“… psychotic representation attests to a mad desire to reinstate convention, to reinvent order, which the psychotic feels to be broken and in desperate need of repair or replacement.”
… The marketplace notwithstanding, can the productions of people under extreme psychic duress communicate to us as “insiders,” and how must we change our attitudes about art in order to appreciate these works? We need to tread carefully, and not just because these works have the power to unsettle. They may not be art at all, at least as we usually understand the word …
… Many outsiders have no sense that what they are making is an independent, expressive aesthetic object, whose purpose is communication and whose destiny is to be appreciated and contemplated by others, to be integrated into their world. In spite of the fact that works by outsiders are distinctive and apparently expressive, there is often a chilling impersonality about them, an indifference to any audience and to themselves as individuals. In some cases the “art” is a form of private communion, in others an apparently mechanical activity, and in still others the transcription of urgent communication from sources beyond the self. But the messages test the limits of intelligibility.
… Two broad categories of so-called mental illness — schizophrenia and autism — force us to ask the question, “Is it art?” The taste of our time has rehabilitated this work for appreciation and commercial sale, but that does not resolve the question, nor does it promote genuine understanding of the works themselves. To survive and find an audience, the work must endure both the current fashion for transgressive imagery and biography and, conversely, the many attempts to limit the art’s relevance by labeling it with a narrow symptomology.
… because for these artists the very act of object-making is itself an episode of integration, the art can often indulge gestures for their own sake, violent or playful games without any communicative purpose. While the artist works, he or she defers chaos and suspends contradictions, and the gestures of art become acts of temporary liberation, even in the midst of anger and fear.
… in schizophrenia, art is never part of the problem but always part of the solution, always evidence of an effected reconciliation between inner and outer experience. As critic Hal Foster puts it: “Far from avant-gardist in its revolt against artistic convention and symbolic order, psychotic representation attests to a mad desire to reinstate convention, to reinvent order, which the psychotic feels to be broken and in desperate need of repair or replacement.”
At this point we might ask: If such “art” does not necessarily attempt to construct coherent images or communicate a message, or if the message is so deeply sequestered that its intended meaning cannot be coaxed out by any audience, what value can the work have for us? These questions seem to miss the most cherished virtue of art, certainly for critics, that is, its “depth,” its multiple levels of available significance.
One answer is that works of art can seize our attention and make connection in other ways. First and foremost, the work of these outsiders can show us forms in combinations and relations that have never been forged before. The imagery can act as visual poetry, illuminating in a sudden flash the fugitive connections between things and ideas, or forms and feelings.
… To hunt for [meaning] in the psyche of the creator is chimerical. To believe it inheres exclusively in the order of the work — an order that may be unintelligible — is fruitless. We are to discover personal resonances and visual analogies with other art. The structure of the work sets the parameters of what we see, but we intuit or deduce further connections within the work itself and to our own experience.
Rexer hasn’t answered his own question: “Is it art?”