Beyond the Wall: Outsider Art Goes Inside

This past October, famed UK street artist Banksy spent a month in New York City, leaving behind 31…

Georgia (Dec 4, 2013)This past October, famed UK street artist Banksy spent a month in New York City, leaving behind 31 provocative works in public spaces scattered throughout the city’s five boroughs. Each new piece threw the press and public deeper into the kind of frenzy usually reserved for pop culture events like a new Harry Potter book or Miley Cyrus’s latest fashion curveball. Art news, by comparison, tends to be more austere.

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http://www.nyartsmagazine.com/?p=14381

Yet by the time Banksy left a small mural on the Lower East Side, featuring a stencil of galloping stallions in steampunk goggles who looked like the four horses of the apocalypse, the piece found itself quickly surrounded by barbed-wire. Its property owners apparently realized the value of the work by the sheer traffic it drew. The Post made it headline news. The Times and CNN were not far behind. …

Street art has, in fact, become increasingly romanticized and highly collectible over the last decade. Many of the genre’s artists have fallen under the larger umbrella of “outsider” art by virtue of their anti-establishment sensibility, especially in graffiti circles, where the artists tend to be self-taught. Those like Banksy have come to represent hope for a more open-door policy at the institutional level for artists working outside the system.  

Fascination with artists on the outside comes largely from the special hermeneutic codes and non-textbook discourse their works embody, which often catch us off-guard. Early in the 20th century, French artist Jean Dubuffet championed art brut—works he saw being made outside the boundaries of the established art culture, such as those by insane asylum inmates and children. …

One of the most talked about subjects in this debate is Henry Darger, a custodial worker who lived in relative reclusion in Chicago and whose thousands of drawings and narrative writings were only discovered after his death in 1976. Darger’s first (posthumous) exhibit came quickly and his work has since been on display in every major art capital of the world. The fact that he worked in such untraditional, “non-painterly” ways—for example, he traced many of his images from comic strips and coloring books—and that his art was meant to illustrate the novels he wrote, may complicate Darger’s place among his contemporaries. Though it seems more that his exclusion has to do with his non-engagement of the art establishment while still living. For now, Darger remains largely relegated to the world of folk art.

“The ‘folk art’ label,” insists Jim Elledge, author of Henry Darger, Throwaway Boy: The Tragic Life of an Outsider Artist. “allows us to marginalize him as a naïve, uneducated country bumpkin, although Darger was none of these.” Elledge is a writing professor at Kennesaw State University in Georgia, a poet and a champion of the LGBT community in American arts. According to Elledge’s book, Darger was physically and sexually abused as a child, eventually labeled “feeble-minded” by the state and bounced around foster homes before he was unleashed as an adult to survive amidst Chicago’s Near West Side, then its very worst vice district.     …



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