Outsider Art

Monika's Story A Personal History of the Musgrave Kinley Outsider Collection
Monika Kinley
[£15.00, 237pp, Musgrave Kinley Outsider Trust]

A pity about the slightly unassuming title, this is a book that says more about Outsider Art than just about any other source, not just because it is fantastically well illustrated, and in a tone of personal recollection and anecdote that actually fits the subject better than any other approach. Because you need to step back slightly from the subject matter and think how we do view this fertile and sometimes awe-inspiring area of contemporary art. It is not (as I had glibly assumed before reading this) simply work by the mentally ill. It is work by people so totally committed to their vision, their genius, their need to create, however you want to express it, that everything else in their lives is excluded.  I remember Tracy Emin being interviewed on TV a few years ago and being asked why her art deserved attention and exhibition-space and money. She answered frankly: she had been to art school and had put in many years not just creating but making connections, appearing in the right places. She had done the graft. An outsider artist is a person who for whatever reason (and it is not coincidence that a large proportion of them are working class) not only has not been to art school, but who shows no or little interest in promoting their work, making connections, being seen with the right people. Outsider artists are simply artists whose commitment to their art is so total they have almost no interest in career. Some of them have jobs, many are unable to hold on to gainful employment and to their art; a few of them, later in their lives, are able to make a living from the art that they produce. 'Madness' often comes into it, but this book shows us that we cannot simply view Outsider Art as some kind of epiphenomenon of mental illness; a more impersonal or a more theoretical volume might have induced an attitude similar to that of the people who spent their weekends 'sightseeing' in the Bethlem Asylum in the Nineteenth Century, viewing the artwork for curiosity value or even superior laughs.

This book is very much a personal history. Monika Kinley is the widow of Victor Musgrave, the art dealer who first defined Outsider Art for a British audience, taking his lead from the French term, L'Art Brut, coined by Jean Dubuffet. Musgrave started to collect art of this type, and set up the first exhibitions of Outsider Art. He seems to have been a very special kind of dealer, at once with some financial nous in defining and promoting the field and buying the right pieces, while also able to deal sensitively with the needs of Outsider Artists, people who seem mostly to have no or little desire for fame and who could easily have been either financially exploited or hurt by too much 'recognition'. The author simply recounts Victor's life and her own (continuing) engagement in the field, then gives the rest of over to short but illuminating accounts of 20 or 30 of the artists represented in the book (although there are many other artists who have work depicted in the book but no biographies, sometimes because they are already famous, or perhaps because Monika Kinley had no personal contact with them). Then follows 55 pages of plates, art which for me is as challenging and provoking a selection as anything produced by the YBAs.

The very fact that the prose content of this book is personal and non-analytical seems to invite some kind of thinking response in terms of what is Outsider Art in aesthetic terms, a question that Kinley does not address. The variety of the art presented however seems to make this impossible. Some of it even feels very 'contemporary' in terms of the stream of conceptual art, although possibly the debt is the other way round; it could be that some of the peculiarity and in-your-faceness of conceptual art may spring from a recognition that the 'madness' of the Outsider is often a truer reflection of the possibilities of modern art than the glibness of bland (or brand) representation. Notice how many of the most successful YBAs are able to confront mental illness in their own lives as a theme in their work. Which is a strength, but with conceptual art there is the understanding that there is some irony or knowingness (perhaps inescapable: if you have been to art school or even received a good middle class education, there is no sheltering from millennia of previous art history). As the French term Art Brut suggests, it is often confrontational and edgy work. This is possible because it is not anchored in a tradition: an Outsider Artist can claim inner vision without lying.

Other of the work shown in the book is more na•ve, sometimes of course visionary (although not as boring as that term seems to suggest), which leads us to Blake. None of the artists are 'influenced' by Blake (few of them are stylistically influenced at all by other artists), but Blake lurks there as the original Outsider, pacing like a tiger outside the cage. I just hope that none of these artists become canonical as Blake, to become over-analysed and exposed until the original glory is in shreds or worse, in the academy.

            © Giles Goodland 2005