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Insider vs. Outsider Art

January 28, 2013 | by Faber Social

Tags: Art, Ben Street

Ben Street is an art historian, lecturer, museum educator, writer and curator. He is the co-director of the Sluice Art Fair, writes regular pieces on contemporary art for Art Review, and has written numerous catalogue essays for museums and galleries in Vienna, Istanbul, Antwerp, Dublin and New York.

Ahead of this week’s alcohol-themed Faber Social, which has as its centrepiece a screening of Maxy Bianco’s documentary on The Can House, Ben puts forward the case that ‘outsider’ art – often derided and seen as ‘lesser’ than gallery-fixated ‘insider’ art – is just as significant and worthy of our attention.

Ben Street writes …

It’s been said that the distinction between ‘insider’ and ‘outsider’ art – between, let’s say, the sort of art you might see on the walls or floors of a white-walled, grey-floored gallery space, and the sort you might see decorating the exterior of a suburban house, or encrusted on a dashboard – is a difference of cultures. The ‘insider’ (trained, therefore knowing) makes work that anticipates acceptance through combinations of pre-existing ideas or images: the world knows what it is about to receive. The ‘outsider’ (untrained, therefore guileless) makes work for ‘a culture of one’, answering to internal, not external, imperatives. Discard the niceties of location, audience and intent, though – treat the work, that is, as a thing in the world – and these easy binaries fall away.

When Surrealist artists made the pilgrimage to the postman Ferdinand Cheval’s DIY palace in Hauterives, a small village far away from the Parisian nucleus, their astonishment was born, in part, of insecurity: how could an untrained man (not even an ‘artist’, by his or anyone’s reckoning) have created, alone, a masterpiece of avant-garde architecture? Everything they sweated to induce in their art – symbolic density, formal spontaneity, psychological earnestness – seemed to spring, unprompted, from this curious postman’s simple act of collecting and organising discarded objects found by the side of the road.

So, too, with The Can House, a council house in Hartlepool covered in complex patterns of thousands of emptied Foster’s beer cans. The formal obsessiveness, fascination with the discarded, wry humour and implicit social critique of the project resonate, like an admonishment, in the current art context of mannerist self-absorption and market dominance. The Can House, like Cheval’s Ideal Palace before it, provides a corrective to the current role of artistic practice in the wider society: this thing does what art was always meant to do, and, like the Surrealists before us, their monocles popping out in embarrassed surprise, we know it when we see it.

— Ben Street, 25th January 2012