Tag Archives: ethics

Open Mind – Outsider Art

For those of you coming to the museum this spring we’ve got an interesting exhibit on deck. It’s a photography show, the art of Vivian Maier. I’m not well versed enough in photography to be able to speak to this work in a more meaningful way than Glenbow has already used… here’s what our team has to say about it:

“Vivian Maier’s life has proven to be one of the most enduring and fascinating art world narratives of the last decade. The story of this Chicago-based nanny who pursued photography in her spare time inspired an Oscar-nominated documentary film and several books. Through her furtive pastime, Maier eventually amassed more than 2,000 rolls of film, 3,000 prints and more than 120,000 negatives, which she shared with virtually no one in her lifetime.”

I’ll admit, I’m not particularly interested in the content of this show (she says before it opens, then usually falls in love). BUT… I am absolutely fascinated with the legal and ethical complexities of outsider art - particularly pieces where the maker has died.

For me, Maier’s work implies an important question – what is art?

While she was alive, most of Maier’s photographs were undeveloped. Not much is known about her, but there are a few important details that can help us approach thinking about her work. It seems that she was not well resourced. Shortly before she passed away, she was depending on the help of the now-grown children she once looked after, for financial support. Those who she worked for also suggest that she was an extreme collector, sometimes in possession of stacks and stacks of newspapers (I’m not sure how to take this, doesn’t it make her sound like an archetypical hoarder? Almost too perfectly so). Likewise, her previous employers and their networks give conflicting accounts of her personality – some indicate she was like a “real life Mary Poppins” while others say she was frightening and abusive. The case I’m trying to make here is that she was vulnerable in complex ways, and I wonder if her photographs should be considered “art” or an expression of her struggles. To put it another way, I wonder about her intention.

What does it mean to make art? Is it a universal human expression? Or a western construct with particular modalities and frameworks? Does the maker’s intention matter?

Another person who has been made into an outsider artist posthumously is Henry Darger. His vulnerability was much less opaque, raised in an institution, escaped at sixteen, living on the verge of abject poverty, and attending Catholic mass up to five times daily, Darger clearly lived with hardship. Upon his death, his landlords discovered his work: 15 145 page volumes of a piece entitled The Story of the Vivian Girls, in What Is Known as the Realms of the Unreal, of the Glandeco-Angelinian War Storm, Caused by the Child Slave Rebellion, along with hundreds of illustrations in watercolor collage. They had his entire apartment preserved, and unbeknownst to him, Darger has become one of America’s most important outsider artists.

Darger’s life in particular gives me pause – what right have we to his work? Neither he, not Maier seemed to have intention to share their productivity with the world. Was this because they didn’t have access to art world connections? Because they were too impoverished to spare resources towards promotion? Because they lacked self-confidence that their work would be valued or understood? Or because they weren’t making art, they were in fact making something else. What if that something else was deeply personal? What if they never intended to share it (indeed, they clearly didn’t).

I have debated and discussed the ethical concerns I have with this type of outsider art in a sort of green eggs and ham style for many years now, and not come to many solid conclusions.  Much greater minds than mine have puzzled over the financial questions of this work, which adds still more layers of complexity to consideration. In the case of Meier, possession of the negative isn’t the same as holding copyright, and courts have long discussed who owns the rights to share and sell her work.

One thing I do know: I and many others have gotten a lot of enjoyment from outsider art (perhaps not to the degree that John Maloof, the primary dealer of Maier’s works who purchased them at auction for a pittance, does). Both of them have inspired several films. Darger’s work is set to music by the band Vivian Girls, named for his central protagonists, and can be seen in video games, comic books, literature, and poetry. In the spring, I imagine many Calgarians will benefit from Maier’s work as well, maybe finding beauty, inspiration, or self reflection in the photographs.

As I’m looking, I’ll wonder whether our enjoyment is justification for what I think, is probably, a kind of theft. She didn’t share this with the world, it was taken, without her permission, and shared. But I’ll also wonder whether the dead should have more rights than the living, and whether maybe she would have shared it if she had the chance.

You might be wondering if it’s appropriate of me to be asking these questions, considering my place at the museum. I think asking questions like this about art makes our experiences with it more rich. I think we owe it to our mission as museums to ask important questions, and to engage ourselves fully and complexly while we look. To enjoy, and to ask ourselves about our enjoyment, what allows us to experience it? What privileges, what paradigms, what laws, what actions… So far from dreading the arrival of this new exhibit which stirs complex feelings in me  - I can’t wait till it’s here.

 

“Honoring who we are” is rooted in honesty

I recently read an article about a project at the Brooklyn Museum where folks who have been charged with a minor offense can avoid jail or court appearance by participating in an art empathy program.

I’m not sure what the program entails, but looking at the art they use, I can begin to imagine. In the museum, we often talk about how artifacts & art tell stories. We love to tell the ones that show the beauty of humanity, and the thoughtfulness and care that an artist puts in to their work.

But those artifacts often tell hard stories too. Sad ones about challenging personal experiences, or about the systemic hardships that whole groups of people face. We wouldn’t have such beautiful Yoruba works in the west Africa gallery without the history of the Atlantic Slave Trade. The beauty of the rocks and minerals stand in contrast to the dark scars on the land that mining causes. Our Indigenous collections hold legacies of theft and genocide.

Each of these stories are complex, when we use the word story it’s a convenient shorthand, but if you’re thinking of children’s stories that’s not what I mean. In these stories, there are no neat categories, no “good characters” and “bad characters” – although there are plenty of humans, more than humans, and other beings too.  In the modern world with so many demands on our time and attention it feels (to me at least) that binary thinking provides some easy answers to challenging questions. Yet this is the kind of thinking that leads to seeing “ourselves” and “the other” everywhere we look. It’s the kind of thinking that encourages judgement instead of compassion. It’s the kind of thinking that doesn’t allow time to really consider all the stories.

If we want to really understand, we need to take honest looks at the stories in these artifacts, and sometimes that requires a lot of courage. We might discover things about our past, or even our present that make us uncomfortable. We may see reflections of our legacy that we don’t recognize ourselves within. We might have to grapple with new ways of thinking about things we thought we knew. All of this is hard work.

This is the kind of work that it seems to me this program at the Brooklyn Museum is doing: having a close look at a work, and reflecting on what it says about society, our world, and ourselves. Their work shows that this type of engagement can be really productive – and by extension, that museums that help us think in new ways can be really productive. When I’m working in the museum, I’m always working at this. To try and help guests and students see the stories that are there with a compassion that helps us all exist in kinder ways. Sometimes this means working through some challenging ideas, but I believe as long as we’re working on them together, we’ll get somewhere new, and hopefully better.

When you come to the museum, expect honesty, and bring your courage (too). It’ll be beautiful, it’ll be surprising, it’ll be hard, but it’ll be worth it.