The term outsider art works magic. It turns the stigma imposed by illiteracy, madness, crassness, and religious fervor into status and money. We venerate rather than dismiss it for its marginal qualities. But outsider art’s alchemical properties also raise questions: What makes a man in a tin-roofed hut sculpting devils an outsider and Joseph Cornell an insider? After all, some self-taught artists are as canny when it comes to promoting and selling their work as some Yale-trained painters.
In his wonderfully titled new book, The Colorful Apocalypse: Journeys in Outsider Art, Greg Bottoms, an English professor at the University of Vermont, does his best to capture the magic around the outsiderart phenomenon. His voyage down the visionary-art road—call it Highway 666— is less a comprehensive portrait of an aesthetic movement than a set of roadside Polaroids. Bottoms’s attraction to this material makes sense. Ever since Roger Cardinal first came up with the term outsider art, in 1972, arriving at it after his publisher told him that art brut sounded just a bit too French, the genre has become an industry. There are museums and galleries and an enormous yearly fair in Manhattan dedicated to it. The pull of outsider, “primitive,” “instinctive” art on Americans in particular is due to the way the movement gestures toward three very American historical impulses. These are the democratization of art production, the nostalgia for the antimodern, and the myth of discovery. Every story of an outsider artist rests on the last—a lone expert uncovering unknown or lost artists and in so doing retrieving an unself-conscious folk culture.
In Bottoms’s walk on the wild-eyed side, painters are still the flaming creatures of historical fantasy. The travelogue starts with the late, great outsider artist Reverend Howard Finster. You may be familiar with Finster’s painting on the cover of the Talking Heads’ Little Creatures (back when album art was itself iconography of a sort). Bottoms then spotlights other intuitive artists, among them William Thomas Thompson. Disabled and elderly, Thompson fits the outsider-artist profile—an inversion of the blue-chip art star—to a tee. In truth, Thompson is “as much intense businessman as outsider naïf” and relishes media attention—he happily attends the American Visionary Art Museum in Baltimore with the author. Bottoms sets up many such tantalizing scenes. We imagine we will soon enter the minds of people who are not fully in their minds. But that is not to be.
Bottoms isn’t terribly analytic about the artists. A reporter who is self-taught himself, he frequently goes meta about his process while profiling these men and women. “I’m still working it out for myself—what I’m doing here, hanging around, asking questions, tape recording, and now I’m standing near his fresh grave,” Bottoms writes after visiting Finster’s headstone with the artist’s daughter. It seems like an attempt at a form that matches that of some of the artists— lively and naive, it could be called outsider journalism. Bottoms’s subjects are rendered in bare-bones fashion. Perhaps he simply didn’t spend enough time with them. He is better, however, at building his own character (no surprise, given that he is the author of a memoir, Angelhead ). He writes, “In every account of a true outsider, I saw, I think, my brother and myself, the schizophrenic and the writer.” At times, his first-person-itis overwhelms his nominal subjects. “I know about visions,” he writes. “My schizophrenic brother . . . admitted to a homosexual rape and murder that he did not commit, and finally tried to murder my mother, father, and younger brother in an act of bungled arson.”
As Georg Simmel wrote a century ago, the social type of the outsider synthesizes “nearness and remoteness.” Given that the idea of the outsider employs a spatial concept, it’s crucial that Bottoms get close to these artists in order to understand them. Yet he doesn’t get near enough. Although we visit Norbert Kox—a bearded ex-biker, ex-alcoholic Christian visionary who also holds a degree in art from the University of Wisconsin, Green Bay—we don’t really know what makes him tick . . . or explode. Because Kox is a liminal figure, resting between outside and inside, he is the most interesting artist in the book, but Bottoms delivers mostly bland quotes, with little exegesis or description. I still want to know more about Kox’s life and what a character like him—a trained yet out-of-his-gourd Christian painter—means.
Loy Bowlin, The World’s Most Famous Entertainer the Original Rhinestone Cowboy Loy Allen Bowlin, 1977, color photograph in artist-made frame. From Sublime Spaces and Visionary Worlds: Built Environments of Vernacular Artists by Leslie Umberger
Bottoms isn’t very analytic about the category outsider artist, either. He leaves that job to his readers and to scholars like Gary Alan Fine and Colin Rhodes. Occasionally, though, he is critically astute about the intuitive artists. He wisely wonders at Peter Schjeldahl’s notion that intuitive artists are denizens of ahistorical time, writing that “on the graph of Western superstition and apocalyptic thinking,” self-taught artists are “perfectly historical.” But he stops with that thought. On finishing the book, I turned back to Greil Marcus’s The Old, Weird America: The World of Bob Dylan’s Basement Tapes (1997) for a more thorough and acute look. Marcus elegantly connects “outsider” rural balladeers of the early twentieth century and Bob Dylan, among others, creating a narrative that links two hundred years of American history through folk and self-taught music.
Bottoms’s book doesn’t go that far into the past, and it leaves off before the present and outsider art’s newest wrinkle, the digital-art amateur. I’ll wager that given the unknown number of iPhotographers and personalwebsite pastiche artists, the boundaries of the outsider artist, once identified with the antitechnological primitive, are about to change. With so many focused creative networks on the Web, bound together by a shared yet inexpert passion, the new outsider artists are hanging out online rather than on back roads. They are collaging angels, devils, little girls, speckled birds, and apocalyptic bodies, using Photoshop rather than pencil and glue, and they are waiting to be discovered.
Alissa Quart is the author of Hothouse Kids: How the Pressure to Succeed Threatens Childhood, just out in paperback from Penguin, and Branded: The Buying and Selling of Teenagers (Basic Books, 2003). She is at work on a book about American subcultures.