First published: Spring 2012
When I was very small I used to get told off for staring at people. The truth is I was staring at everything. I still do. It’s just not so obvious now. By the time we are not very old, most of us, though, look away more than we actually look. We stop pointing. We stop asking questions. Avoidance becomes a function of etiquette, of our socialisation and behaviour. Previously insatiable curiosity is tempered and the sense of wonder is domesticated. Naïveté gives way to knowing. The same goes for attending to art. On the whole, we come into the gallery armed with our received opinions and learned cultural baggage. Too often exhibition visitors spend more time huddled around explanatory wall texts and peering at labels than they do with the art itself. They are looking, of course, for context. For guidance on how to look. And they are looking for reassurance that the artists who created the work have a right to be shown in such spaces especially when the art is difficult.
The art I am concerned with here is, in its most important ways, no different to any other. Drawings by Dan Miller and Joseph Yoakum, sculpture by José dos Santos, paintings by Jungle Phillips and Mary T. Smith, and prints by Anthony Mannix, for example, clearly belong to the family of visual art. Yet their work, and that of the others included in the pages of Raw Vision, has on the whole been fenced off, redefined, and contained in discourses of collecting and criticism that presume its essential difference to ‘mainstream’ art. In the USA the term ‘self-taught’ has long been in general use as an umbrella descriptor, whilst in Paris in the 1940s, the French artist Jean Dubuffet invented a new category that he called Art Brut, to separate certain types of art emphatically from the art mainstream. This set a trend in Europe for a flurry of naming attempts and internal debates that at times have threatened to obscure the art itself. One of the terms that has stuck in spite of being contentious, or perhaps because it is contentious, is ‘Outsider Art’.