Saturday, November 23, 2013

Wild Art

Today at the American Academy of Religion, I attended a session on Outsider Art. Because the session was presented by the Psychology, Culture, and Religion group, and not art historians, much of what was said about the relationship between what in France had been called "art brut" and the early Modernists was very familiar to me. As they ran over the early 20th century territory in which artists like Jean Dubuffet, Paul Klee, Kandinsky, and others became fascinated with the drawings and paintings of psychiatric patients, children, and other naifs, I began to think I was wasting my time. 
Things got more interesting, though, when the discussion turned to the question of whether there might be a better term than outsider to describe these works. The usual words were mentioned, like naive, primitive, or visionary. But then one of the presenters said that Roger Cardinal, the art critic whose work made the term famous, never liked outsider art. Rather, it was his publisher who insisted on it as a translation for art brut, which more properly means something like raw or rough art. Or, as the presenter put it, wild art

It is, of course, this wildness that appealed to the early avant garde, as they sought to throw off the constraints of an academy that dictated which were acceptable subjects and exactly how to depict them. Since then, several generations of wild, rebellious, young artists have become teachers themselves. Ironically, these new arbiters of the academy have tried to institutionalize the wildness that so entranced them in the artworks of the untutored, even as they drill their students in color theory and the elements and principles of design. As the wildness becomes tamed, though, it too often degenerates into an attempt to shock, a desire to do something original, rather than the truthful exploration of the inner landscape that is the hallmark of the untutored artist. 

Like the avant garde artists of the early 20th century, and, indeed, my own teachers, I am drawn to the idea of wild art, of art that cannot be confined to academies or genres or movements, of art that flourishes outside the boundaries of galleries and museums and art-critical theories. And yet, like my own teachers, I believe in teachable skills, in the transmission of values and techniques from one generation to the next, and in the responsibility of artists to speak into and for the communities that support them. I guess what I want to believe is that art is both the thoughtful, intentional, skillful product of patience and practice; and also the incarnate imagination of the Holy Spirit, which blows wherever it wills, bringing life to whatever it touches. Wild art, indeed.

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