SELF-TAUGHT ARTISTS: WHO THEY ARE
Alice Rae Allen
From 1940 until now, academically trained American and international artists, striving to achieve recognition in the mainstream art world, have sought to live and exhibit in urban areas. The American abstract expressionist painters of the 1950s relocated the focus of the international art world from Paris to New York, and Manhattan became the target community for American and international artists seeking an artistic life-style that was truly "genuine." This move by artists to the cities was motivated by the mutually beneficial systems that developed between artists, collectors, dealers, curators, scholars, and cultural institutions. In the city, artists could experience the zeitgeist of the time and be a part of a thriving, metropolitan milieu. In the city, they could study with recognized masters, meet other artists, exhibit in group shows, associate with developing movements, and explore the art holdings of museums and galleries. In the city, they could also meet collectors as well as scholars and curators who might aid in securing museum exhibitions and attracting reputable galleries to represent and sell their work. The exceptional work of southern self-taught artists impels one to rethink the validity of this concept of the city as sole cultural mecca. These selftaught artists are generally not part of an urban milieu; they are not even what the public construes to be artists. Southern self-taught artists born before World War 11 were primarily raised in rural environments, deeply rooted and often irrevocably connected to their land, communities, traditions, and families. When they begin making art (frequently later in life), it is without knowledge of the artistic mainstream; initially they do not seek its acceptance nor do they depend on it for their livelihood. These factors alone dramatically distinguish the self-taught artist from his or her trained counterparts. Unlike individuals who deliberately strive to develop their artistic talents, the self-taught, at least at first, do not consider themselves artists nor do they typically intend to sell their work. They create from an unbidden inner drive, often with a missionary zeal. Those self-taught artists who have relocated to urban centers did so not to promote and develop their careers within the artistic mainstream but to seek employment or more equitable social Self-taught artists as a rule do not share in the dynamic synergy that occurs among dealers, collectors, and scholars. Even those who live in cities generally do not seek involvement with other artists or exposure through group shows, publications, museum exhibitions, or critical reviews. Many don't know other artists and have never been to a museum. Only in the past decade, and especially in the past five years, have a limited number of self-taught artists even seen their own works and that of others on public display at gallery or museum exhibitions.' Characteristically and most important, even if they become aware of the mainstream artistic milieu, self-taught artists are minimally affected, if at all, by exposure to the work of other artists. Self-taught artists, by definition, have never formally studied painting or sculpture in art schools or at universities.' This lack of conventional training might actually be a liberating rather than hindering feature; unencumbered by preconceived ideas or outwardly imposed models of what art should be, they are free to create without external expectations or guidance. Nonetheless, like all artists, the self-taught are plainly individuals whose innate artistic impulses and internal ideation are expressed visually in varied materials to achieve aesthetic solutions. But unlike trained artists, they usually do so by intuition rather than with consciously acquired skills. Self-taught artists characteristically express their unique visions in a spontaneous, direct, and raw fashion, unfiltered by any prescribed canon of what art should be and how it must look: direct, because their singular vision is the sole artistic lens though which they see; unfiltered, because their judgment is the sole artistic basis of their aesthetic decision making. The compounded impact of the work of others need not be sorted, assimilated, or digested for them to express their own conceptions. Thus, the commonality among self-taught artists springs from their untutored creativity and personal vision, not from a shared technique, style, or ideology. This factor differentiates their work from that of schooled artists. Self-taught artists create in response to inner visions as well as to visual stimuli from all aspects of their daily lives. Their stylistic production is as broad as one finds today in mainstream contemporary American art. Self-taught art of the twentieth century is contemporary art-so much so that a walk past New York's Madison Avenue galleries shows that some trained artists have adopted deliberately naive styles in an effort to appear self-taught. The various styles of untutored artists range widely from figurative to nonrepresentational, from "primitive" or "naive" to sophisticated, from the recognizably realistic to the whimsically fantastic. The term "naive," coined in the early twentieth century to describe the work of untutored artists like Henri Rousseau, has come to indicate a simple, uncomplicated style that generally portrays a recognizable scene from daily life. These representative paintings are generally termed memory painting, as they depict landscape scenes remembered by artists from their own lives, such as Grandma Moses' renderings of farm life. But not all naive paintings are memory paintings, and not all visual recollections of past experience can be called memory painting. Most works by self-taught artists do relate to personal experience, some present, some past, but they are executed in thoroughly individualistic styles. While the uncomplicated figures and simple landscapes of Clementine Hunter, Philo Levi "Chief" Willey, Bernice Sims, and John William "Uncle Jack" Dey can be associated with naive painting, the abstractions of Purvis Young and John "J. B." Murry, or the found-object assemblages of Charlie Lucas and David Strickland, are visually sophisticated statements. Even though their intent might be the translation of a figurative subject, these artists have a tendency toward visual non-representation that is not easily distinguished from the work of mainstream master artists. For formally tutored artists, evolution of style is a significant measure of artistic growth over time, to be analyzed in depth by the artist, friends, peers, critics, collectors, dealers, and museums. But the style of a selftaught artist may or may not substantially evolve. The work of Ed "Mr. Eddy" Mumma, "Uncle Jack" Dey, Benjamin F. Perkins, J. P. Scott, and George Williams, for example, has shown little stylistic development and change over time, whereas other artists such as Thornton Dial, Sr., William Hawkins, Howard Finster, and Jimmy Lee Sudduth demonstrate remarkable evolution., Regardless of growth, diversity, or similarity, stylistic development is not an issue of concern to the self-taught artist. Self-taught artists as defined here typically receive little formal education, and there might be a link between artists working comfortably without connection to the art "system" and their level of schooling. Education, particularly higher education, encourages systematic learning and entices students to study accepted paradigms in their fields of interest. In so doing, the student learns to assimilate and synthesize verbal and visual information, and to selectively accept or reject data, thereby formulating his or her own point of view. Formal education thus motivates one to use the efforts of others as a point of departure in one's own development. Therefore, if an educated person emerges as a self-taught artist, as many do after retirement or later in life, it is likely that he or she will instinctively apply this method of learning to his or her artistic endeavor, both seeking out and incorporating the concepts of other artists into his or her own work. Such individuals are likely to have encountered, learned from, or been influenced by the art of others, the arts community, art history classes, and museums or gallery exhibitions. They often begin with preconceived standards for what art should look like. In this regard, their situation is analogous to that of trained artists, who must often overcome studied and learned techniques to tap into the individual creativity of their own artistic voices. In its emphasis on originality, formal art education encourages artists to continually evolve without repeating subject, design, or materials. In contrast, many untutored self-taught artists, such as Clementine Hunter, Anderson Johnson, Jimmie Lee Sudduth, and William Dawson, are not preoccupied with originality, which allows them to explore repetitive imagery without concern that their creativity is in question. The definition of unschooled artists as well as the best single term to describe them has been debated for several decades. Folk artist, outsider, naive, primitive, visionary, art brut, and self-taught are among the many terms generally employed. This uncertain terminology indicates that the mainstream art world is still grappling with who these artists are and how they relate to prevailing concepts of what art is and who can be called an artist. Terms, it must be noted, are conceptual tools that lend structure to our understanding of an issue. Like all art historical categories, those used to describe self-taught artists were devised by individuals on the basis of characteristic patterns they found in the artworks. In the case of self-taught artists, the feature typically used to link their work has been their untutored processes. Traditional categorization by stylistic similarity, such as impressionism or abstract expressionism, is not appropriate for self-taught artists, who, if they share biographical similarities, employ vastly different styles, techniques, and materials. Although no one term accurately describes the work of all these artists, self-taught seems to be the most adequate. They have most commonly been known as folk artists, and are still referred to as such today, but they are not folk artists as traditionally defined: they do not work within a communally accepted style, ideology, or symbolism, nor do they create works for functional purposes. Such folk art, exemplified by the work of split-cane basket makers, decoy makers, or quilters, who create according to a prescribed style with communally conceived and understood formulas, patterns, and symbolism, has little relationship to the individualized, personally expressive styles of self-taught artists. The term "outsider," however, is pertinent here in that selftaught. artists, whether rural or urban, operate outside the established art world. Many self-taught artists are geographically isolated, living in distant rural areas connected by poor roads, or in impoverished, largely hermetic urban areas. Yet their lives are not isolated or selfcontained; they are rooted within their immediate culture, often closely integrated with family, church, and community life. Their individual expression through art may, indeed, tag them as eccentric or different within their communities. In that, however. they are not unlike many other artists, who are commonly perceived as operating in solitude and on the fringes of society. Perhaps the only true outsider artists, as defined by MacGregor,' are those whose artwork is not seen by anyone while the artist is alive or those who are institutionalized on a long-term basis. Although ranging in focus, each of the terms noted above attempts to describe self-taught artists. To paradoxically structure boundaries around who they are with strict definitions is to limit their creative process. In the future, hopefully, they perhaps will simply be referred to as artists and be permitted to create on their own terms. So must the work of self-taught artists be legitimized? Certainly not by the artists themselves, who often have no sense of and little interest in the goals of the art world that increasingly courts them. The notion of being "in" or "out" of the artistic establishment is irrelevant, for these artists live within the mainstream they most value, that of their own culture. Self-taught artists have emerged into the artistic mainstream, but it has been trained artists, collectors, dealers, and scholars who have coaxed them out. They have not sought the art world; the art world has come to them. Emergence into the artistic mainstream by no means has been synonymous with total acceptance. 1 select number of trained art historians with diverse backgrounds, from Renaissance painting tar African sculpture and contemporary American art. have embraced this work,-, but most have been slow to formally respond. A limited number of art museums collected contemporary self-taught art prior to 1980, and university art history departments have shown even less interest. Only a few university art history programs have even begun to consider self-taught art as a serious field of study." Why the hesitancy to accept this visually intriguing imagery? Simply put, the aesthetic influences of self-taught artists, their working methods, and their backgrounds, both artistic and socioeconomic, do not conform to the profile of an academically trained artist. Stanford art historian Wanda Corn, in forecasting the future of scholarship in American Art, has described the normative process critics have used to assess art and artists: The art we have traditionally studied is by people who call themselves artists. Using connoiseurship skills or those of stylistic analysis, we have determined changes in growth and development in their work and have decided which are their finest pieces.? Self-taught artists challenge each aspect of this process. They typically do not call themselves artists; they do not operate within an established canon from which one can evaluate their work; and they do not seem to be concerned with stylistic growth. More often repetition of style, themes, and/or materials prevails. But most important, questions of art historical influence are not applicable to the work of self taught artists. Works by acknowledged masters have long provided natural models from which trained artists could learn and perhaps borrow as they developed individual styles, and art historians traditionally studv the work of trained artists within this context. Self-taught artists, however, do not conciously seek or respond to inspiration from other artists; they do not separate the formal aspects of their work from its subject. This contrasts with those trained artists for whom technique often doubles as subject. Trained artists, conscious of the art historical framework into which their work will fit, seek to be original and innovative. But because self-taught artists do not draw on the same construct, they are unaware of and unconcerned with the contribution or place of their work within the history of art. This, too, poses a challenge for art historians. Even though issues of originality and art historical inspiration are of little use in the study of self-taught artists, the aesthetic features of their work often meet contemporary criteria for work by mainstream artists and cannot always be distinguished from it. Broadening the parameters of "art historical" influence to "visual" influence, however, does allow the work of self-taught artists to be assessed with art historical questions and tools by seeking culturally based visual sources for individual works or analyzing an artist's tendencies according to his or her environment or prevailing cultural assumptions. Considering the influence of all visual stimuli lends a fuller perspective to the study of any artist's work. Artists, trained or not, do not "see" only in the confines of a studio or when standing before a museum masterpiece. The sensibilities of looking, seeing, and perceiving take place in all waking hours for all creative artists, not only those who have had the benefit of sanctioned art school programs. Self-taught artists experience an extraordinarily rich visual world despite their art historical "isolation." Their design sense is affected by their contemporary environment, which abounds with commercial art. This art has familiarized self-taught artists with twentieth-century design, composition, subject matter, style, scale, and sometimes materials, all of which have influenced their aesthetic principles and ideas. This exposure might explain why the work of many contemporary self-taught artists is so visually compatible with that of trained artists of the same period who, especially in recent decades, often have looked to the same commercial sources for subjects and suggestions of style. In this sense, the distinction between "high" and "low" art becomes moot, reinforcing the reasonableness of considering self-taught art as part of a horizontal rather than vertical artistic continuum. All artists self-taught or trained-remain rooted in and subject to their times,' steeped in their shared visual culture. NOTES 1. With the increasing exposure to dealers, collectors, scholars, and the press, many do later come to consider themselves artists and rightfully expect financial compensation. lounger artists particularly, such as Charlie Lucas, Lonnie B. Holley, Purvis Young, Herbert Singleton, and others, have more fully felt the impact of the recent boom in the folk art market. They do consider themselves full-time artists, and their art is the primary source of their livelihoods. 2. Several artists attended the opening for the seminal exhibition Black Folk Arlt in America, held at the Corcoran GalIery of .Art in 1982. In 1988 Mose Tolliver, Thornton Dial. Sr., bonnie B. Holley, and Charlie Lucas, among other featured artists, attended the opening of Outside the Mainstream: Folk Art in Our Time at Atlanta's High Museum. For Dial and others this was a first visit to a m useum. 3. A few self-taught artists (e.g., Purvis Young, Bernice Sims, Sybil Gibson, William Dawson, "Prophet" Royal Robertson) have enrolled briefily in informal adult education art classes, but their art remains largely uninfluenced by the experience. 4. .John M. MacGregor, lecture, Los Angeles County Museum of Art, Oct. 1992. For a further analysis of institutionalized artists, see MacGregors The Discovery of the Art of the Insane, ((Princeton : Princeton Univeristy Press , 1989) 5. David Steel, Renaissance specialist and curator of Europian art at the North Carolina Museum of Art, was responsible for the 1989 exhibition Signns and Wonders: Outsider Art inside North Carolina; William Fagaly, an Afrcanist and contemporary art curator at the New Orleans Museum of Art, organized the first museum exhibitions of the work of Sister Gertrude Morgan, David Butler, and Clementine Hunter; Russell Bowman, director of the Milwaukee Museum of Art and a specialist in contemporary art, organized Common Ground/UncommonVision, an exhibition of the Michael and Julie Hall folk art collection, in 1993. 6. The only U.S. university granting advanced degrees in the field is NewYork University, where, in conjunction with the Museum of American Folk Art, New York, a master of arts in folk art studies is offered. Selected universities are beginning to accept master's theses on the subject. 7. "Scholarship in American .Art: Foresights, Problems and Triumphs of the 1990s," Smithsonian American Art Network Newsletter, suppl. vol. 4, no. 2 (Fall 1991), p. 2. 8. Stephen Neil, deputy director, Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden, unpublished ms.