Outsider Art & Identity Politics:
A Dialogue on the Ideology of Politically Correct Art
5-6 November 2000


On this art problem I'm having, I'll have to take this apart in several steps . . .

The first part is that besides the vague determination of whether something is “outside” or not, the way in which the question is asked is important. Last week I went to downtown Minneapolis, where, buried within the hulking structure of the Colonial Warehouse building, the Interact Center for the Visual and Performing Arts was rehearsing a presentation of Madame Josette's Nothing Sacred Cabaret. The cast of the cabaret, with but a couple of exceptions, is drawn from a pool of the disabled—from those with Down's Syndrome to sufferers of brain injuries and beyond.

Interact currently comprises nearly 100 artists, directed to the program by field workers and subjected to an informal 30-day tryout and audition process before they become a part of the project. Once included, they work in their chosen mediums—whether creative writing, visual arts, or theater—with collaboration and training from artistic professionals of many stripes.

In the case of the Nothing Sacred Cabaret, some 15 of the artists, write, perfect, and perform intensely personal songs and monologues bearing both directly and indirectly on living with disability. Madame Josette's Cabaret, drawing on the ambiance of a French fringe setting, is spiritually overseen by Toulouse-Lautrec, who, of course was disabled (more on this point later).

As usual in tales of redemption, some demons have to be confronted first. And this is the "Nothing Sacred" part of the cabaret, through which the cast gives voice to largely unheard stories from the world of the disabled. There tends to be much taboo about sex in this world, so much of it touches on that. "Everybody has ideas, and you could do a whole play about each one of their stories," the director tells me. Case in point is the presentation of Mother Mary Tells It Like It Is, and Other Tales of Wisdom, Truth, and Delusion, a piece founded on the storytelling power of Mary Thomas, an elderly African-American woman whose brief tale of love, marriage, and divorce forms one of the high points of the current cabaret.

Other members of the troupe step forward to sing or speak of their experience with staggering frankness, and humor that is occasionally shocking—a trio called "The Downbeats" play on their Down's Syndrome in a song about having too many chromosomes to drive a car or to have a child.

The director talks about what "outsider art" is and can be. She mentions Dr. Hans Prinzhorn's pivotal 1922 volume Artistry of the Mentally Ill, which long held such art to be the product of isolation, individuality, and refusal of human contact. And Art Brut, defined by I forget whom, and exemplified by artists like Johann Hauser—"outsider art" implies an art that fanatically avoids social interference. The main collection in Switzerland  strictly enforces the politics of separation in every sense—its works never tour, and the organization refuses to allow art from outside its collection to be called Art Brut. Purity is imperative: both that of the collection and of the individual expressions of its works. They champion faith in the essence of human expression—free of meddlesome obstacles like reason, tradition, and the economy, or "art for art's sake".

Despite the difference between Interact's collaborative approach and the more insular conception of outsider art that has prevailed in the art world, Interact sees what they strive for as falling into accepted outsider categories—art outside the mainstream, by artists with no traditional background, driven by the artist's own impulse, and unschooled.


I am not familiar with "outsider art" per se, or the philosophy behind it.  However, the idea of unmediated, raw experience independent of artistic technique or tenets of aesthetic quality . . . well, what is the audience for this sort of thing?  And who is going to see these plays written and performed by the disabled?  It would seem most people would find this subject so disturbing they wouldn't seek it out as entertainment.  Aside from being purely functional—to address social issues, or to give the disabled an opportunity to vent their frustrations—who wants to see this sort of stuff?  What are the connoisseurs of this sort of material like?  Sounds kind of creepy to me.


You're a little ahead of me on the art, but here goes. The point is that there is an audience for this kind of thing, though not huge, but more to the point, there seems to be quite a bit of funding for the kind of Interact program that I spoke of. That's what I'm getting at—the (local?) art scene has turned into a refuge for the creatively challenged. I'm talking about art that's had vitality and surprise and play and pleasure sucked out of it, art that's only concerned with its rightness and virtue, art that urgently foists its message on the audience.

I don't want to go to out and hear that "Women are strong, spiritual, powerful, and beautiful," as a recent film screened on Bravo's Women in the Director's Chair series proclaimed. Or see work that "explores" this personal issue or "documents" that social problem, that "provokes" the viewer regarding the artist's identity, or "confronts" the artist's traumas (usually of childhood origins). Art has become burdened with the duties of affirming, establishing, or asserting "identity," with healing or otherwise helping a certain "community," or imparting platitudinal messages of social or political import. The audience you ask? It's become a therapeutic forum in which everyone insists on having her say before an audience of witnesses, believers, or potential converts.

. . . Don't you get the feeling that  if Toulouse-Lautrec were applying for grants in today's artistic climate, he probably wouldn't win one for his bawdy scenes in Parisian cabarets, but he'd stand a good chance if he claimed to be exploring his oppression as a dwarf. That was the irony of seeing his presence at the disabled cabaret show.

There are two at least two different issues to explore, one being the late-capitalist logic to the contemporary arts scene, with benevolent bureaucracy overshadowing the product itself as a plethora of niche nonprofits endlessly backing artistic endeavors to various "communities." (Otherwise known as divide and conquer).

Then there's a failure of the dialectic in the local scene or in greater society—not only that  people are conditioned by changing social forces, but that we are an active force in when and how these changes take place. . . .


Imagine if James Baldwin had written in a genre called gay literature.  This niche problem: to define and demarcate people in niche categories, as if you are just what the category in which you are in says you are, and there is no extension, no imagination, no reaching towards the world as a whole.

And then there is another problem you also address, embodied in the word "documents."  One thing I'm crusading against is poetry as reportage.  Did you read my poem "Sparking My Pain (Poem Against Ghettocentrism)"?  This is part of the fight.  I'm also working on a magnum opus, attacking poetry at every level of the class structure from the ghetto to poetry slams on up to the Library of Congress fusspots.  I have two or three working titles, but here's one that expresses the gist of my labors—"Poetry and the Division of Labor."

The issue of niche art that you raise has to be attacked at a very deep level.  "I am my illness"—the destruction of the human imagination.  Minimalism and survivalism.


Oh bless your heart Ralph, I knew you would get this, even though you come at it from a different and deeper angle. Yes, thanks to  James Baldwin (and Flannery O'Connor and Gertrude Stein. . .)  for not knowing his place in the art world. I've mostly gotten over the post-modernism about not one being able to pass critical judgment on niche stuff—that traditional conceptions of good and bad art no longer apply; so-called cross-cultural criticism is taboo, questioning whether a critic has anything useful or valid to say about an artwork unless critic and artist are of the same tribe. Nor can I dismiss Pablo Picasso upon learning that he is a misogynist. Just when did work demand to be read in terms of its maker? Would Michelangelo been hired to paint the Sistine Chapel today? No, if he wanted to make a living, he would have applied for a grant in the queer art genre. Well I don't need to go on. It's corporate specialty-marketing.

Original exchange 5-6 November 2000
Edited & uploaded 9 October 2006
©2000, 2006 Ralph Dumain

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Uploaded 9 October 2006

©2006 Ralph Dumain