Beyond the Wall: Outsider Art Goes Inside

This past October, famed UK street artist Banksy spent a month in New York City, leaving behind 31 provocative works in public spaces scattered throughout the city’s five boroughs. Each new piece threw the press and public deeper into the kind of frenzy usually reserved for pop culture events like a new Harry Potter book or Miley Cyrus’s latest fashion curveball. Art news, by comparison, tends to be more austere.

Yet by the time Banksy left a small mural on the Lower East Side, featuring a stencil of galloping stallions in steampunk goggles who looked like the four horses of the apocalypse, the piece found itself quickly surrounded by barbed-wire. Its property owners apparently realized the value of the work by the sheer traffic it drew. The Post made it headline news. The Times and CNN were not far behind.

Banksy has been compared to early 20th century French conceptualist Marcel Duchamp, who once signed a porcelain toilet and claimed it “art.” Banksy gained international fame in 2002 when, in his first U.S. exhibition (in Los Angeles), he brought a live elephant, painted red, into the gallery’s main room. In a final, goodbye act to this recent NYC stay, Banksy left his moniker spelled out in silver balloons to hang from the scaffolding above an industrial building visible from the Long Island Expressway in Queens. They were quickly confiscated by NYPD after three fans attempted to lift the balloons for financial gain. NYPD initially labeled the evidence simply as “balloons,” with the intention of discarding them after the misdemeanor was processed. However, media reports quickly made it apparent that the balloons, re-labeled as “art,” could bring tremendous value at auction.

Street art has, in fact, become increasingly romanticized and highly collectible over the last decade. Many of the genre’s artists have fallen under the larger umbrella of “outsider” art by virtue of their anti-establishment sensibility, especially in graffiti circles, where the artists tend to be self-taught. Those like Banksy have come to represent hope for a more open-door policy at the institutional level for artists working outside the system.

In recent years, art critics such as Kyle Chayka of The Atlantic and Roberta Smith of The New York Times have argued forcefully that lines between folk, street, and other forms of outsider art ought be blurred in mainstream institutions, allowing art to be judged not for its formal sophistication, but rather its emotional content. Smith, in her review of a 2007 exhibition of Mexican artist Martin Ramirez at the American Folk Art Museum in Midtown Manhattan, argued that the artist’s “scroll-like drawings should render null and void the insider-outsider distinction.” Chayka wrestled with the semantics of this potential shift in a recent piece on video artist Wendy Vainity, whose amateurish YouTube videos have proven so strangely compelling that it is difficult to know where she’s been purposefully avant-garde and where she’s simply naive.

Fascination with artists on the outside comes largely from the special hermeneutic codes and non-textbook discourse their works embody, which often catch us off-guard. Early in the 20th century, French artist Jean Dubuffet championed art brut—works he saw being made outside the boundaries of the established art culture, such as those by insane asylum inmates and children.

Edwardian tastes in England, France, and the United States had already popularized the freakish and the macabre. Such hunger for the unconventional seems to have coincided with the first Modernists and their interest in ceremonial masks from tribal regions of Polynesia, Africa, and the West Indies. They made their way onto canvases by Pablo Picasso and photographs by Man Ray, and were shown in Downtown Manhattan shows curated by Alfred Stieglitz as early as 1915. Yet works by self-taught artists who had little or no contact with the mainstream art institutions were labeled “naive art.” These works remained on the margins of curatorial taste for many decades. Indeed, outsider art did not make a marked cross over into the free market until around the time of the first Outsider Art Fair in New York in 1993.

One of the most talked about subjects in this debate is Henry Darger, a custodial worker who lived in relative reclusion in Chicago and whose thousands of drawings and narrative writings were only discovered after his death in 1976. Darger’s first (posthumous) exhibit came quickly and his work has since been on display in every major art capital of the world. The fact that he worked in such untraditional, “non-painterly” ways—for example, he traced many of his images from comic strips and coloring books—and that his art was meant to illustrate the novels he wrote, may complicate Darger’s place among his contemporaries. Though it seems more that his exclusion has to do with his non-engagement of the art establishment while still living. For now, Darger remains largely relegated to the world of folk art.