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Outsider ArtReview - Outsider Art
Contesting Boundaries in Contemporary Culture
by Vera L. Zolberg and Joni Maya Cherbo (editors)
Cambridge University Press, 1997
Review by Kathryn Walker
Nov 8th 2001 (Volume 5, Issue 45)

Outsider Art is a collection of essays that deal with the question of the artistic canon and the art that does not immediately find itself to be situated within the canon.  For the most part the essays present the historical trajectory of art that begins outside the canon and then as it develops and as tradition changes, eventually finds itself as an accepted element of the artistic canon.  Suggested then is the historical nature of the artistic canon; artistic traditions are historically situated and reflect larger cultural contexts.

Outsider Art, questioning how the outside/inside boundary is constructed and historical, operates from a post-modern position.  Situated beyond any conception of a stable,  if nonetheless constructed, inside, Outsider Art focuses on the question of how the outside gets in.
  
The collection of essays presented by Outsider Art is engaging.  The essays written from a sociological perspective consider the place of art within cultural, historical and economic contexts.  The essays tell a diverse set of stories -- stories about the rise of pop art, about the assembly-line art of Mark Kostabi, about the relationship between art and madness, about art world scandal, about the cultural place of community-based theatre companies and about the historical emergence modern dance and the tango.  

While Outsider Art seems to make a concerted effort to destabilize artistic canons, both by demonstrating their historicity and by challenging their validity, the book in the final analysis falls into a trap lodged in the heart of post-modernity in general.  

While on one hand Outsider Art challenges the traditional canon on the other hand there is a sense in which Outsider Art establishes its own canon.  Glaring absences draw attention to this.  While Outsider Art considers a wide range of artistic forms, the visual arts, theatre, dance, the lack of discussion of music and film stands out.  Why are music and film not explicitly addressed?  This absence is particularly striking in so far as many of the arguments, in particular arguments regarding the blurring between pop and high art, made by the essays in Outsider Art, seem to operate emphatically in music and film.  

Outsider Art was originally published in 1997.  I wish that it had been published in 1989, for two reasons.  Theoretically the compliation articulates, beautifully, the postmodern position -- a position that in 1989 I was eager to hear.  Also however, in terms of explicit content the essays seem to speak for and of the art world until 1990.  Many of the essays are specifically grounded in the 1980s and the new computer-based artistic forms that developed in the last days of the 20th century are not addressed at all.  

Ultimately Outsider Art point to a problem not proper to the outsiders or the not-yet-canonized, but of the postmodern position in general.  Any destablization of traditional bears with it the possibility of merely establishing a new canon.  Rather than dismantle the logic of canon, postmodernity often merely replaces.  Here the new canon is defined as that which challenges or questions boundaries.  The problem ultimately is located in a tension between form and content.  While at the level of content, Outsider Art, offers something beyond tradition, at the level of form, in so far as the book presents an articulation of an art world, Outsider Art establishes and speaks for a new tradition.  While I thoroughly enjoyed the essays in Outsider Art and found their analysis, subject matter and perspective both interesting and provocative, ultimately I was left asking, 'What is outside Outsider Art'?

© 2001 Kathryn Walker
 

Kathryn Walker is a doctoral student in York University's Social and Political Thought program. Her work is focused on the relationship between moods, rationality and politics. Kathryn is also part of the j_spot editorial collective.


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