This exploration of the Souls Grown Deep Foundation and its archive of southern African-American art will challenge the distinctions between folk and fine art. This investigation will explore the visual art created by black artists in the American South, from 1910 to the late 1990’s. All of the artists discussed are part of the Souls Grown Deep archive. The artistry and conviction behind this period in American visual culture has inspired the In These Streets! series State of the Arts.
What do the labels folk, outsider, or fine art mean in today’s art market? Is William Arnett exploiting the black artists in his archive? Are there still racial barriers to getting museum installations?
What is Outsider Art?
The phrase “art brut” (meaning “raw art,” “ruff art”) was coined by French painter John DuBuffet, to describe art produced by non-professionals working outside aesthetic norms, such as the work of psychiatric patients, prisoners and children. “Outsider art” is a term coined by British art critic Roger Cardinal in the early ’70s as an English translation for art brut, to describe the unconventional work created by artists trained or untrained outside the mainstream art world. DuBuffet had a collection of “art brut” and tried to emulate the freedom of expression, this is characteristic of what is now called “outsider art.”
DuBuffet’s concept of “art brut” challenged the intellectual art of his day. He argued that what is considered art is only accepted as fine art (the kind worthy of museums and government collections), when a certain small privileged group of people deem it worthy. The decision process is the result of a particular education, cultural formation and pre-occupations and is therefore deeply subjective.
Today outsider artist is a term of convenience, used to describe artists not considered by the mainstream to be classically trained in fine arts, many of today’s American outsider artists are black. Has “outsider” become code for “black” and the large number of meritorious works, that the art market has ignored? Is there a market for these works? Who decides what is and is not fine art? Is that decision based on race, class or skill?
The souls of Black Folk Art
“Historically, the art world has presumed that African American artists’ work is inherently unsophisticated and without merit, a judgment based on the color of the artists’ skin rather than on their talent.” Art.net reports “until recently the art market has ignored a significant body of meritorious work by African American artists”, conveniently labeling them the outsider artists.
“Candidly, there is not a successful black artist in the world from a financial point of view,” says Robert Carter a prominent painter, illustrator. Many artists would agree with Carter about socio-cultural factors that exist for black artists seeking residencies and museum installments in America. In the same article Carter also says “to blame it on institutional racism or cultural bias – though indeed that exists – is just an oversimplification of a complex problem.”
Following the narratives of these artists gives us new perspective on the history of our country. By recognizing this time period in American history we also connect artistic works to relevant cultural themes as means of social critique.