Tuesday, June 3, 2014

Outside of art or outside of surrealism

(unpublished post from july 2013)

With the new issue of Patricide (#6), though full of interesting things, I cannot but get the feeling that editor Neil Coombs is abandoning his earlier attempts to establish credability among surrealists and aims higher into the vaguely surrealismophilic art world this time.
    Considering the suspiciousness with which the Patricide project has been met with by many surrealists, one could perhaps speak of revealing true colours. But that would be a selfrighteous self-fulfilling prophecy. Coombs has indeed made some serious attempts, been persistent over a period of several years, opened up a few interesting discussions, and if never lucid also never, in spite of certainly frustrating resistance encountered, turned around into ressentment-full all-emotional verbage against the high horses of many surrealists. I still have a feeling I don't know quite what this was all about.
    There is a certain significant overlap with a large official ongoing show of outsider art at official Hayward Galleries in London. There is due thanks, without whom the present work would not have been possible, to some of the leading central figures in the modern reintegration of art brut into the art world, namely the leading British outsider art dealer Henry Boxer, and the leading British outsider art historian academic and catalog preface writer Roger Cardinal.
    Roger Cardinal started out in the vicinities of surrealism, was associated with the Paris group from Canada in the 60s, then a member of some of the shortlived British surrealist groups in the late 70s. He had not been heard from in explicit surrealist connections for quite some time when it was noted that he had started publishing the usual antisurrealist grossly misrepresenting opinions about surrealism, in connection with the planned Svankmajer extravaganza at the annual surrealismological conference of West Dean in 2010. This was in fact a big issue for the Prague surrealist group, and therefore for the Paris group and for the British surrealists at the time. As an additional sign of Patricide coming from a position somewhere else than within surrealism, the whole scandal of Cardinal's antisurrealism (three long years ago) is not mentioned with a word here and he is offered space and admiringly presented as the big authority and claimed to have written "the first book about art brut" (p 123) (in 1972!). First? What about Dubuffet? What about Prinzhorn 1922?
    Coombs employs an eclectic and partly journalistic investigative method. Instead of thoroughly studying the subject he is addressing, he invites anybody to contribute on the subject whatever their perspective on it might be, and amidst these motley sources he picks a few to interview as authorities. In the case of his "Surrealism and Music" issue, of the authorities he picked, some were just irrelevant and said nothing interesting, some were active surrealists and could perhaps have been expected to say something clarifying but didn't, and some were surrealists who actually contributed to shedding light on the subject. In the case of art brut Coombs isn't messing around trying to pry info out of active surrealists anymore, he goes directly to the big oracles in Britain: the big academic authority Cardinal and the big commercial authority Boxer. And does not problematise at all the hierarchy and the artworld or para-artworld map that positions the big academic and the big salesman as the two main authorities. And does not question what they are saying and the position they are saying it from.
    But within the material here, there is a lot of implicit critique of that in the stories of the artists themselves, or of non-authoritative thinkers on the subject, mainly Stephen Kirin and John Holt. (The latter is a priest, which does not preclude him from saying something interesting, but the fact that he is "openmindedly" given space without even an editorial discussion about the fact, again shows that Patricide does not struggle anymore to be a surrealist journal.) Surrealists Renay Kerkman, Shibek and Martin Marriott contextualise the concept a bit. Tony Convey says "Outside art has spawned a new academy with its own Popes, Bishops and Gatekeepers". Indeed, and the editor doesn't mind boosting their positions further.
    Of course, the plethora of artists, journals, exhibitions and museums of outsider art, art brut, insane art, autodidactic art, folk art, etc, show us a lot of magnificent stuff, teach us a lot about creative practice and about the human condition and about imaginative and social possibilities and about the world. The major problem with advertising it is that there is nothing particular to advertise: this is of course what art is really about – these are not some new and cool artists to highlight, they are not the representatives of a particular style or movement that merit recognition: they are simply artists, like the rest of us, with a moving and inspiring vision or not...
    By rhetorical necessity, acknowledging art brut when you are in the art world (as for example an academic art historian or a salesman) cannot mean to give it a polemical edge against educated and conventional art, because that would mean eventually sawing off the branch on which one is sitting, so instead it must be about claiming it must get the recognition it earns within the art connections, that is being reintegrated, and accepted in official art with the values, standards and criteria of official art basically unchanged. And very much of the recognition is specifically about giving this kind of art its share of the art market, having art dealers specialising in the works of these actually innovative, imaginative and obsessed people. Hooray, their works became commodities too! This integrative art reformism is clearly different from a surrealist perspective.
    A surrealist perspective would instead point at this as a sphere which cannot be separated from what we all are doing, and while recognising many of the most striking and moving creators coming from this angle as heroic and inspiring examples, maintaining this not as example doing good in the competition, but rather as propulsing a devastating critique of the largely stifling imagination-less prestige-driven narrow boring spectacle offered by official art! And resuming the old slogan, it is not the outsiders that need to get in (into the museums, the art market, the art history books etc) but the insiders that need to get out...
    By the way, the Hayward show is really interesting, having a somewhat unusual focus on physics, mathematics and architecture. The cathedral paintings of Marcel Storr, the beautiful utopian dollhouses of Bodys Isek Kingelez, the exquisite junk sculpture of Emery Blagdon, the automatic painting of Guo Fengyi. The poor man's Bellmer, doll fetishist Morton Bartlett, wasn't as spectacular as the advertisements wanted. Strangely enough, by Lee Godie only her photobooth self-portraits, and by Eugene von Bruenchenhein only his portaits of his wife and not at all his marvellous paintings. This is probably an expression of a will to show how "outsider" artists indulge in all kinds of media/technologies rather than just keep drawing/painting. But we knew that, didn't we? And isn't there are particular point with the very unprejudicedness about the medium that many artists display: even if they have a preferred medium for their daily obsession, they are remarkably openminded about utilising whatever materials is at hand for similar expressions that may look entirely different but sprout from the same urge (again, just like surrealists...). There is also an appendigial show at the Hayward by The Museum of Everything of beautiful works by Sri Nek Chand Saini from his vast sculpture garden in India.

M Forshage
Painting by Tony Convey

Sculpture by Emery Blagdon

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