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Everyday Genius: Self-Taught Art and the Culture of Authenticity

Everyday Genius: Self-Taught Art and the Culture of Authenticity

by Gary Alan Fine

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From Henry Darger's elaborate paintings of young girls caught in a vicious war to the sacred art of the Reverend Howard Finster, the work of outsider artists has achieved unique status in the art world. Celebrated for their lack of traditional training and their position on the fringes of society, outsider artists nonetheless participate in a traditional network of


From Henry Darger's elaborate paintings of young girls caught in a vicious war to the sacred art of the Reverend Howard Finster, the work of outsider artists has achieved unique status in the art world. Celebrated for their lack of traditional training and their position on the fringes of society, outsider artists nonetheless participate in a traditional network of value, status, and money. After spending years immersed in the world of self-taught artists, Gary Alan Fine presents Everyday Genius, one of the most insightful and comprehensive examinations of this network and how it confers artistic value.

Fine considers the differences among folk art, outsider art, and self-taught art, explaining the economics of this distinctive art market and exploring the dimensions of its artistic production and distribution. Interviewing dealers, collectors, curators, and critics and venturing into the backwoods and inner-city homes of numerous self-taught artists, Fine describes how authenticity is central to the system in which artists—often poor, elderly, members of a minority group, or mentally ill—are seen as having an unfettered form of expression highly valued in the art world. Respected dealers, he shows, have a hand in burnishing biographies of the artists, and both dealers and collectors trade in identities as much as objects.

Revealing the inner workings of an elaborate and prestigious world in which money, personalities, and values affect one another, Fine speaks eloquently to both experts and general readers, and provides rare access to a world of creative invention-both by self-taught artists and by those who profit from their work.

“Indispensable for an understanding of this world and its workings. . . . Fine’s book is not an attack on the Outsider Art phenomenon. But it is masterful in its anatomization of some of its contradictions, conflicts, pressures, and absurdities.”—Eric Gibson, Washington Times

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CHOICE Outstanding Academic Title for 2006

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University of Chicago Press
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everyday genius
Self-Taught Art and the Culture of Authenticity

By Gary Alan Fine
The University of Chicago Press
Copyright © 2004 The University of Chicago
All right reserved.

ISBN: 978-0-226-24950-6

Chapter One
creating boundaries

A sticky Georgia afternoon in August can feel like Hell. Yet on the third weekend of that torrid month hordes of collectors and dealers of self-taught art gather in a modest exhibit hall in the Atlanta suburbs to buy, sell, and socialize. A smattering of "folk artists" joins them. As the dominant city in the Southeast, Atlanta feels a proprietary relationship to all things southern. "Hotlanta" mediates New York style with that of its red clay hamlets. The explosion of interest in self-taught art-often called simply folk art or more formally southern contemporary folk art-has been a boon for collectors. Dealers have established themselves, sometimes precariously, in metropolitan Atlanta and in the mountains of north Georgia, where many Atlantans escape from the heat.

The growth of a market in self-taught art led a former Cliff Notes salesman, Steve Slotin, to organize a gathering of dealers in 1994 for what he labeled Folk Fest. The show has grown in popularity over the years, attracting many Atlantans and collectors from other parts of the nation. While the show lacks the cachet of the Outsider Art Fair, held in New York's SoHo at the end of January, some seventy dealers and some ten thousand collectors attend. The success of the show has led a Johnson City, Tennessee, auctioneer, Kimball Sterling, to organize his own show in a nearby hotel. The Folkee Showee he calls it, and he sponsors an auction that same weekend of works both fine and whimsical, dear and cheap. While Atlantans flock to Folk Fest, it is the Kimball Sterling auction that attracts out-of-town collectors from Louisiana, Chicago, and New York. (In recent years the show and auction have not been held.)

Friday afternoon is a still, steaming southern day, drenched in humidity. Many of the more active collectors attend Slotin's opening cocktail party prior to the Sterling auction. No one attends for the modest hors d'oeuvres and cheap wine, but to see what dealers are offering and to meet old friends, including those self-taught artists who accepted Slotin's invitation. This year eight artists attend, including R. A. Miller, the elderly, friendly, white Gainesville, Georgia, creator of whirligigs and metal cutouts.

Miller is known for his prices; he doesn't sell his work for over $25 and, thus, a trip to Gainesville is one of the first visits of novice collectors. His pricing has implications for dealers, the better of whom stay away from Miller's work because of the lack of profits (and, some argue, the lack of sophistication in the work). His work is as likely to be displayed in gift shops as in art galleries. Many collectors are fond of Miller and pay court at his folding chair, though as usual he has little to say about his artistic style, talking instead about his political complaints. However, many collectors are more interested in accounts of his disorganized home life, demonstrating that this southerner is "real." Miller is an "authentic outsider."

Also present is the African American Miami artist Purvis Young, driven to Atlanta by his white friend and dealer Jimmy Hedges of Chattanooga. Young has created some profoundly beautiful, powerful, and political works, depicting the gritty, if colorful, poverty of minority communities in Miami. Some of his works sell for several thousand dollars. At this show, he spends his time rapidly drawing on a sketchpad, occasionally filling the requests of collectors; these drawings take minutes, and sell for $100. Although friendly, Young doesn't have much to say, leading some critics to contend that he has no place being placed on "display" at the event. Do "real" artists draw squiggles on request? Some find such comments racist, but his presence seems racist to others. In this white-dominated world, with many uneducated black artists, the claim of racial insensitivity is never far from the surface.

As collectors greet artists, they are also catching up with dealers and fellow enthusiasts, trading gossip, and sharing, perhaps competitively, what they have recently added to their collections and at what price. Given that many of the artists are elderly, the gossip often turns to necrology. Each year several prominent artists die, and some wonder whether artists of comparable promise and ability will replace them. What will be the effects of advances in psychopharmacology on the "art of the insane"? Will increased education, especially art education, decimate the field? Some even joke that they need to be thankful for cutbacks in arts education! Excitement at new "discoveries" is matched by a concern for the future. Along with discussions of artists, these men and women discuss prices. Auction results are assessed with great care, even by those who claim that their collections are not investments, as an increase in price validates their aesthetic judgment while at the same time may place works out of their price range. Much speculation occurs about the prices at tonight's auction.

As usual, the quality of the 249 auctioned lots varies. Many of the "more serious" (better) works are sold at Sotheby's Folk Art auction in January in New York, but agreement exists that there are some desirable works from a prominent collector who has decided to change his collecting focus, and other important works from a couple who have recently retired. The value of the items is indicated by the presence of a few dealers who hope to purchase work to resell.

As always, Kimball Sterling provides a nice spread, feeling that his culinary hospitality puts people into a "bidding mood." Fried chicken, barbecue, corn, and peach cobbler make this seem like a Georgia picnic. Much joking and anticipation is evident. Phones and computers have been set up for bidders who are not present, perhaps valuing their privacy.

Kimball is a big, bluff, entertaining man who understands his audience and teases them about their interests. If he can make the auction a party, he will increase his revenues. As the auction begins, Kimball brims with jokes and the audience occasionally jokes back. As usual, the best work is in the middle of the auction. The audience "warms up" by bidding on minor and unknown work, and some pieces actually receive no bids. At first, most lots sell for under their lowest estimate, the price that Kimball provides to guide novices that is supposed to represent the "reasonable" range for the work, although there is doubt about some of his claims. The bidding seems anemic, and Kimball seems nervous. Perhaps this auction will be a loss, both financial and to his reputation.

However, about an hour into the four-hour auction, bidding picks up. Several paintings on corrugated tin by the late artist Sam Doyle from St. Helena, one of the sea islands of South Carolina, bring strong bidding from the audience and several phone bidders. Several pieces sell for well over $10,000 and indicate that Doyle's work is "hot." Bids are also strong on the work of Clementine Hunter, who, as an elderly black women living on a plantation in Louisiana painted colorful pictures of plantation life, and bids are good for the earlier, larger work of the Reverend Howard Finster, an elderly white preacher from Summerville, Georgia, who claims to have been instructed by God to paint. Finster became something of a national celebrity, painting a rockalbum cover for the Talking Heads and appearing on the Tonight Show to spread his message. These collectors scorn Finster's later, smaller works-painted wooden cutouts-and these sell for little more than for what Finster had originally sold them. The auction validates collectors' interests, although given the fact that the auction is held in Atlanta, interest in southern work predominates.

On Saturday, a beautiful late summer day, Folk Fest is packed. The Atlanta Constitution printed a large feature story on the event, and many Atlantans attend because it is the place to be. Some are amused by the "sloppiness" of the work and exotic stories of the artists, commenting that they or their children could do as well, while others seem genuinely moved by the work; perhaps some serious collectors will result from this exposure. Seventy dealers attend, each paying fees for the privilege. The $5 admission fee from ten thousand visitors also makes Folk Fest profitable. As usual, most of the major dealers do not have booths; only one gallery from New York is present, although some dealers show up to see what is selling, to buy for resale in New York, and to cement relations with clients. Several dealers are marginal, causing some collectors to grouse that Slotin should have turned down the applications of those whose booths are filled with cheap objects, more cute than artistic. Unlike the New York Outsider Art Fair, Folk Fest has few criteria for inclusion, and powerful, expensive work is displayed next to tchotchkes. Of course, this can be a virtue in that there is something for everyone at all price ranges: something cheap to place on a coffee table or to match one's sofa.

The highlight of the day is the arrival of the Reverend Howard Finster, now deceased, but at that point infirm yet still gregarious. Finster's family sells his smaller works through a toll-free number (1-800-FINSTER), leading many to scorn his lack of authenticity. Some suggest that most of the labor on his pieces is being done by family members. But still, until his death, Reverend Finster was a true celebrity, perhaps the only real celebrity artist in this field. Finster sits at his booth signing autographs for a long line of buyers, many of whom have purchased his books or prints. To each he has a remark, often about the power of Jesus. The wilder his comments, the more satisfied his audience. While no one can deny the power of his beliefs, his faith is not that of most of his artistic audience.

Sales are good, and most dealers leave happy, even if the better ones feel exhausted by answering naive questions, but hope that new and profitable relationships were developed with long-term clients.

Sunday, in contrast, is clammy and stormy, and attendance is down. Most out-of-town collectors have left or are at brunches held by local friends. The excitement of Saturday is over, as dealers break down their exhibits and prepare to return home. Still, given that mid-August is traditionally a slow period in the art business, the success of this weekend helps dealers who are living, as always, on a precarious edge.

Defining a Field

Every community of interest requires a collective identity to create a sense of focus. This identity is used to display to insiders and outsiders the characteristics of participants. Boundaries are drawn and these boundaries, often vague, distinguish between inside and outside. Participants may have strong interests in how these lines should be drawn. At times, subcommunities may attempt to coexist in uneasy tension under a single rubric, but unless some measure of consensus comes to exist or unless such an arrangement is seen as benefiting both groups, the system will be unstable.

"Boundary work" is essential for social and economic groups, but often it requires considerable debate and may cause tension among those with different perspectives. Whether it be birders who argue as to what species to count and how the watching is to be done as a matter of environmental ethics, or stamp collectors who debate what constitutes a collectible postage mark, interest groups limit what it is they do-and what they don't do. Meaning creation is crucial to group affiliation.

Central to the development of community is naming: Who are these people? How to refer to them? This is particularly salient when the activity lacks a clear, consensual, public label. In such contexts, labeling is likely to be controversial, particularly if different values are emphasized in the alternative labels. For instance, the debate between animal welfare advocates and animal rights advocates can be quite intense, as the two groups-similar from the outside-see themselves as having different perspectives.

Determining the boundaries of art-much less artistic subfields-is no easy matter. "Art" consists of sets of unique objects that by virtue of their uniqueness lack precise boundaries. How can unique objects be categorized? Folklorist Gerald Pocius asserts that "perhaps of all the words that surround us in our daily life, art is one of the most contentious, most controversial."

What is art? Some, despairing, suggest art is simply what artists do or what museums hang on their walls. As Larry Shiner suggests, the boundaries of art have continually shifted over the centuries. If the broad term is so resistant to definition, how can one distinguish a subcategory? Is a portrait simply an image of a person? Can one distinguish between landscapes and backgrounds for other genres? How minimal must a minimalist work be? How African American-genetically or culturally-does one have to be to produce African American art? The labeling problems are endless, even while they determine how markets, museums, magazines, collections, and art schools are structured. Definitional choices come to affect organizations and the structure of markets.

The British journal Raw Vision, in a playful advertisement in the New Art Examiner in 1991, listed a set of 147 terms that "described" their field. Some of these terms were humorous (Bonkers Art, Potty Art, Real Art), others were esoteric (Superphrenia, Autodidact Art, Dream Spaces), more were specialized (Prisoner Art, Art of the Mentally Handicapped, Visionary Art), and still others were politically incorrect (Primitive Art, Naive Art). Many were legitimate terms that have been seriously proposed, if not widely accepted (Grassroots Art, Folk Bricolage Landscapes, Obsessive Art). A few were in wide, if contentious, usage: Folk Art, Outsider Art, and Self-Taught Art. These latter terms do not only reflect individual preferences, but are claims of how the field should properly be conceptualized.

What constitutes an adequate label? A label must be simultaneously descriptive, political, and aesthetic. First, there needs to be a perceived correspondence between the term and the works that the community recognizes as part of the field. The works come first, and the label is supposed to cover those objects without much slippage. As Washington Post art critic Paul Richard noted, "'folk art,' like pornography, is easier to recognize than it is to define." The label should make sense in light of the body of objects that participants "know" belong together. The meaningful character of the word should correspond to the content of the object and the position of the creators.

Beyond this, the term should be politically acceptable. Terms such as "primitive" or "naive" art, once acceptable to define those who are unsophisticated in light of the cultural capital of art-world participants, are now inappropriate, no longer politically correct, revealing class bias or, worse, racism. A poorly chosen term can marginalize artists. This is a problem especially with the labels "folk art" and "outsider art." Labeling a poor, black, uneducated, or elderly person as "folk" or "outsider" strikes some-including some artists-as unseemly.

Third, the term should have an aesthetic appeal. It should charm its audience. The label should be "good to think" and "good to say." Two terms in the Raw Vision ad have potential as labels, Art Brut and Vernacular Art, but neither has caught on, perhaps for reasons of terminological poetry.


Excerpted from everyday genius by Gary Alan Fine Copyright © 2004 by The University of Chicago. Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Meet the Author

Gary Alan Fine is professor of sociology at Northwestern University. He is the author of numerous books, including Difficult Reputations: Collective Memories of the Evil, Inept, and Controversial; With the Boys: Little League Baseball and Preadolescent Culture; and Shared Fantasy: Role-Playing Games as Social Worlds, all published by the University of Chicago Press.

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