Artsy Asks About ‘Outsider Art’ Privacy

Artsy posted a piece today entitled ‘When Is an Artist’s Mental Health Your Business?‘:

In the case of so-called outsider art, or art made by those distant from the “art world” (often with mental health complications), it’s an even thornier issue. Curators, and those charged with translating and presenting the story of art to a wider public, have difficult choices to make. What details are relevant, rather than just salacious? Where is the dividing line between honest explication and exploitation?

Valérie Rousseau, who works at the American Folk Art Museum in NYC as curator of 20th-century and contemporary art is interviewed, and says:

“We always caricature our fields by saying that we’re all about biographies, and the market builds mythologies around the artist,” she explains, sitting in a gallery full of Gabritschevsky’s fantastical gouache paintings. In the case of these dual exhibitions, Rousseau says, “I didn’t [include] anything specific about their mental illnesses, and everybody is asking me: ‘Oh, by the way, I know it’s not written on the walls—but can you tell me? What exactly was the diagnosis of Gabritschevsky?’ People are savvy and curious about this connection, and they want to know. But I question the validity of giving them the answer.”

At the same time, she notes, what would providing diagnostic or clinical information really add to that exhibition experience? Audiences, weaned on Hollywood and pop-psychology, might fancy themselves experts—but what comprehension does the casual viewer actually have of bipolar disorder or schizophrenia?

Agreed. There are some instances in which knowing a person’s background means *everything* in giving the art richer meaning and relatedness. I’m thinking here of my very deeply missed friend Wade Wharton, who suffered several strokes in his life. He would tell me over and over about how the strokes literally changed his brain in how he was able to see things, how he was able to interpret things and work them out mentally and with his hands. Because of the strokes, Wade’s walking wasn’t so great (I was always afraid he was going to fall in the yard) and his speech was a little impaired. But knowing about how Wade viewed the strokes as opening his mind to this talent makes seeing it even greater. Wade wanted people to know about the strokes, and there’s no controversy about details like that.

Here, Wade’s “skinny Buddha”

Many other artists I’ve known or studied have been convinced that they’ve been directed by the Almighty to do their work…that they were given a non-verbal sign, or that they were actually spoken to. W.C. Rice believed that he had been healed by G-d in 1960 from an ulcerated stomach, but didn’t start building his Cross Garden in Prattville, Alabama until 1976, the year his mother passed away. Someone had gotten a flower-covered cross at the florist that he was enamored with, then shortly thereafter, the L-rd spoke to him, telling him to put three crosses outside. Then, the L-rd asked him to put crosses in the den of his home. He kept following direction, and in 1980 constructed the ‘Church of G-d, Jesus, and the Holy Ghost Roadside Chapel’. Here, it’s interesting to know the story — especially so since W.C. Rice wasn’t a preacher like Rev Kornegay or Finster who had their own environments — but not absolutely integral in understanding the work.

Turning the page, though, I know of artists who have mental issues going on that should be kept absolutely private. Knowing why someone is obsessed with a certain topic/symbol/word, or the back-story to a work is gratifying in an “I get it now” way, but it’s not an ethically compelling reason to let the world in on what’s going on.

In the Artsy piece, Susanne Zander of Delmes & Zander, whose gallery includes work by the late Louisiana artist Prophet Royal Robertson:

“Essentially, we are not that interested in the mental history of the artist,” she says. “The selection of the artists in our program is based mainly on the quality of their work, irrespective of whether or not it was produced specifically for the art market. It’s important for us that the quality is on a par with established art production, and that the artists are judged not for any of their psychological problems—but rather for the quality, individuality, and autonomy of their artistic work.”

Yes again. Though it seems so interesting that the author here speaks with a gallery which shows the work of the Prophet, because if you didn’t know about his marital problems and his ensuing mental issues/obsessions, you’d wonder why exactly are you hating women? what brings you to that kind of loathing and hostility? and not understand this is part of the deep deep deep dark hole that opened up in his mind with Adell’s leaving.

On the other hand, in her 2011 NYT review of the White Columns gallery show in which he was included, of the Prophet’s personal life, Roberta Smith had exactly this to say:

He believed in space aliens and was fluent in the Bible and furious with his former wife, Adell.  

So there’s that.

BTW, news soon on preservation for Margaret’s Grocery in Vicksburg, where Margaret and the Rev H.D. Dennis loved everybody.