American Folk Art Museum/Princeton University Press, 111 pp., $29.95
The artwork of men and women who spent much of their lives in mental institutions, or living isolated and shut away at the fringes of society, has become increasingly visible in the last few decades, owing in part to the influence of conceptual art. Put most simply, conceptual art, which has conditioned so much of how we now look and think in galleries and museums, is about taking in a given artwork in two ways simultaneously: as an entity in itself and as a symbol of its maker’s intentions. Suggesting that the “real” art remains in its maker’s mind, and that what we see before us is a remnant of a thought process, conceptual art is in some measure about disembodiment and ghost-liness. And it may have helped set the stage for our appreciating the drawings, paintings, or sculptural objects—whether showing worlds full of incongruously related figures, or strange patterns of words and numbers—by people whose full conscious awareness of what they were doing will remain forever mysterious.
For when we look at the art of someone who was clinically labeled schizophrenic, or who may not have been able to say more than a word or two about the meaning of that art, we are immediately plunged into an internal—a conceptual art—debate. We find ourselves uncertain about how seriously to believe in a drawing, say, made by someone who presumably both felt compelled to make it and in some light was not responsible for it. Knowing that it is a product of a perhaps helpless situation, we take an emotional step backward from it. We can’t help but become engaged in the personal dilemma of its creator. And our uncertainty about the way to receive the piece, which tends to become an unresolvable inner debate on how to think of its qualities in relation to those of related work by sane, socially adjusted professional artists, can become our most lasting experience of it.
But then, as befitting the double-sided nature of art made by people in dire circumstances, such work has been increasingly seen in galleries and art fairs for a reason that is completely at odds with conceptual art. The often disorienting drawings or sculptural pieces by inmates of asylums or by people who may have existed for years by themselves, in mental spheres of their own making, have been stimulating to a growing number of artists, dealers, and collectors because they helped fill a void created by conceptual art, which too often left viewers looking, in galleries, at framed written proposals for projects, say, or at rows of snapshots of some “action” the artist had once performed. By the early Seventies, the art world had seemingly been taken over by conceptual projects and by the related and equally potent, and stripped-down, Minimalist sculptures or objects of Judd, Flavin, LeWitt. In such terrain, which could leave viewers hungry for pictorial images, the often puzzling and often dazzlingly complex pieces made by men …