists belongs in a museum that holds paintings and sculpture by accomplished world masters. But others respond emotionally, saying they can feel the passion missing (for them) in intellectualized contemporary art and Old Master portraits of history’s rich and famous.
At a lively panel discussion earlier this month on the merits of folk/outsider art, someone in the audience took that “passion” argument so far he advocated the next step should be collecting the art of children. A somewhat pained Aaron Betsky, museum director and the evening’s moderator, wondered aloud whether anyone wanted to defend the merit of trained artists. (By the way, the Lewis Collection does contain some significant work by trained contemporary artists like Hollis Sigler, whose slightly surreal bedroom scene gives the show its name.)
Personally, I think the exhibition has some show-stoppers by anyone’s definition: Purvis Young’s vibrantly alive “Thelonious Monk Playing Over the City,” in which a symbolic representation of the great Jazz musician plays in the center of a cityscape of floating skyscrapers, could become one of the museum’s most popular pieces.
It feels the freedom of modern music as much as Kandinsky does.
America has a rich folk-art tradition, dating to a time when its trained artists were either too busy going to Europe or working in the style of Europeans to capture what was happening in rural America. While our folk artists lacked formal mastery of perspective, we never had a problem adjusting to the flatness of their imagery. We were charmed by it, actually, while we appreciated their rich, colorfully detailed insights into American life.
In the 20th century, particularly after Van Gogh and Cezanne, the international division starts to break down between “trained” and “self-taught.” Rather than being purely a technique, “perspective” also became a means of self-expression that attracts us because of its emotion-charged originality. Pretty soon, abstraction enters the mix.
All this time in America, art devotees have continued to value folk art for its insight into lives and communities usually “outside” the world of galleries and museums. In recent years, that has especially led to rural Southern and/or African-American communities.
And, as self-expression came to be increasingly valued in “trained” artists, so it has been with self-taught ones, too. That has led to acceptance of some pretty raw-looking stuff — some would say “primitive,” a term I don’t like — because the vision is so powerful.
Certainly, there has been abuse of the search for “outsider” art. The quest for “visionaries” sometimes has come close to exploitation of people with mental illness. And the argument that “pure artists” are somehow uncontaminated by education is naive romanticism. But, mostly, this interest in contemporary folk art is about how creative the best of it really is. And Isn’t It Great to Be an Artist? has plenty of examples of it at its best. Be sure to see it (exhibition details here).
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