Tuesday, December 9, 2008

The American Visionary Art Museum

I probably shouldn't be allowed to write about the AVAM - in fact, I probably shouldn't be allowed to mention "Baltimore" in the same sentence as "art" -without having seen a couple of John Waters movies. And I haven't seen any. So, you know, make of this what you will.

Lemme say right up front that I really enjoyed this museum. I dug things like the big falling angel sculpture in the main building, the glass encrusted hearse in the barn, the photos of crop circles, the kinetic sculpture of the guy at his desk... (Wish I'd made notes on the names of the artists and titles of the pieces. Wasn't really thinking about blogging that day.)

That said, I found that my reaction to it has a lot in common with how I feel when I listen to David Byrne - (probably not) coincidentally, someone else who grew up partly in Maryland and then went elsewhere.

I.e., I usually really enjoy his music, but as often as not there's something in the way he sings, if not his lyrics, that tells me he's embarrassed about the music (if he's in his American Naive mode) or embarrassed in the face of the music (if he's in his World Music mode). And I can identify - boyoboy can I identify - but at the same time, sometimes you just want him to shaddup and let the music be what it is. The best example of David Byrne being David Byrne is Rei Momo, an album with some real nice Latin music, real hot stuff, and Byrne playing Self-Conscious White Guy on top of it all. There's art in the tension that creates, of course - hell, I like the album - but sometimes you just want to enjoy the music without the precious ironic positioning. That's when I reach for my revolver.

So: the American Visionary Art Museum. Which is to say, a big three-building museum devoted to what seems still to be known to most as outsider art, but which the AVAM prefers to describe as visionary. There's the Byrne effect, positioning the art for us a little too forcefully. Like, isn't there a lot of art that could deservingly be called visionary, but not outsider? That doesn't fall under the AVAM's brief?

Similarly, you read the wall texts (I spend far too much time in museums reading wall texts, I know), and they spend all this space talking about the biographies of the artists, always emphasizing the same things. It ends up constructing this sort of hierarchy of outsiderness: you know, like, the more time the artist has spent in a mental hospital, the more we're supposed to respect the art. Mmm. I understand the message: you don't have to go to the Right Art School and get your stuff displayed in a Hoity-Toity Soho Gallery to be an artist worth looking at. But overturning the hierarchy isn't destroying it. Reverse elitism is still elitism.

The thing is, the stuff on display doesn't need all this. There's some really cool stuff in there. That is, stuff that satisfies any definition of Art you'd care to give. My definition of art is pretty all-inclusive, but even by a narrower definition: high degree of craftsmanship, high degree of thought, lots of Meaning, challenging subject matter, tantalizing intertextuality, startling imagery, etc. All the hallmarks of Art. Walks like a duck, quacks like a duck.

Did somebody step on a duck?


Beverly Kaye Gallery said...

Step away from the wall text. You can tell yourself about what it is you're seeing and feeling. If, and only if you want to delve further into understanding the work and/or the artist, then read away. Work done by an artist while mentally stable is different from the work done by the same person if he or she is suffering from delusions, hearing voices, or fill in the blanks. I step into a gallery, spot the first piece that catches my eye and go to it, absorb it, maybe read about it and then walk away. There's no rule that you have to see it all or read it all. But, you know that, I know you do!

Tanuki said...

Thanks for the comment! Actually, I did step away after a while - that's always good advice - and it greatly enhanced my enjoyment of the museum. But I also enjoy trying to understand museums as unified statements, and the AVAM in particular begs to be taken as one, and I guess that's what this post was mainly about.

Your point about the differences in at made by people who are mentally stable versus art made by those same people at other times is well taken, and no doubt that's what a lot of people find interesting about so-called visionary art. But what I found myself thinking at the AVAM was that there are also artists within the canon who worked under various types of mental disturbance, sometimes biological/psychological and sometimes chemical. Van Gogh comes to mind, and while you can certainly find commentary on Van Gogh that emphasizes his state of mind, exhibitions of his work usually give you space to appreciate the work for what it is, rather than insisting you view it through the lens of his supposed mental state.

I guess in the end I find the mental-state reading reductive. Van Gogh's art speaks for itself, and when you start explaining it as the product of his mental state, or his faulty eyesight, the art is transformed into a mere symptom.

The AVAM tries to turn this inside out by valorizing art that is produced from "visionary" mental states, but again, reversing the hierarchy is not destroying the hierarchy. I don't think Van Gogh's mental condition, whatever it may have been, lessens the artistic value of his work, but I also don't think it lends his art any special authority. But special authority due to mental state, visitation by aliens, or lack of training is precisely what AVAM claims for its artists. And in the end, that's another kind of elitism, it seems to me.