T.S. Eliot said “the artist is heterodox while everyone else is orthodox.”*1 The problem though with being on the outside is the seemingly inescapable longing one has to one day fit in. Kierkegaard maintained that the minority is stronger than the majority because the minority is made up of those who think for themselves and actually have an opinion**2, whereas the majority is oft times the product of monolithic thinking. But the paradox of the minority is that it is born from the majority—the majority’s orphan child, its unwanted bastard. Throughout history, in art as well as in politics, the minority has struggled for acceptance, which ultimately has meant to be allowed back in to the majority. They (the minority) want what the majority has and what they (the minority) are subsequently denied, and this is human nature, this craving for acceptance. Few want to be rejected. Few want to be outcast. The slave wants freedom. The woman the vote. The writer the publisher. The artist the gallery. Think of the Impressionists—rejected by the Academy they got together and put on their own shows. Think of the punk rockers. In a world of rock stars with castles and private jets they had three chords and borrowed (sometimes stolen) equipment, and with this they revolutionized music. And for a time these rebels exist in a charmed space defined by their own passion and conviction (and the rejection of the world at large). But then comes the ever-encroaching entropy of the majority. The majority may be stupid but it’s no dummy. Eventually it sees what’s going on in that seedy club, in that makeshift art exhibit, and then, like all powerful entities in charge, it wants a piece of the action, and it goes about it the only way it knows how, by acquiring as it would any other commodity. And the next thing you know there is elevator music of the Sex Pistols and Van Gogh coffee mugs. To return to Kierkegaard, as the majority subsumes the minority’s truth the truth must once again retreat to a new minority***3. Truth exists, but it prefers the demimonde to Fifth Avenue. It can’t survive for long as a commodity to be bought and sold. And this is the problem with art—the problem that has existed for millennia and exists to this day--the virus-like craving for acceptance from the world at large, felt on some level, at some time, by the artist. And nowhere is this paradox more striking than with what is now called “outsider art”. In order to be accepted something must first be defined. Critics of the day didn’t know what to make of the Impressionists’ splashes of color and seemingly improvised anti-compositions. But eventually a new generation was able to redefine Impressionism until it not only became accepted by the masses but its paintings today command some of the highest prices on the world market. The paradox itself is that this “definition” is the entrée to acceptance for the artist and her art, and in the process of being defined the work and the artist are thereby changed****4. Like trying to observe a molecule. Like Schrödinger’s cat. In the unopened box the cat—or in this case, the art--can exist in its charmed space. But once the box is opened... So we have “outsider art” at the fancy Manhattan gallery, in the glossy magazines, at the Venice Biennale, and the majority appears with checkbooks in hand.
The question that must be asked though, is how can a work of art be known, be recognized without this process taking place? Is it even possible? Is it not human nature to want to distinguish oneself, to stand out from the masses? The initials after one’s name, the resume, the awards, the renown, the bank account. Intrinsically these things have nothing to do with art, but we have spent centuries convincing ourselves that they in fact do, to the point that we cannot look at a piece of artwork without this somewhere in mind. Here’s how it works: There is the artist. There is her art. There is someone who sees the art. And this is where the trouble begins. How to look at art without comparison, without categorization, without the awful weight of the continuum of art and consequently art criticism and the opinions of society and the marketplace hanging above one’s head? How to see something for what it is, intrinsically, without rushing headlong to that next step, the Pandora’s Box of acceptance which leads to commodification? And the question this raises is what is art’s true purpose? Is it personal or is it cultural, or can the personal be cultural (which is a heterodox notion in an orthodox mindset). I think of what the Spanish call duende. In the Spanish arts, duende is difficult if not impossible to define, yet it is recognized instantly when it happens. A guitarist plays flamenco. Something about the musician, the audience, even the night itself suggests that something rare may occur. Something beyond all definitions. Something risen from within as well as without, coaxed into existence by the entirety of the scene as if from a sacred space. Something that won’t be repeated and whose lifespan might be but a moment. “Eso es!” people call out. “That is it!” And in that moment all who can hear and can see and can feel are forever transformed*****5.
*1. "The artist is the only genuine and profound revolutionist, in the following sense. The world always has, and always will, tend to substitute appearance for reality. The artist, being always alone, being heterodox when everyone else is orthodox, is the perpetual upsetter of conventional values, the restorer of the real... His function is to bring back humanity to the real." –-T.S. Eliot
**2. “Truth always rests with the minority, and the minority is always stronger than the majority because the minority is generally formed by those who really have an opinion, while the strength of a majority is illusory, formed by the gangs who have no opinion—and who therefore in the next instant (when it is evident that the minority is the stronger) assume its opinion, which then becomes that of the majority, i.e., becomes nonsense by having the whole train and numerus [big numbers] on its side, while Truth again reverts to a new minority” –from The Diary of SØren Kierkegaard (#128)
****4. “Throw away the lights, the definitions, and say of what you see in the dark that it is this or that it is that, but do not use the rotted names. Throw the lights away, nothing must stand between you and the shapes you take when the crust of shape has been destroyed. You as you are? You are yourself.”
–-from “The Man with the Blue Guitar” by Wallace Stevens
*****5. Since I heard faintly the voice of the first wild goose, upon mid-sky alone my thoughts have been fixed. –-Mitsune, Japanese ca. 900