Souzou; Outsider Art from Japan

Untitled (detail) by Komei Bekki
1980-4  200 clay objects

“Voluntary, non-voluntary and involuntary [participation]
Participation in a project against a competent person’s express wishes is involuntary. Involuntary participation fails to respect the person’s capacity for self-determination and is almost invariably morally wrong. Involuntary participation should not be confused with non-voluntary participation. Non-voluntary participation is participation without meaningful consent, perhaps because the person is unaware, or perhaps because the person lacks the ability to consent. While involuntary participation violates autonomy, non-voluntary participation ignores it, or assumes the person is unable to meet relevant standards of competence. With involuntary participation, it is known that the person would not consent, because she does not consent; but with non-voluntary participation the person might have consented had she been competent to do so, or had she known of her unwitting involvement. Though not as clearly problematic as involuntary participation, non-voluntary participation remains morally problematic for three reasons: no actual meaningful consent is given; it is hard to determine whether someone would have consented, had they been given the opportunity, without having a great deal of knowledge about them, their values, and inclinations; and even if we can make a reasonable determination that they would have consented if knowledgeable and competent, this merely hypothetical consent does not have the moral standing of actual free and informed consent [my italics].”
Framing Marginalized Art(Funded by the Australian Research Council)

Excerpt of review by Brian Sewell:
European Outsiders of 1900 and Japanese of 2000 share certain constants, of which the most notable is the obsessive repetition of the minute to make a work of larger, and even gigantic, scale. Everything begins with, as it were, a seed, but the seed does not germinate, flower and fruit, it only produces another seed, and another, and another. An area is coloured, not with the sweep of a broad brush, but with repeated short strokes of the pen or crayon, and there is thus a close kinship between the drawn painting and the embroidery that is often the Outsider’s chosen means.

The Wellcome Collection
I had a queasy feeling walking around this exhibition. Created by patients of various Japanese care institutions and all with diagnosed cognitive, behavioural and developmental disorders or mental illness, it seemed one polite middle class step away from gawping at the lunatics in Bedlam. This was compounded by the curatorial decision to have a side room set up at the end of the exhibition with 12 screens showing documentaries of the ‘artists’ at work – which served to remind the viewer that these people are not, in fact, free-thinking individuals who simply march to the beat of a different drum, but inmates and day patients of state institutions. If the intention was to show that the work created has artistic merit in its own right, then this last room undid all that.

Brian Sewell makes an interesting point about the obsessively repetitive nature of much of the work on show, that ‘does not germinate’ or develop but simply repeats itself over and over. Perhaps this is one key distinction between the ‘art’ made by those with cognitive impairments, for whom it is a part of therapy and/or rehabilitation, and those artists whose work may show superficial similarities with it, but which demonstrates discernible development and progression.

There is a dangerous temptation to sentimentalise the work on show in Souzou, attributing motivation and meaning to it from a  Western contemporary art standpoint and pronouncing it an exciting glimpse into a primitive and ‘pure’ mindset, unencumbered by cultural baggage. But the works on display were never meant for public view; they are the private practices of damaged individuals attempting to make sense of their worlds. How far they were ‘free’ to give their consent to the work being put on show is debatable. Although one might say that plenty of artists are damaged in some way and driven by a creative impulse, the difference is that such artists are concious, to a degree, of what motivates them and desire to communicate and share their experiences through their creative practice.

The Wellcome Trust gets away with it – just, but I was left with a guilty sense of voyeurism. The work itself was, on the whole, second-rate, (if we are to judge it by artistic standards), and we learned very little about the lives of the makers, which would have given the exhibition more of a contextual framework, at least. My suspicions were confirmed: what is created in therapy should stay in the therapy room. However tempting it might be to hang such work in a gallery and call it art, such an act is fraught with ethical dilemmas. I would go so far as to say it is a form of exploitation and abuse – and the last thing these people deserve.


One Response to Souzou; Outsider Art from Japan

  1. james Collins says:

    Brian Sewell is an ignorant fool about anything visual. Everytime he writes he confirms this. He’s driven mad no one who does know about art – and has a ‘visual eye’ never take him seriously, whenever he tries to maintain the risible and false distinction between ‘ classical and modern art’ and doesn’t even consider the conceptual rationale for all art, hence his ignorance of great artists like Damian Hirst or Gerhard Richter’

    How many major museum shows like the German Documenta, or the Italian Venice Biennale, for example, would even give him a Press card to get in, let alone have Sewell any say. He’s never arranged a memorable show in his life, That’s the sub text of everything he’s ever written: why wont the artworld take Brian seriously? Give me a show to arrange or a catalogue to write? Please?

    How can Brian Sewell talk about “outsider” art – an absurd category anyway, without even mentioning Miro’s or Picasso’s infatuation with it – or Dubuffet building his own collection of it, nearly a century ago? Or ignore thousands of artists – and movements – in the 2oth century

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