Outsider Art
June 26, 2001 7:17 PM   Subscribe

Outsider Art Woman with Downs Syndrome creates works of art by wrapping random objects in masses of colored fibers. She cannot speak, hear, or communicate whatsoever, and she has been deemed too retarded to possibly understand the meaning of art, but still, she goes on creating with an 'intensity' that belies her condition. Does insanity work to produce works of art or other genious?
posted by SpecialK (33 comments total)
Isn't art defined by the beholder? I once bought some ordinary water jugs in Ethiopia. To the person who made them they were just utilitarian pieces of fired clay. To me they were much more. Who knows what Judith Scott thinks of her works? It's how we think of them that counts.
posted by caraig at 7:42 PM on June 26, 2001

she's not insane...
posted by techgnollogic at 8:15 PM on June 26, 2001

Human perception looks for patterns, and can find patterns even if they are not there. I can look at clouds and see dogs, or horses, or faces, or all sorts of things. But that doesn't mean that the creator of the cloud (wind and temperature) was actually trying to create those things. They exist, but only inside my head.
posted by Steven Den Beste at 8:21 PM on June 26, 2001

here's some background:
The American Visionary Art Museum, a museum of outsider art, showcases the work or artists with little or no formal training. Creator Rebecca Hoffberger has come up against a lot of criticism for her museum, much of it centered around the fact that she's, well, an outsider. [NY Times: rebeccas_pocket, password: pocket] - rcb
posted by rebeccablood at 8:33 PM on June 26, 2001

I'm sorry, the 'insane' reference was a misspeak, because I was trying to point the conversation in a direction to bring in other artists, scientists and such that were either mentally 'incapacitated' in some way that made their genious all the more special.
posted by SpecialK at 8:37 PM on June 26, 2001

Throughout history many have had their sanity or their mental capacity questioned, but this did not stop them from their destiny.

I could read into Judith Scott's work that she's expressing what she feels. Perhaps deep down inside her there is a woman capable of emotion and warmth and sorrow, but her body refuses to allow her to properly convey who she is to the world. Like her soul is wrapped inside of a shell that she can't break through.

But she can get her body to do this. A cocoon on a branch?

Probably not. I could also choose to read nothing into Judith Scott's work. Maybe she is both retarded AND insane, and what we allegedly sane and "normal" people see in her work is what's at question. Maybe she's not capable of expressing anything, and these "works of art" are just remnants of some reflex impulse the woman has - like how some mental patients bang their head against the wall.

All I know is, I see hope in her work. That's not something I came to her work with, but it's something with which I leave, thankful that Judith Scott exists. And thanks to SpecialK for bringing her to the attention of this motley crew.

What you personally choose to bring to and/or leave with the experience of her work is entirely up to you.
posted by ZachsMind at 9:09 PM on June 26, 2001

A cocoon on a branch?
posted by EngineBeak at 9:51 PM on June 26, 2001

garbage wrapped in yarn?

ok, if she was an idiot savant --i.e., finger painting with skittles juice like picasso, or shaping oatmeal into michelangelo-esque sculptures-- then maybe there'd be something to talk about here.

but she's obviously not. i mean, what the hell are those things? are there bodies inside?

c'mon, i find stuff outside my dog has chewed up that looks just as interesting... and my kids' rolled-up kite string sure looks a lot like some of those... and even my cat, if left alone long enough, perhaps would create similar-looking things from her own hair and carpet fibers.

yes-- ok, i can be abrasive, but geez... this is the web, and *hello?* does anybody remember kaycee? hmm?

i sincerely hope ms scott, real or not, is reaping at least any benefits of being discovered by the "art crowd"... maybe they'll hide the garbage and yarn, and buy her some paint and brushes.
posted by blackholebrain at 11:19 PM on June 26, 2001

i went to the ricco/maresca gallery and saw Judith Scott's amazing works of art. while i was at the gallery i walked through and saw the other artists who had their art on display. one of the showings was of 8 month old babies who take poop out of their diapers and smear it all over the walls before their parents can clean them and the other display was of people who eat a beautifully colored mixture of foods and then throw it up all over the place. wow! i was really inspired by these incredible works of art.
posted by suprfli at 11:39 PM on June 26, 2001

ZachsMind hits the nail on the head when says: I could read into Judith Scott's work that she's expressing what she feels

I think the key issue here is the question: do you consider self-expression alone art? I'm not too sure, but would tend lean in that direction.
posted by Bag Man at 11:50 PM on June 26, 2001

That's the point though isn't it? Art is subjective, as is much of life. Finding beauty in what most think mundane is a gift. Something that outsider artists excel at.

Another person who falls into this category is Wesley Willis. He does remarkably detailed drawings of cityscapes with posterboard and markers. Much of his work is drawn from his memory of different urban areas. Plus he sings! With hits such as Cut The Mullet and I Whupped Batman's Ass, he is a proven rock and roll master!
posted by the biscuit man at 12:01 AM on June 27, 2001

I'm strongly reminded of a television programme I saw a long time ago. An elephant in the zoo liked to paint, gripping a large brush in its trunk and smearing it over the canvas the zookeepers provided. The producers of the tv programme took one of the canvases round to several art critics, without telling them the painter was an elephant, to get their expert opinion. The comments from the art critics ranged from 'You are joking, aren't you?' to 'My God, it's a masterpiece, a wonderful example of abstract art, waffle waffle yawn yawn'.
Like caraig and biscuit man said, art is completely subjective. There is no universally accepted definition of what makes good art.
posted by emc at 3:49 AM on June 27, 2001

This seems to be treading a path rather parallel to (though not necessarily identical with) that of the Stoppard thread.
posted by BT at 5:57 AM on June 27, 2001

I thing the objects are pretty neat - I'd consider paying good money for one.

However, I'm worried about the person who makes them - an environment that increses the intensity and with which she produces these things raises questions about the boundary between support and provocation...

(I think you can see some of this difference in the works shown - in the contrast between the work and the way it is presented. But maybe that's just me guessing she didn't make the stands.)
posted by andrew cooke at 6:35 AM on June 27, 2001

Well if you want to be technical, art by definition is not subjective. It is simply put, "the creation of beautiful or significant things." It is one's impression of art that is subjective. One's personal reaction to art determines what works and what doesn't work for him or her.

Every post in MeFi is art. Every webpage. Even, and especially, the bad ones. You may hate Ed Wood but I find his work entertaining - probably not in the way he intended, but I acknowledge his cinematic efforts as art. Further, I've seen movies that I personally found to be worse than Ed Wood's best work, but even though I may not like it, I have to admit it's art.

Psychologists disagree whether or not the Rorschach Ink Blot Test is useful for personality analysis, but each card is a work of art. As far as I'm concerned, a baby smearing poop from a diaper is a creation of a significant thing. It is an expression of the self, and as such, qualifies as art. However, would I pay millions of dollars to have that displayed in my house? Hell, I wouldn't pay ten bucks for the original of the Mona Lisa. I think it's boring. This is more like it.

When you look at any expression from a human being and say it's not art, that is like saying a person is not human. People are by definition human. Some might perform inhumane actions, but that doesn't change what they truly are.
posted by ZachsMind at 6:38 AM on June 27, 2001

Wouldn't it be nice for the word Art to be a little more specific than that? I mean that's all very nice and happy clappy, but it means that the word itself ends up being useless (or we just move onto what "good art" is, and all you've done is throw away one word and replaced it with two).
posted by andrew cooke at 7:03 AM on June 27, 2001

The label visionary supposes a belief that people with certain diminished capacities are given this clear and innocent perception unknown to the rest of us.

It may be a ball of string. Seen free of the pedestal and the art therapist and the accompanying story, I wouldn't ever view this work as anything but a ball of string.

But then most art needs its accompanying story to come to public attention.

The case can be made for Van Gogh being a visionary, that his work expresses a spirit and enthusiasm for the world that most people cannot feel. Then again, the way we view his work may be shaped by the story the publicity department put out many years ago.

I do see hope in this outsider art, in that it testifies to the human need for creation and expression. The idea that "outsider art" should be curated and placed in a museum with a $25 million endowment gives me a little less hope.
posted by TimTypeZed at 7:22 AM on June 27, 2001

art by definition is not subjective
Thanks, Zach.

We have to start with the existence of quality as inherent to the work of art, because so many people disregard that possibility out of hand - "beauty is in the eye of the beholder". What that sentence means to most people is, "if I like it, it's good." That isn't really what it means; rather, to me it means "I prefer that." That doesn't invalidate their opinion, it just renders it an opinion, instead of the fact that they'd like to take it for. The problem for me arises with the fact that if there is intrinsic value, that opinion can be wrong. People don't want to hear that, because they think it's their right to like what they want - and the trouble is, it is their right!


It's their right to be wrong. And on, circularly.
posted by J. R. Hughto at 7:32 AM on June 27, 2001

is it just me or do most of those peices look phalic or sexual in nature?

maybe my mind is in the gutter, but she may be expressing some instinctual things the only way she can
posted by abosio at 7:53 AM on June 27, 2001

Anyone else heard the Chris Burke CD? How about The Kids of Whitney High? Anyone seen Crispin Glover's What Is It?
posted by solistrato at 9:02 AM on June 27, 2001

Just popped an e-mail off to skallas regarding Wesley Willis, and had a thought that seems to bear repeating:

As for the string wrapping lady, I don't really know what to think. Her work seems expressive, but I get the feeling that it's only a result of randomness. She doesn't intend to use contrasting colors to evoke a response, she just grabs what she has lying around.

Which makes me think that someone might be aiding her "process" handing her certain colors and textures in order to produce a more desirable outcome.

I've a bad feeling about this . . .
posted by aladfar at 10:12 AM on June 27, 2001

Wouldn't it be nice if everyone could agree on what good art is and then we could all go to the same museums, see the same things, go to the same concerts...and "bad artists" could realize right away that they weren't "good" because everyone would tell them that they weren't and then they wouldn't waste their lives creating things.

Help! Somebody turn off the italics!
posted by witchstone at 11:19 AM on June 27, 2001

[witchstone]: 'Wouldn't it be nice if everyone could agree on what good art is and then we could all go to the same museums, see the same things, go to the same concerts...and "bad artists" could realize right away that they weren't "good" because everyone would tell them that they weren't and then they wouldn't waste their lives creating things.'

So . . . what exactly are you trying to say? Is it that since everyone has their own opinions about art that criticism is pointless? Or is it that art should somehow be more democratic? Or that we should? I'm having trouble following the meta-snark, but I do have one opinion: the refusal to judge anything is the weakest choice of all.
posted by Skot at 11:26 AM on June 27, 2001

italics off?
posted by kindall at 11:27 AM on June 27, 2001

Outsider art discussion without one mention of the right Reverend Howard Finster? I've been to Paradise Garden, and it was has quite an impact.
posted by trox at 11:45 AM on June 27, 2001

No, I'm not saying that criticism is pointless, skot. I critique things all the time. I have things that I like and I don't like and I have personally learned a lot from art criticism. But, art criticism is not the final word. Example: art critics panned the first Impressionists. Now they are considered great artists. I was making the point that I think it is GOOD that people don't agree. And I think that it is good that people keep creating whether or not the "art world" thinks their work is "scholarly." Sorry if that seemed like a "snark" or whatever. I wrote it with a smile on my face, not a scowl. Does that help? I apologize for all the quotation marks in my last few sentences, too ;)
posted by witchstone at 11:51 AM on June 27, 2001

Witchstone, gotcha. I could hear the sarcasm, but couldn't detect whether it was due to the criticism itself or the disagreement over the criticism itself. Cleared up now (this is of course one of the inherent problems in text forums--I can't "hear" you!).

And for the record, I'm afraid I don't see any art here (meaning the link)--it looks a bit more like neurological impairment and ticcing. Just one opinion (from an artist, if that bolsters anything, and I suspect it won't).
posted by Skot at 12:18 PM on June 27, 2001

For the record: people do agree. They just don't agree right now. There is consensus over time - as an example, Witchstone - the Impressionists. We agree that it was a good school of painting. What we can't agree on is something made today, because it is surrounded by today's politics, fashions, etc.

To quote a friend:
If you like something for sentimental reasons or dislike a work for political reasons or because it challenges your preconceived notions, those are invalid measures. They will not stand the test of time because over time, the crap gets discarded and the appropriate measures for a given work remain (I assume basic truths, like physical laws, are the same for every generation). So, are those people wrong in failing to recognize an intrinsic goodness - the work has "it" - or are they wrong in failing to apply an objective, disciplined, and trained set of measures to assess the likely durability of the work's perceived quality? In this scenario, quality is an opinion, but some opinions are more informed than others and will be borne out over time by the agreement of other discerning viewers. But at base, quality is a statement about the perception of the work rather than an intrinsic aspect of the work itself. This seems a truism that results from the co-dependence of the viewer and the viewed. Quality is an assessment that springs from the mind of the viewer, but that doesn't mean some assessments are not better than others.
posted by J. R. Hughto at 2:23 PM on June 27, 2001

So Hughto, are you saying that time plus social consensus equals art? Maybe we shouldn't use the word on anything until it's at least twenty years old? Or forty? Until it's lasted a generation, maybe? Or maybe we should wait until it's in the public domain?

So what is it before all of society accepts it as art? What do we call it?
posted by ZachsMind at 6:58 PM on June 27, 2001

Art is not just meant to be about 'pretty pictures'. Sadly, most people over the age of 40, believe that to be so.

There are good reasons why 'stupid' bits of art are actually meaningful.

What about the drawings of flowers that a jailed murderer sends home to his mother? Without knowing the story, they'd just be scrappy pictures of flowers. But with the story, they are proof that beauty lives within even the most evil people.

So, what about objects wrapped in yarn? Without knowing the story, that's all they are.. objects in yarn. Wow.. not. But knowing that these are one of the few things that this poor person can create.. that makes them special.
posted by wackybrit at 7:32 PM on June 27, 2001

[returning like a dog...] How can the thread end like that? Even without their story I think they are special: they look unusual, they have interesting texture, in some cases the colouring adds interest, they have an air of mystery. I don't think context is necesary for these to be (good) works of art (in my subjective opinion etc etc).
posted by andrew cooke at 2:23 AM on June 28, 2001

Zach - No, I am definitely NOT saying time plus social consensus equals art. What I'm saying is that over time we find that there is a general consensus on what is the highest level of art. However, consensus has nothing to do with the fact that it's good or bad. The important point I am trying to make is that there is an inherent quality about art - one that we are as yet unable to name - that causes us to need/want art. There is some experience that we have with art that is unique to it.

What this "context" does is something other than a purely aesthetic experience. Context may make something meaningful, or moving, or beautiful, but it does not make it art. Of course, because we are subjective beings we may never have "purely aesthetic experiences" - but that's why we are better able to see great art from the past, because the politics, fashion, etc., has largely been removed.

We don't have to know anything about Homer - we don't even need to know his name - we just need to be able to read it to determine its quality. That is a telling sign on the level of quality.
posted by J. R. Hughto at 6:48 AM on June 28, 2001

Art is expression, in one form or another. Judity has no concept of her work as a piece of art, and as the page says, no concept of verbal language as well.

She is limited in abilities to express herself in any way other than this. The act of wrapping these found objects may or may not be automatic, it could simply be phsyical and not thought out.

Either way, I think it is a form of expression for her...so I do think it is art.
posted by soundslikequiet at 6:48 PM on June 28, 2001

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