Outside In

of fiction, non-fiction, observation and obsession

An interview with Greg Bottoms

Rupert Loydell: I came across your writing in the first instance because I asked for a review copy of The Colourful Apocalypse, your recent book about outsider art. I was pleasantly surprised - though surprised I was - that the book wasn't what I expected. Neither academic tome nor coffee table picture book, you offer a very individual yet also informative and knowledgable exploration of naive art as the result of religious compulsion. Was the book always going to be written in the way it was? How did you first get interested in outsider art, and was it always linked in your mind to religion?

Greg Bottoms: I let the material dictate the form, or I followed what seemed to be the story and figured out the best way to deal with it, which is what I always do, I suppose. I once called it a 'lyric documentary' - a series of narrative scenes, essayistic reflections, autobiographical elements when seemingly relevant, and cultural reportage and criticism all hopefully in the service of the larger story, which is to say the story according to little old me. I knew it would be a personal travel narrative. This is partly because I find an overt subjectivity, an 'I' as the teller/maker, to be the most reasonable and intellectually solid ground to stand on, particularly if we conceive of 'objectivity' as an impossibility, though of course the criticisms of this 'I' spilling over into self-absorption or self-aggrandizement can have a point, so the 'I' thing is tricky. I also knew, before I wrote a word, the book would be driven by questions and ideas about obsession, the ordering aspects of creativity, superstitious modes of thinking as ways toward self-definition when rational modes lead toward bleak or dark findings, and some questions about 'madness' and 'ecstasy' - what they are, how we might define them and how those definitions change as contexts and sensibilities and purposes change. I knew this because no matter what I write about I seem to often end up there. 'Writing reveals your obsessions,' wrote Milan Kundera in the Art of the Novel. Does it ever.

I got particularly interested in outsider art as a category and an idea when I was writing the book about my brother's schizophrenia, Angelhead
. I came across Hanz Prinzhorn's Artistry of the Mentally Ill, and many of the artists in the book exhibited religious obsessions and delusions just as my brother had, almost exactly at times as my brother had. They had a 'mission' in a grand narrative of God, of good and evil, and they became so devoted to the importance of this mission that they became unable to function in mainstream society. Religious delusion is undoubtedly the most typical kind of delusion in psychosis, and I recently saw a statistic that said that over 50% of people suffering from psychosis do not believe they are suffering from psychosis - they've figured it out and everybody else is wrong. And John Locke, long ago, suggested that religion itself, particularly extreme forms, could be seen as 'folly,' which would translate to madness or psychosis. I'm not saying that that's how I see it, only that this convergence of ideas, these conflicts, fascinated me. I was also interested, though, in some of the critiques of mainsteam notions of mental illness - Foucault, R.D. Laing, Thomas Szaz. These definitions can certainly be seen as contextual and contingent, culture-bound. Prizhorn's book at least partly inspired Dubuffet's notion of Art Brut. My brother's illness, through my reading, crashed into art brut. I read Dubuffet for the first time, probably back in late 90s, and he was a terrific, passionate, and stylish critic of culture and art and elitism. Some of the writing is dated but I actually think if Dubuffett were alive and writing now he'd be quite critical of certain aspects of the outsider art world.    

You've had some criticism from, and ensuing dialogue with, the artists whose work and lives you discuss in your book. Would you like to comment about that? Did you expect it?

I did expect that it was possible. People do not like to have their narratives taken over. I am very conscious of that and I tried to be as careful and as fair as possible while telling the story as I saw it, and I make the tricky ethics and pitfalls of documentary a central strain of inquiry in the book. On one level The Colorful Apocalypse is meta-nonfiction, a nonfiction partly about the difficulty of making 'nonfiction.' As Jonathan Raban has said, documentary can be 'pastoral' - romanticized, sentimental depictions of the disenfranchised. And it is always class-bound: a maker from the socio-economic privileged class, a professor, say, visiting the fringes to report his findings back to the privileged class. Let's talk about
THOSE people. What do the lives of THOSE people tell us. I of course come from where THOSE people come from in this case; my grandparents were not so different from Howard Finster, William Thompson, or Myrtice West, if you took away some religiosity.

I liked and identified in many ways with the people I wrote about. The artists had very rigid senses of who they were; the outsider art world offered a different story of them; I saw them differently than they saw themselves and as the art world seemed to portray them. So there was, from the start, a mash-up of meanings. I assumed that as long I got the religious stuff these artists believed right, which was all they really seemed to care about while I was hanging out with them and interviewing them, they'd be fine with the book. And most people in the book are fine with it. I don't set out to kick people around. I enjoyed my time with these artists and did not mean my book as an attack on their beliefs or their art, and clearly most readers don't see it this way. I feel part of what my book suggests is that we all 'shuffle our facts' to form a 'straight line toward meaning' - i.e., we all construct our beliefs about who we are and what our lives mean in relation to our culture and society and express this in various ways. Outsider artists offer a pure and traceable expression of this process because of their single-minded devotion and belief and output of art, which constantly reissues a belief system in pictorial design (and sometimes eschatological writing, as was the case with the artists I visited). In my mind I was after ideas such as that rather than just human-interest journalism. Often when I read journalism, even really excellent journalism, I can't help but think about editorial slants, demographics, advertising, all the forces on the writing and the writer. Really I see the journalism of my book as part of a larger project that is an essay, an inquiry, an investigation into the making of meaning through creativity (perhaps delusion) in the face of dislocation and despair. All of the artists in the book have, to some extent, overcome difficult situations through their devotion to their calling and their art. What I didn't expect before the book came out was how my writing about a couple of the artists' visionary experiences and religious missions as an aspect of their psychology, a psychology very much in keeping with the narrative template, if you will, of many other 'true' outsider artists and also in keeping with contemporary notions of psychosis (and Prinzhorn's earliest ideas), would so upset them. This is simply an obvious fact, and this assumption is common in most writing about outsider art and them. I make it clear that I'm an outsider to this art world, and that my views are simply my views, but I don't think you need to be a cultural theorist to get the sense that these artists are in complicated and institutionalized ways 'exploited' within the outsider art world - in magazines like Raw Vision and in places like the American Visionary Art Museum - since they, the artists, assume curators and audiences are coming to hear and see their preaching, so to speak, when that is absolutely dismissed and perhaps patronized for a new message in the new art-world context of eccentric, anti-mainstream freedom. At times, at its worst, it struck me as almost tourism around the ill, disenfranchised, and marginalized. I don't mean to suggest that religious outsider artists aren't taken seriously within the outsider art world. I mean to say what I think is obvious - that they are not taken seriously in the way they think they are or would like to be taken seriously. At the time, I felt for them.            

How do you balance the notion of making a book intriguing, perhaps contentious, and preserving the integrity of those you write about? Is that an issue?

It is an issue. But I guess intriguing, contentious, and fair are all in the eye of the beholder. I didn't intend contentious. I see it as bringing up a few thorny issues which might sting a few people. To me, though, that was simply about having the courage to report what seemed to me to be the truth of my travels and encounters. I tried always to be respectful to the artists, both personally and in the writing, but I had to balance that in the writing with saying what I felt had to be said to tell the story as I saw it.  

I felt you'd been quite restrained in offering opinion or criticism about the artists and their work. Personally, I felt they all dug holes of varying depths and widths for themselves: there is no theological, artistic or philosophical construct behind what they are doing, it's all passion and polemic! Is there a place for those things in the world? At what point - if ever - is there justification for interfering or censoring?

I do actually think that each of the artists has a theological and philosophical construct behind what they do. But it is articulated through an 'outsider' system of thinking and communication. Its modes are not always fully rational or easily followed if seen through a mainstream cultural lens, if we can define such a thing. Of course to these artists my construct, my thinking, is an 'outsider' system. Outsider art institutions - magazines, journals, catalogs, galleries - regularly 'interfere' with and 'censor' some aspects of Christian fundamentalist outsider artists' core messages, which are sometimes about as politically incorrect as a message can be in our current cultural moment. One day I looked at work by a schizophrenic who makes incredibly disturbing, violent, pornographic collages, work by William Burroughs that had to do with morphine and addiction, and work by some Southern Christian 'naive' artists. In the secular art world the pornography and the drugs are fine (and never mind that Burroughs was way outside Roger Cardinal's or Dubuffett's definitions of this type of art), but the Christian messages had to be tempered and contextualized and shaped in the catalog copy. They could only be presented if it was implicitly understood that the gallery did not necessarily agree with them, when this was not necessary around narcotics or pornographic, violent fantasy. I didn't want to offer easy judgment or opinion about these things so much as to report them as someone trying to be a thoughtful reader of culture. Personally I don't think any of these messages should be censored or softened.  

Is your interest in the religious aspect of this kind of art simply because that is what is around you in the South USA, or is it what interests you? Your book of short prose, Sentimental, Heartbroken Rednecks, seems to suggest that religion is still in the air, implicitly linking back to writers such as Flannery O'Connor.

Religion is something, directly or indirectly, I write about often. Partly because I write about the place I come from. Partly because I grew up around religious obsession. Partly because I am interesting in storytelling, and I'm interested in how meaning - culturally and personally - is constructed (by a country, a sect, a region, a neighborhood, a schizophrenic, an artist, a child, etc.). Back in grad school I was intrigued by some of the thinking of the Birmingham School of cultural studies - particularly Richard Hoggart and Stuart Hall. And lately I've been very interested in some personal writing by cultural anthropologists such as Michael Taussig, Alphonso Lingus, and Stephen Muecke, who write about myth and belief. I write quite autobiographically - perhaps annoyingly autobiographically - but autobiography for its own sake is of no interest to me. I like personal writing driven by intellectual inquiry, the self subordinate to the idea, open to its own confusion, the world's complexity, the way every story has counter-stories, how everyone involved in the story has a different version of it. You could say that every book I have written, almost every story and memoir and essay I have written, is essentially this: who is this person and how did this particularly person from this particular place and culture (or subculture) come to be who they are and do what they do or did? 

My limited experience of the Southern States, including a visit to Howard Finster's sculpture garden, suggests that there is something strange at work. I mean it simply isn't normal when you meet people like Finster who has brothers and sisters falling down wells and being struck by lightning. Is it simply that society is stuck in a timewarp (I mean, Victorian England had a much higher mortality rate, lower life expectancy and larger families), or something else?

Partly it is religion, I think. Fundamentalist religion of any stripe tends to be anti-intellectual and anti-progress. And class - not just economics, but everything that goes with that, including especially literacy - is the great governing structure of America, but people outside of academia and progressive politics don't seem to go near that one. American mythology is powerful, and without a high-level of literacy one can't even begin to see the nature of the systems, institutions, myths, or sensibilities of one's own time and culture or think about how these things have come to be, how they shape who we are. Lewis Lapham published an essay many years ago about public education that pointed out that the perfect citizen for the American system of consumer capitalism was one educated enough to want and want and want and solvent enough to acquire and acquire and acquire (and if you don't have money, no worries - we have great credit cards with rates of 20% or so), but not educated enough to ask serious questions about the way we live. His kind of radical point, and a point others have made, was that a truly excellent public education system would go against consumer capitalism. Also religion, ritual, and tradition are particularly strong in the South, but I know many intellectuals and artists in the South (some devout Christians; in a complicated, existential way I myself am a Christian). There are wonderful universities and cities in the South. Some days I greatly miss Virginia and North Carolina, where I spent the first thirty years of my life. It's a complicated place like anywhere else. I recently read something suggesting that America is a continent pretending to be a country. The more I travel around the more I believe that. New England, the South, and the Southwest, for instance, may have less in common than England, Ireland, and Scotland.  

The blurb on Sentimental, Heartbroken Rednecks
suggests the book 'provocatively [blurs] the lines between autobiography, short fiction and essay. Is this correct? Might we be in the realms of creative-nonfiction here?

Not sure if it is 'provocative.' It's an autobiographical book that moves from memoir to essay to little essayistic meta-fictions. Literary autobiography is best understood as a contingent form, I think, housed in other forms - poems, essays, stories, biographies, journalism, memoir.

Is there a clear line between invention and reportage, between observation and critique? Does it matter? Is everything 'fair game' for an author, or is there a moral duty to disguise, change or hide your sources in fiction? (I haven't read it, but I note that your first book, Angelhead
, is about your brother.)

The lines are blurry in some cases - memoir in particular. My friend, a great writer, says memoir should be seen as autobiographical poetry is seen, since memory is a kind of 'fiction,' a 'dream machine' that reshapes itself over time and as our identities and conceptions of self change as we age and go through life's events; not to mention all the living within cultural myths, technology, popular culture, etc. If telling your own story is easy, he would suggest, you can bet it is padded with delusion and that it resembles the truth only to you. If you think of great memoirs - Michael Ondaatje's Running in the Family
, Maxine Hong Kingston's The Woman Warrior, John Edgar Wideman's Brothers and Keepers, English books like Blake Morrison's When Did You Last See Your Father? or Lorna Sage's Bad Blood or the autobiographical vignettes in Alan Bennett's Untold Stories - it is clear that those texts are mixes of memory and imagination, recounting and creation, observation and speculation. That's what memoir is. The past cannot be fully recovered. It requires some form of invention. Once memory and encounter are made into narrative they start to become 'fictionalized,' even while your mission is to pursue with rigor and intelligence the 'truth' of a situation, and you don't need to be Derrida to understand that. But I'm interested in reporting, in an imaginative and subjective way, about the world I live in. I think one has a real obligation to the facts especially when writing about other, real people. In those cases, such as in The Colorful Apocalypse, I travel, talk to people, use tapes, transcripts, notes, do research, keep a big folder of articles and photographs, try to know the background of my subject(s), try make sure the manuscript is carefully checked. As I have seen, though, even with all that your work will be absolute fiction to someone. I can pretty much assure you that if the farmers in Agee's Let Us Now Praise Famous Men or the miners in Orwell's The Road to Wigan Pier ever read those books, they said something along the lines of 'what is this crap? I like me job!'      

Is this mix of genres 'provocative' as the blurb suggests, or is that marketing talk from the publishers?

You're making me regret that word! Assuming the world is this complex place I seem to think it is, then maybe the old conventions of genre can't hold what needs to be said as well as they used to. I think of writers like Lydia Davis, Geoff Dyer, W.G. Sebald, some of the prose of Czeslaw Milosz or Charles Simic. The French writer Jean-Paul Kauffman's or Cees Nooteboom's travelogues. What are those wonderful things they make - poems, stories, novels, essays, profiles, travelogues, philosophy, journalism, parable, fable? Also, it is worth us at this late date thinking about for instance what freedom a novelist or poet has, what constraints but also authority a journalist has, how memoir is certainly widely popular to some extent because at this time we are interested in confessional and testimony and cleansing rituals. (I think of the great scene in J.M. Coetzee's Disgrace
where he must confess his sins to the authorities to save his academic post; maybe no scene in a novel signifies the contemporary moment as well as that one in my mind.)

It is suggested that the fifteen prose pieces of S,HR
accumulate and interact to provide a 'meditation on the nature of, and necessity for, storytelling itself.' Certainly, something I teach my first years - before we get to fragmentation, hypertext and postmodernism! - is that we make sense of the world through narratives, and that we can only filter, edit and select from what we experience ourselves. This works both ways: it both denies authorial invention, but also says everything can be utilised as source &/or subject. Where do you stand on that?

I guess it depends on the project. In my first book, a memoir, I stayed tight to the facts and did research but 'invented' a depiction of my brother's mind in psychotic state based on what I knew from living with him. I also, though, call attention to this speculation/'invention' on my part, let the reader see what I'm doing and hopefully understand why and even how I'm doing it. I also hold up the 'truth' as I see it against newspaper accounts, which were 'untrue' in some ways while having gotten all the facts they used correct. In the last section of SHR, the fictional pieces all use facts and actual events as starting points but then veer toward pure invention, keep pointing out how facts fail us or tell only a little of what we need. I would only call that fiction, but you can see how close to the line I am when I'm on either side of it. The Colorful Apocalypse
was an attempt, if we divorce form from content for a moment, to pull apart the mechanics of searching out story, fact, and incident. The book is actually structured as the story of a writer traveling around collecting information to write a book - a fraught endeavor, one that might actually be upsetting to some whose interests are at odds with the writer's interest. But each episode and scene depicts the actual interaction, the actual conversation - I knew the people in the book would read the book and judge it - thus the tapes and transcripts, the notes and photos I took so that I could accurately describe clothing, rooms, what people said and did, their accents, how they moved, etc. But of course it is consciously a literary construction, a creation. I use and narrate only what I need to make the book, to tell the 'truth' of the situations, characters, and interactions as I experienced them. But given these factors you can see - I can see - how people who don't give a hoot about literature, or don't know anything about literature, don't live in it the way I do, don't think about the 'nature of narrative,' who are more interested in or connected to the topic of outsider art, would say, Hey, this isn't an academic book, or a coffee-table book, or cultural history, or straight newspaper/magazine profiles. Who does jackass Greg Bottoms think he is? 

Can you tell us what you are working on the moment? And what or how you teach?

I have a new book that uses autobiography as a vehicle to explore white, working-class masculinity in the South, boys and men, and the subtle and overt effects of violence and aggression on those who live in or around it. A mix of narrative and cultural criticism. It also contemplates some of these issues of the past, memory, and writing. I also want to write a book about a street I lived on in Richmond, Virginia, where some of the stories in SHR
take place. I lived below the poverty line while I was there. I want to describe, very particularly, some of the every-day concerns of having no money and living among people who also have little money or opportunity. I really got an education, first hand, of how about 90% of violence in America takes place among the bottom 10% of the economic scale. Down and Out in Paris and London would be a precursor perhaps, and I think I would bring my reading of that book and other related books, by London and Dickens, for instance, into my own book. Memoir, travel, belle lettre. I'm just staring to think about that one, though. 

As for teaching: A new course is American Travels, which looks at the genre of literary travel writing as a vehicle of cultural investigation and critique. We read Agee, Kerouac, Dickens, Marx, Jonathan Raban, Jamaica Kincaid, Alice Walker, etc.

I also regularly teach workshops in advanced nonfiction writing - essay, memoir, cultural criticism, documentary narrative, sometimes prose poems.

     Greg Bottoms & Rupert Loydell 2007

The Colourful Apocalypse. Journeys in Outsider Art
, Greg Bottoms (University of Chicago Press, 2007)
Sentimental, Heartbroken Rednecks. Stories from the New South
, Greg Bottoms (Shoemaker Hoard, 2nd edition, 2007)