At Zwirner, Outsider Art that Channels the Greatest Insiders

THE DAILY PIC: Do we like work by non-artists because it's like fine art we know?


THE DAILY PIC: This is an excellent, striking image by Richard Prince. And Cindy Sherman. And Gerhard Richter. Or, of course, by none of them at all, but rather by an unknown and unnamed photographer whose Polaroids of TV stars, caught on the boob tube in the 60s and 70s, are now in a group show of “outsider” artists at David Zwirner gallery in New York.

I can’t resist the instant appeal and interest of the best works in this exhibition,  but I do wonder about their seamless incorporation into the flow of contemporary art, and into its ever-hungry market.

As I’ve argued before, there’s a real risk that we’re using such objects as objets trouvés and readymades, those modernist staples, and that they only acquire meaning, as art, because they remind us of works and approaches that certified insiders came up with first. They are more like the weathered posters that Aaron Siskind found and then shot as his art–that he recognized as modern art–than like the original photos created by Cindy Sherman.

It’s possible that outsider art is the ultimate example of what the art historian Yve-Alain Bois has called the “pseudomorphic”–two objects or images that we think look the same, but whose original meanings and functions were entirely different.

It’s no longer acceptable, by a long shot, to use African ritual objects to our own Western aesthetic ends–we’re expected to try, at least, to recognize their very different, even unaesthetic, origins. Shouldn’t the same respect be accorded to art by the mentally ill, the incarcerated, the strange or the merely horny?–all venerable categories that at least some of the artists at Zwirner fall into.

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