Two manifestos of outsider art and its significance for the arts and economics of future. These manifestos are the part of my activity as a curator for the label of outsider music and art projects Outsiderville. In these texts I study the outsider figure and its importance for the future of our society.
Future belongs to outsiders
The last centuries of the history of our civilization are a triumph of professional activity. It is the activity of the wage-worker, who is paid for his performance and who separates the professional and the personal, that has become a specific model and the highest form of activity. The consequence of this is a condescending, and sometimes even contemptuous attitude towards other activities that are not dictated by market demand. If you don“t get a good pay for your work and don”t work only to earn money, then this is treated as a hobby, a trinket, entertainment. This attitude permeated, among other things, art, the success of which is often measured by the financial and social success of the artist, by external clear criteria, and not by such vague, but infinitely important things as compliance with the spirit of the age, sincerity and inner truthfulness.
In this system of values, the artists become “real” when they are professionals — that is, an employees who receive money for their work, and are associated with a professional community of similar prospectors. As a matter of course, entering such a community is difficult — these groups protect their borders and internal hierarchy, so as not to lose the finances and other resources that society allocates for art. To become a professional, an artist usually has to finish studying, complete several stages of education, make connections and acquaintances, participate in competitions, exhibitions, have contacts with galleries and receive paid orders — only then they begin to be respected as an established specialists and a respected members of society.
This attitude to human labor is related to the way society was organized in the industrial era, the one that defined the main features of our civilization, the era of struggle with nature, with human character. For the industrial mindset, everything in the world is a resource for something else; it is assumed that there are some human needs that, with the growth of the number of people and their appetites, grow themselves. In a world that is unruly, dangerous, and resistant, everything is a resource that needs to be recycled in order to be acquired and used. The world is a kind of material, and society is a grand factory for processing the world into happiness and prosperity, a factory that aims to defeat evil, disease, misfortune, and death itself. Naturally, in such a world picture, a person is as good as he performs a function, as well as he is integrated into the mechanisms of processing and fighting with the world. A person is reduced to a function; a professional, a person adapted for activity through education and his social contacts, is thus the ideal of this function. Of course, even in the industrial economy there was still an understanding that a man is something more than the utility. So this is how the concept of “personal life”, “leisure” was created, to define what a person does outside of work. It is believed that in “personal life” a person has the right to opinions, views, whereas in professional activity he should be neutral and obey only the order, capital, necessity.
This view proved to be very steady. Despite the fact that we are already living in a different digital post-industrial era, where the productive economy is no longer as important as scientific work or the service sector, we continue to think in the old “professional-personal”, “work-hobby” categories. We no longer believe that the development of science and industry alone can solve all the problems of humanity, we know that on this path there are no less fatal dangers than gains. Environmental problems, the growing financial gap between the richest and poorest countries, the invention of deadly weapons of mass destruction — all this freezes the progressive enthusiasm. Moreover, we live in a time when any historical meta-narrative, a large narrative about the goals of history, is rather skeptical. However, the old views are inert and persistent, so people are still reduced to a function, considered as partial mechanisms, a gear in an industrial machine.
The modern and salutary alternative to this view is precisely the figure of the outsider. This homeless vagabond, not assigned to any professional workshop, resists all attempts to describe him as a function, as a functionary. For an outsider, there is no distinction between professional and personal — he works, he is engaged in creativity out of love for his work, out of a deep inner need, and not because he will be paid for it. An outsider did not go through the faceting of his personality in the crucible of formal education or did not find himself under its burden, having received academic knowledge — he is a self-made man, a person who created his own competencies, the result not of external pressure, but of his own initiative.
The outsider is part of the social vanguard, the vanguard, he lives and works the way a person should work in accordance with his free nature. Thus, in the figure of an outsider, humanity itself is realized — labor for the sake of labor, joy for the sake of joy, and not for the sake of survival or necessity, expressed in the form of social handouts. If the future is capable of bringing us something bright, if our hopes are to be fulfilled in it, then the best and most wonderful of these hopes is the absence of the need for a person to be unfree in his work. Man is a hardworking, active creature; he is interested in creating, transforming; unlike a professional person, a person-function, an outsider creates as he lives, i.e. without an external goal, for the sake of the process itself, for the sake of love.
Outsider art is art outside coordinates, outside of constraints, perhaps now — thanks to the opportunities for self-education and solidarity that the World Wide Web provides people with. Now we do not need to fit ourselves into the format of education and industry in order to engage in creative work, we do not need to adjust ourselves to other professionals — we are able to express ourselves, relying on ourselves, we are able to study what is closer to us.
Life itself is devoid of a goal, because any goal is something private, detached, concrete, and life is all-embracing, has no boundaries and outlines, it is omnipresent and immense. Any goal can be only a part of life, and not something external to it. Art, in this regard, is closest to life, since art is an activity for the sake of activity, for the sake of Beauty, and Beauty is itself an internal property of a thing, and not some of its market value. Outsider art, therefore, is closest to the embodiment of the essence of art and, in general, all human labor as free activity for its own sake; an outsider does not distinguish between personal and professional, does not alienate a work of art from himself as a commodity. And therefore, an artist, musician, poet-outsider, not included in the institutions of education, galleries and competitions, is a figure of the future — all art and all human labor should become outsider, unprofessional, if we hope that happiness in general to one degree or another is achievable.
The outsider is a figure of the future, all art and all human activity strive to become free from the shackles of professional conventions, financial pressure and so on. In this figure, the future manifests itself, the possibilities that are provided to us by the progress of science and technology manifest themselves; we are already a part of the future and our task is to practice our work so that a joyful future of free labor, where all work would be an art, will come for a greater number of people.
Outsider-art as the art of the future
Manifesto-reflection on outsider art
In one of his works, the musicologist, composer and philosopher Theodor Adorno critically notes that there are artists who create as if humanism and a just world have already been realized. Isolated and separated in their own art utopia, they believe that an activity dictated by freedom, not coercion, is possible, an activity the value of which lies in itself. Such activity does not need the sanction of professional institutions and the support of the market — it arises from personal need and is a gesture of pure inspiration, it carries in its freedom the attitude to a person as a being who is not dominated by the dictates of circumstances and social coercion. The results of such an artist’s work, as it seems, do not alienate him, do not become a commodity and an instrument of social coercion. Adorno himself believes that this kind of creativity — creativity in self-isolation from the oppressive market and other systems of exploitation-bears the stamp at best of extreme naivety, and even self-deception, insincerity. For this philosopher, human brotherhood and a noble, just, careful attitude to every human personality and its needs are impossible in some private, isolated shelters-either every activity of each person becomes creativity, that is, the fruit of freedom and joy, or no one is engaged in free creativity in the full sense of this concept.
Adorno is certainly pessimistic. Society is a very complex organism, in which different epochs coexist simultaneously; the ancient attitude to violence and power as a sign of strength and moral dignity can coexist with a humanistic attitude to man and the recognition of the value of horizontal, non-power relations.
Some people seem to anticipate the social realities of the future by their activities — they live as if the ideals are not only the dreams that inspire and guide our conscious activity and duty. Outsider artists, mostly self-taught, excluded from the professional community, often engage in creativity out of a certain obsession, mania; creativity is their inner necessity, for which they have no other motives than desire and inspiration. The engrossment of writing, its urgent necessity, leads to the fact that their works of art often have characteristic features: the lack of integrity, a project that would unite all the disparate elements into a monolithic unity, the stability and repeatability of symbols, the apparent lack of development of technology, patchiness. However, these traits, which in themselves have a certain appeal, as they reveal a unique experience, are not characteristic of all “naive artists”, self-taught artists or outsider artists. The commonplace is that their work is not widely recognized. They do not earn symbolic things — recognition, respect, power — and financial capital. At best, such artists are known, because the fruits of their consciousness are presented as a kind of scandalous and spicy exotic, something alien and out of the normal order, which, of course, obscures and distorts the essence of their art.
The essence of their creativity is that it is free and presupposes an attitude to human labor as a natural expression of human creative forces, as a need. This attitude has been spoken of and is still being spoken of by many humanists who speak with deep sympathy about the situation of a person oppressed by inequality and power relations in the social cosmos. Of course, this is the deep essence of any creativity, but it is usually hidden, whereas in the works of outsiders, free from the shackles of the profession and at the same time from the benefits that it provides, it is clearly manifested.
Paradoxically, this freedom is an expression of a deeper inner necessity and urgent need. For example, Elizaveta Khudyakova, an artist and a participant of the Outsiderville project, dedicated to the work of outsider artists with mental health issues, writes:
“Drawing is the only way for me to get really positive emotions, to express the whole palette of feelings that are being experienced, which are now overflowing, then smeared, and then violently gushing with frenzied streams, and finally somehow distract from my illness.”
For many free artists who are not associated with institutions, galleries, schools, creativity is the only window into a harmonious and pure world of colors, shapes, sounds, in which they are not constrained by the difficult circumstances of need, illness, in which they can speak loudly and sincerely, find accurate and vivid expression for their feelings. The art of outsiders is often not distilled l“art pour l”art, art for art“s sake, shamefacedly concealing the pleasure of an art piece and the material conditions of its origin, but l”art du bonheur et de la liberté, art of happiness and freedom, which is often possible only with the help of a huge effort of all the creative abilities of the human mind.
It is said that we have some talent only because of the recognition of others. Creativity, like thinking, usually requires social sanction and approval; a person allegedly cannot “really” engage in creative activity until authorities and organizations have recognized his rights. How can you be a philosopher if you haven“t read all of Plato, Husserl, Heidegger? You don”t have any right to think and speak. How can you be an artist if you didn“t copy Velasquez, Brueghel, Monet, Picasso? How dare you draw and share your art? This kind of recognition, the right to work, is acquired in a basic form through professional socialization — through training in art schools, then through participation in exhibitions, doing payed commissions, and so on. In all this process, a person is considered as a function — if they are able to perform this role well enough and in accordance with conventions and conditionality, they get the right to be respected and their daily bread. But some outsider artists rebel against this model, they don”t wait for permission, approval and praise to start painting, only their deep creative will is the impulse and core reason for their work. Usually living in difficult conditions, deprived of the opportunity to speak about their experience in order to meet acceptance, recognition, respect and understanding, they rebel against this silence with the help of art that becomes their ringing voice. Driven by courage, they create the impression as if tomorrow had already come and a person was no longer bounded by need and evaluation, and any personal experience was allowed and deserved respectful and particular attention, even if it couldn’t be exemplary.
For such artists, art is a way of being, it is as natural as breathing. Another participant of the Outsiderville project, Elina Doll, writes:
«Art for me is one of the most important things in life, it’s like talking or breathing, like being. I work constantly, often even if I am physically unwell… I try to find my place in reality, in society, at least some common interests with others, but so far it is not very successful, I still remain an unwanted freak… It is very painful and insulting, because for me it is alive, it is me».
Like birds sing and flutter in the sky, outsider artists draw, create music, write poetry, turn their own lives into a canvas. The boundaries between creativity and work are blurred, and I see in this not a desire for self-deception and complacency in the face of a cruel and unfair world, but stoutness and an act to follow. The art of outsiders, self-taught people, and amateurs is valuable because it frees human activity for spontaneity, for freedom, for the joy of work. Through the poetry of sounds, colors, words, outsider artists realize the very human nature, which is the transformation of material nature. The alien, indifferent, inert nature of things and phenomena is fertilized by images and meanings, not for the sake of survival and ideological support of power institutions, but from the natural movement of the soul. This is the psychotherapeutic potential of free, non-professional art and the secret of the art therapy — with their help, a person learns to be careful, wise, and kind to himself and, consequently, to everyone else. The work of outsider artists, their art utopia, is thus not escapism, flight from reality, or insincerity, but a brave attempt to root those values of acceptance and kindness at present day that can flourish to the full in future, if this lesson of direct speech, which does not require sanctions and approval, is heard. We, therefore, should not try to make outsider artists “real artists”, “professionals”, we should not look for excuses for the way they create, but, on the contrary, we should take their art as a beautiful example of the way to live and express personal sense of life. A model that, perhaps, will open the way for everyone to accept themselves and release their creative forces.
Special thanks and gratitude to The Social Translation Center of St. Petersburg University for translation of these essays into English.
If you like these texts you can do me a favor and listen to my music on Bandcmap. Also my music is available on almost every music service — from Spotify to Tidal. Just search for Yuri Vinogradov or EllektraJazz (if you prefer jazz-rock).