Though the modern museum's roots go back to the Age of Enlightenment, in terms of sheer numbers, the recently departed century was its Golden Age. According to the Association of Art Museum Directors, its 180 member museums hold more than 14,000,000 works of art. These statistics don't begin to account for the little museums, or for the truly amazing range of objects people will collect and curate and charge admission to see. There are museums devoted to bathroom tissue, to banana-themed tchotchkes, and to Great Blacks in Wax. In San Antonio, there is a museum of toilet-seat art.
This American mania for museums, especially art museums, is a largely romantic notion, one part hubris, one part nostalgia, two parts Transcendentalism and self-invention, with a pinch of fairy godmother and a half-cup of promotion. Every mid-size hamlet with a weakness for clichés, which is to say every mid-size hamlet, seems to believe it can and should be a "world-class city," and that building a temple to art will put it "on the cultural map." Given the American penchant for education and uplift, the music men and the real estate men and the chambers of commerce usually have an easy sell. Before you know it, another near-empty museum is begging, borrowing, and occasionally buying art to fill its walls.
The effect on the art market is easy to document. At the end of the 19th century, Europe was full of old masters rotting in church basements and Tuscan estates, gathering cobwebs and waiting for Bernhard Berenson to catalog and promote to his stateside "squillionaires." By the middle of the next century, the seemingly inexhaustible supply was pretty much exhausted, and ever-multiplying museums and collectors and art historians were spawning more revivals than a peck of traveling preachers. Whole careers were rescued from the dustbin of history, even as more museums began collecting modern and contemporary and ethnographic and "primitive" and even folk art.
Some museums have justified the acquisition and display of these last three categories on aesthetic grounds alone; more often, museums have rationalized collecting such art on the basis of the influence these sources have exerted on 20th century art, which has been huge. Consider the case of "outsider art," an art that even today dare not speak its name, for fear of accidentally picking sides in a veritable Congo of bloody, critical wars. Though snottier museums still sniff at the drawings of Wolfli and Bill Traylor, "official" artists from Dubuffet to DeKooning have been mad for the stuff. In an endless stream of manifestoes, Dubuffet and other intellectuals have touted "art brut" as the holy grail of "authentic creativity," trying to isolate the root of artistic impulse like scientists seeking an exotic virus. They looked in the petri dishes of insane asylums, in the drawings of savants and autistic children, throwing out any artist whose bio indicated he had had a brush with high culture. In short order, collectors and galleries followed, falling for the myth of noble savages among us, championing the work of "outsiders" as somehow more authentic than the great mass of artwork for sale Out There.
Before wading further into this critical minefield, let me define my terms. As delineated by scholars such as Roger Cardinal, "outsider art" generally encompasses the work of people who are not trained as artists and who have had little contact with the critical, commercial, and scholarly arms of the art world. Outsider art can and probably should be differentiated from its cousins, folk art (generally, the product of anonymous artisans who work in traditional crafts; think quilting, woodwork, weaving) and naïve art (educated artists painting in faux-primitive styles). Most of all, it must be differentiated from "academic" or "cultural" art--a task that turns out to be harder than it sounds.
The work of Teri Fitzpatrick, an outsider artist whose fantastic watercolors and canvases are now on display at Valley House Gallery, illustrates many of these difficulties. Fitzpatrick, a 52-year-old housewife, has a bio that, for the most part, fits the outsider description. According to her dealer, Fitzpatrick had no formal art training beyond grade school, where a teacher encouraged her to "paint what she felt." Curiously, though she only took up a brush again when she moved to Texas 14 years ago, she claims to have described herself as an artist throughout her life. Since 1997, her work has been exhibited at Valley House and at outsider art fairs.
Like many outsider artists who make the rounds of the fairs, Fitzpatrick's résumé can best be described as "art brut" lite; though self-taught, she has had exposure to European art museums and, of course, has had shows at gallery, albeit one in the backwater of Far North Dallas. But Fitzpatrick's style itself typifies that of self-taught artists. Her work is dense, feverish, and fantastic, with imaginary buildings and people and water and mountains and sailboats and menacing skies shoehorned into every available inch of picture space. According to her dealer's promo, Fitzpatrick "is compelled to create watercolors of complex and imaginary places. Her grand vistas are expressive of her moods and her desire to tell stories that evolve as she paints, talks to herself, and responds to her inner voice."
Unfortunately, her work also demonstrates much of what is wrong with the cottage industry promoting such noble savagery. Fitzpatrick's show illustrates that outsider art can be and often is just as boring, staid, and sterile as anything produced by, say, Bouguereau.
For starters, Fitzpatrick's work demonstrates the absurdity of the quest for an authentic "primitive" on the eve of the 21st century. Her European-style villages, supposedly inspired by her European wanderings, look suspiciously like Walt Disney animation cels from the original version of 101 Dalmatians. Maybe she has somehow remained separated from the ubiquitous images of pop culture, but this seems highly doubtful. Nor does it seem likely that she has escaped exposure to the other obvious sources for some of her imagery, such as 19th century seascapes and comic strips and Oriental painting and Red Grooms. Her imaginary places and people all have the feel of déjà vu, as if you put these sources in a Cuisinart and hit frape.
Speaking for the unabashed elitist snobs and imperialist dupes of the world, the problem with Fitzpatrick's brand of art brut is a problem of standards. Outsider art is maddeningly subjective. There isn't any academic technique, so you're left judging intent or imagination or emotional content. Once you get past the résumé, the only rule is that there are no rules. Indeed, some of the genre's defenders even go so far as to claim a kind of critical King's "X" for outsider art. "[Since] Outsider Art comes into being through an intense investment of the private self," writes Roger Cardinal, "it follows that, as we gain access to it, we have the responsibility not to treat it flippantly or patronizingly...What Outsider Art surely asks for is a wholehearted, robust response whereby we meet it with our own sensibility fully adjusted to the moral seriousness of the occasion." In other words, the world of outsider art ought to be treated like a kind of zoo where rare, fragile fauna are protected and displayed and admired. Think of it as affirmative action for felt-tip-wielding savants.
Alas, it's a rough-and-tumble marketplace of ideas and images out there, so some distinctions can and should be made. Even among outsiders, one can separate the routine from the inspired, the spellbindingly intense from the merely curious. The best outsider art has the same feverish magnetism as academic art, the art of Cranach the Elder or Bosch or Caravaggio. That an academic artist such as Caravaggio can modulate his intensity in spots and play it up in others, simply makes the work sublime, not boring. Nor is the work of "educated" painters who adopt a primitive style, from Rousseau to locals such as David Bates, less original than that of the everyday "outsider."
In the end, Fitzpatrick's work, like many of today's hot "outsiders," comes off as merely run-of-the-mill. She takes us to imaginary places that seem vaguely brand-named, familiarly theme-parked, places that seem an awful lot like the land we already inhabit, a visual stick-in-the-eye interesting mostly for odd juxtapositions. In short, she takes us to imaginary places that turn out to be not worth the trip.
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