For some time, I’ve been led by my intuition that there’s connective tissue between those variable animals known as socially-engaged art and “folk,” or self-taught, art.

Yes, you read that right: a connection between socially-engaged art and self-taught art. Let me explain.

First, let me enunciate that structurally, critically, we’re talking about two very different spheres in art. That sprawling field of “relational” and DIY practices, covering a diverse range of projects from recycling programs, to dance parties, workshops, communal meals, publishing initiatives, and more is often characterized by a blurring of social art and social activism, and maintains participation, or collaboration, at its core. Self-taught, or as it’s commonly promoted in its contemporary form, “Outsider Art,” is a loose genre of vastly diverse, non-academic work marked by its visionary, intuitive, and informal qualities, and often framed in terms of biography – namely issues of class, psychology, and other personal circumstances not typically used in the definition of art categories. However, what their differences in appearance belie is, what I’m coming to understand, a shared dialogical trajectory.

Professionally, I have been riding the line between the contemporary and self-taught art worlds for the better part of a decade, and with the recent critical turn toward the social function in art in the past few years, I’ve been taking some mental notes on how and where I see this practice bumping up against the work of so-called self-taught artists beyond the way the art looks, and into a consideration of how it functions.

Most savvy artworlders may be aware that the self-taught art conversation in North America (which runs roughly concurrent to, but is distinguished from, the Art Brut cannon of Jean Dubuffet in Europe) developed out of the critical activities of the early American folk art discourse. But what may be less apparent is that folk art is in fact technically distinct from the “Outsider” cannon of today. Connoting the crafts and utilitarian objects particular to distinct, and in some sense isolated societies, the term “folk art” has seen a gradual and convenient adaptation from its original meaning – tied to distinct geographical and traditional object makers – to a more loosely defined idea of vernacular and self-taught practices, including “Outsider Art,” and is, as I am proposing also relative to the idea of populist and ad hoc practices that we see aligned with anti-market, anti-aesthetic socially-engaged projects.

Lonnie Holley

Lonnie Holley in Driveway, 1997. Photo by: Elijah Gowin

Of course, self-taught art exists on a spectrum of sorts, with certain models serving as better examples than others for my agenda. In this way, builders of site-specific art environments are perhaps the best examples when it comes to contemporary iterations of self-taught art work. Take, for one, Lonnie Holley’s extensive work concerning community, ancestry, and environmental responsibility through his ever-changing environment of “junk art” on his property in Harpersville, Alabama. His practice is community-based, dialogical, and proposes a model of action through the building of creative communities, and as such could be compared to many of the projects in Creative Time’s Living as Form project.

By looking towards the everyday, localized concerns of “the folks,” keeping the materiality of form as secondary to function, and integrating ideas from beyond the self-referential sphere of the artworld, self-taught and social art have both become symptomatic of larger social and cultural currents felt by their makers. Further, both propose functions for their work beyond that of typical aesthetic object-hood for expanded usage and purpose, which also bears on the role of the artist in both genres as interlocutors, storytellers, organizers of collective experience, or more interestingly, not exclusively as artists – but as makers, builders, inventors, and producers. Could socially-engaged art be cast as a kind of folk revival? Maybe.

I was recently asked to organize an exhibition for the Boston Center for the Arts about these emerging intersections, and eagerly accepted the challenge to articulate my thoughts in this format. While the particularities of the project are still developing, I’m certain that it will involve the work of both contemporary and so-called self-taught artists and will completely ignore those categorical boundaries. As critic Jerry Saltz recently opined in a New York Magazine piece, it’s time to drop the dusty insider/outsider designations. We’re so over it.

Konbit Shelter

Art by Swoon and KT Tierney at the Outsider Art Fair. Photo by: Aaron Colussi

So, you can imagine my nerdy delight when I came across The Konbit Shelter Project at the Outsider Art Fair last month. The Konbit Shelter (brainchild of the artist Swoon) is “a sustainable building project with the objective of sharing knowledge and resources through the creation of homes and community spaces in post earthquake Haiti.” My first thought was: What are these guys doing at the Outsider Art Fair? This venue for artwork that’s been historically marginalized waitlisted for canonical inclusion? They’re not “outsiders” by any stretch of the imagination. As it turns out, their booth space was donated by the fair as an opportunity to fundraise for their work in Haiti. Certainly, they have no interest in taking on the “Outsider” moniker, or jockeying for a position in the erstwhile “field” of self-taught art. Their presence at the fair was mainly to cultivate new awareness and support, but nonetheless a part of me felt a twinkle of satisfaction. It meant that maybe I wasn’t imagining things. That maybe someone else was also recognizing the shared ethos between these two worlds. And, for me what was even more remarkable about this inclusion was the thought that the market for self-taught art might have something to offer the practices of contemporary artists. Now there’s a novel concept.

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