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Got to Be Real

Inside the art world's authenticity fetish

This January, over sixty-five exhibitors participated in the twenty-seventh annual Outsider Art Fair in Chelsea, Manhattan. The artists on view included Maccarone gallery’s Jim Carrey, who, as a celebrity and straight white man, seems outside of very little. Technically, to be an outsider artist is to be self-taught (I guess “Self-Taught Art Fair” doesn’t have the same ring to it), but outsider art encompasses anyone who is outside the art establishment (or society more broadly)—artists with disabilities, folk artists, impoverished artists, and those on the autism spectrum or with developmental disabilities.

While the term “Outsider Art” was first used by an art critic in 1972, the concept has roots in Art Brut. In 1922, the German psychiatrist Hans Prinzhorn published an analysis of art created by psychiatric patients across Europe called Bildnerei der Geisteskranken (or Artistry of the Mentally Ill). It caught the attention of French artist Jean Dubuffet, who believed this kind of art to be a gateway to visualizing the psyche, one that would make an impact on the world at large. Dubuffet collected work made by children, impoverished, and mentally ill artists himself, and he described what he called Art Brut as work made spontaneously and from intense solitude, with disregard for competition or the market. In comparison, Dubuffet wrote, “cultural art,” or high art, “appears to be the game of a futile society, a fallacious parade.” By Dubuffet’s measure, artists can remain “outsiders” despite achieving celebrated status—like Henry Darger, who came to prominence some thirty years after his death, or even the explosively famous Yayoi Kusama, who has lived at the Seiwa Hospital for the Mentally Ill in Tokyo for forty-two years and says that “the only method I have found that relieves my illness is to keep creating art.”

The art world needs outsiders more than they need the art world.

The value of outsider art to the art world lies less in its formal qualities than in the narrative surrounding its artists. Outsider artists can make for easy-to-manage art stars: they’re often shy or indisposed, dead or reclusive. (One recent press release compared an artist to Forrest Gump.) Working artists, of course, deserve to be paid, but funneling works by outsider artists into a notoriously inflated market can feel disingenuous and exploitative. An entire fair dedicated to doing so appears to be precisely the “game of a futile society” that Dubuffet disdained.

The fact is that both the term and idea of an outsider artist are now outmoded. The Outsider Art Fair is really an ouroboros; measuring untrained artists against “insider” artists can indirectly inflate the value of said “insider” art, adding a basement level to the art market in order to raise its ceiling. Retrofitting outsider artists into the commercialized art world is less a matter of revising monolithic art history than plain opportunism. What the Outsider Art Fair reveals more than anything is an expensive fetish for authenticity. The art world needs outsiders more than they need the art world.

The myth of bohemia, of course, still looms large in the art world. The trope of the starving artist has been with us since at least the mid-nineteenth century, plucked from the 1851 novel (and later Puccini opera) Scenes de la Vie Boheme. That’s also where the term haute boheme, which roughly translates to “high bohemian,” comes from; it refers to a bohemian who is nonetheless privileged or at least has money to burn, and it remains an apt way to describe someone who falsifies poverty through aesthetics in order to lend themselves cultural cachet. It also points to the fact that people in artistic circles have been faking bohemian affect for more than 150 years. Often the performance is done poorly (distressed denim and those dirty Gucci sneakers); other times, it’s achieved through a lie by omission. Contemporary haute bohemes might call themselves “poor” when they mean “broke.” Consider it a class grift.

This isn’t to say that there aren’t artists who are really struggling. Faced with an untenable housing market and pervasive wage stagnation, the American middle-class economic bracket has stretched so thin so as to nearly disappear. It’s close to impossible for many to live without debt or external financial help now, let alone to avoid working themselves to death, and pursuing a career as an artist has become particularly nonviable. Survey Report: A study on the financial state of visual artists today, conducted by The Creative Independent in 2018, found that the median income of surveyed artists was between $20,000 a $30,000 a year, while 14 percent made between $10,000 and $20,000, and 21 percent were pulling in between $0 and $10,000—in comparison to the national median net compensation of $31,561 a year. This also means that as many as 35 percent of the visual artists in the study, unless they supplemented their art practice with other work or were part of a household with higher earners, were living below the federal poverty level. Meanwhile, the art industry in America generates $763.6 billion per year. And as long as the art world’s classist idea of “authenticity” is defined by people who don’t know what deprivation really is, it will always be performed improperly.

In 2017, Berlin-based Israeli-American artist Omer Fast transformed part of James Cohan gallery, located in New York’s Chinatown, to resemble a derelict shop front. He claimed its aesthetic was meant to evoke an “eclectic” Chinatown waiting room before it was swept away on the latest wave of gentrification. The installation was met with community vehemence and swiftly protested by groups like the Chinatown Art Brigade (CAB), who wrote that Fast’s “choice of visual signifiers is a racist aggression towards the community of Chinatown that James Cohan Gallery is currently gentrifying,” one that “reifies racist narratives of uncleanliness, otherness, and blight that have historically been projected onto Chinatown.” For Fast and by extension James Cohan to equate an entire community with a set of slipshod aesthetics proved not only problematic but inarticulate. It also glossed over the material role James Cohan itself was playing in destroying the very authenticity Fast sought to emulate.

Deprivation aesthetics commodify a financial reality that is as far from the highest rung of the art world as possible.

Another Chinatown-based gallery, Tramps, whose logo contains a yin-yang symbol, took over a handful of shops on the second floor of a Chinatown mall in early 2017. Tramps was criticized by writers Jamie Chan and Leah Pires in a review of the German artist Kai Althoff’s recent exhibition for 4Columns. In it, the writers describe the gallery and Althoff’s installation, which was created specifically for its location and featured loosely attached tarps, cardboard flooring, and hills of insulation which were not to be touched. Other spaces were “left seemingly as they were by ex-tenants, with wires dangling and slatted walls partially painted.” Again, like the debacle at James Cohan, what was deemed authentically Chinatown was deprivation—even if the aesthetic had to be deliberately achieved. The results in both cases were teenage in their ambition to make alienation glamorous. When monied galleries disguise their spaces as upstart or DIY, it creates an immense amount of cognitive dissonance for those who have no other option than to be scrappy.

And much as gallerists might protest, the art world’s quest for authenticity has real consequences for those caught in the crossfire. As a capitalist project, the art market inevitably converges, then colludes, with gentrification while seeking brick and mortar space to hang its product. “Old buildings and old neighborhoods are ‘authentic’ in a way that new construction and new communities are not,” wrote Sharon Zukin in her 1982 study on artists and gentrification in SoHo, Loft Living. “They have an identity that comes from years of continuous use, and an individuality that creates a sense of ‘place’ instead of ‘space’ . . . Because they are here today and tomorrow, they provide landmarks for the mind as well as the senses.”

Square-slinging Minimalist artist Donald Judd and his sprawling, five-story building 101 Spring Street, which is now an exhibition space, provide a case study for the mostly disappeared convention of the artist’s loft in a blighted urban environment. Not only were industry and its workers removed from SoHo in a rapid cycle of redevelopment soon after Judd bought the building in 1968, but other nearby loft residents—squatting or starving artists (that is to say, real bohemes)—were also priced out in the span of thirty years. As Madeleine Schwartz writes in Dissent: “Judd, the king of postindustrial art, had created a prototype for the aesthetics of gentrification.” What was once a means to survive is simply low overhead for the wealthy. Now model Emily Ratajkowski and her millionaire filmmaker husband abuse the rent control measures meant for artists in more dire financial straits to live in their NoHo loft rent-free, and a handful of mid-sized galleries—having already fled SoHo for Chelsea—recently announced they’re decamping to Tribeca.

Deprivation aesthetics commodify a financial reality that is as far from the highest rung of the art world as possible, and gallerists and dealers’ desperate pursuit of them is a case of mistaking someone’s circumstances for their project. The pose of authenticity embodied by the Outsider Art Fair and galleries like Tramps frames culture as a form of symbolic capital, with art as its primary commodity. Parading as an alternative space while exhibiting paintings with many-digit price tags not out of necessity, but in order to double down on cultural cachet, is at best an odd strategy, and at worst a disingenuous platform to cool-hunt while accumulating wealth on the cheap.

The reality is that most outsiders don’t choose to be outside; they’re put there through a process of othering. Institutional racism, the prohibitive cost of an arts education, immigration status, disability, the art world’s infrastructural priorities—all of this affects someone’s ability to become an artist and the recognition their art will receive. Class privilege, whether it comes from inherited wealth, avoiding student debt, or knowing the right people, continues to keep different perspectives from entering the art world. If this weren’t the case, people wouldn’t need to aestheticize poverty to secure art world clout or conflate deprivation with “coolness” in the first place. Woe to those who act like outsiders while calling shots from the inside.