November 2014

Ravi Mangla


Coming in from the Cold: Outsider Art in Literature

For fourteen years James Hampton spent five to six hours a night in a rented alleyway garage off Seventh Street in Washington, D.C. He shared the nature of these late-night excursions with neither his family nor his coworkers at the General Services Administration, where he was employed as the janitor. Meyer Werlieb, the owner of the garage, believed the space was being used to restore antique furniture. After several months of failed payment (owing to, Werlieb would later learn, Hampton's passing), he hired a locksmith to open the garage. What they found inside was the veritable Holy Grail of American outsider art: a shimmering sanctum of liturgical furnishings. The three-tiered chancel featured over 180 unique pieces, including an altar, pulpits, credence tables, mercy seats, and, at its core, a gilded throne worthy of the most lavish of monarchs, inscribed with the epigraph "Fear Not." Hampton had pieced together the assemblage entirely from found materials, everything from coffee cans to broken light bulbs. He titled the work The Throne of the Third Heaven of the Nations' Millennium General Assembly -- a marathon of a name, yet one wholly befitting the scope of the work. The late Robert Hughes wrote that the Throne "may well be the first work of visionary religious art produced by an American."

The annals of modern art abound with these sorts of stranger-than-fiction tales. The photographs of Vivian Maier were discovered in a similar fashion, at an auction of belongings from repossessed storage lockers. Henri Rousseau's work was brought to wider acclaim when Picasso happened to chance upon one of his jungle paintings, which was being sold by a street vendor as a reusable canvas. Grandma Moses rose to national celebrity when an art collector was passing through Upstate New York and saw her paintings displayed in a drug store window. Even music (see: The Shaggs) and film (documentaries, in particular) include instances of outsiders creating, completely removed from the topicalities of mainstream culture. Literature, on the other hand, occupies a comparatively shorter entry in the history of outsider art. Despite priding itself on its outsider pedigree, contemporary letters lacks a true outsider influence. From the freewheeling beats to the blue-collar troubadours of dirty realism, all were decided insiders, surrounded by tight-knit communities of likeminded artists, nurtured in the sheltering cocoon of higher education. No matter how you slice it, literature is fundamentally a medium of insiders.

The problem resides with language. Words, unlike musical notes or brushstrokes, are inherently bound to class. While the visual arts often act as unifying forces, language proves more divisive. Linguists use the term "prestige" to denote the social status ascribed to individual dialects within a given speech community. High prestige dialects tend to be those with a deep literary tradition. Low prestige dialects, which are often associated with the poor and working class, lack a similar recorded tradition (moreover, many lack an agreed upon written form). In most communities the high prestige dialect is adopted as the "standard" language (the dialect typically used by government officials, newscasters, educators, etc.) Low prestige dialects are subsumed under a prescribed written system based on the standard language. But the notion that certain dialects are superior to others, or that a community requires a standard language, stands only to service existing class structures. In fact, it is one of the most prevalent and pernicious forms of cultural oppression in our country. Speakers of "substandard" dialects are at a significant disadvantage in educational and professional settings. They struggle for the same legal protections and social benefits that high dialect speakers take for granted. Laurie Bauer, a professor of linguistics at Victoria University of Wellington, cites Ancient Rome as an early source of this stratification of language: "The prestige accorded to the churchmen, lawyers, and scholars who used Latin was transferred to the language itself. Latin was held to be noble and beautiful, not just the thoughts expressed in it or the people who used it. What is called 'beauty' in a language is more accurately seen as a reflection of the prestige of its speakers."

High prestige dialects lend their users a kind of cultural capital. They indicate an elaborate educational and economic history. To embrace the nonstandard vernacular and regional patois of the lower classes, in all its permutations and configurations, would be to relinquish that accrued capital. And at a time when writers struggle to earn wages commensurate with their time and production, cultural capital may well be their most valuable asset.

But this isn't just about underrepresented dialects and prose that overcompensates (mine might be doing that right now); it's not about a dressing up or watering down of literature, but about opening up the medium to those with an entirely different view of language, who aren't afraid to smash it to bits and rebuild it from scratch. This is about what constitutes art in language and whether our notions of art are far too narrow, to the detriment of the whole endeavor.

Outsiders have an uncanny knack for driving innovation. The blues, born in the segregated South, laid the framework for subsequent musical genres (jazz, rock 'n' roll, R&B, and others). Similarly, hip-hop music, upon its assimilation into the mainstream, helped to revitalize the tired stylings of pop radio. Even in the political arena, outsiders are responsible for some of the most resourceful and inventive legislation of the past century (which is why a multiparty system is so vital to the health of a political assembly). Without genuine outsiders, a creative medium risks languishing in a suspended state of inertia.

There are few literary equivalents to the boxes of Joseph Cornell or the assemblages of Thornton Dial. The closest we come to an outsider in contemporary letters is possibly the late William Gay, but even his tremendous work hews closely to Southern literary tradition. Perhaps the last time a true outsider aesthetic was embraced was Charles Bukowski, whose influence looms large even to this day, especially among younger writers. Henry Darger, one of the most celebrated examples of an outsider artist (see: Vivian Girls), has been uniformly ignored by the literary firmament. Despite the success of his artwork, none of his fiction manuscripts have seen print. The language of literature is the language of privilege, in which even the stories of the working class are regularly clad in a bourgeois prose. The language of literature cannot be extricated from its white, genteel roots. Those of us without access to education are welcome to practice, but we must come in from the cold, adopt the house language. We must be civilized, scrubbed clean. Naiveté has no place in the colosseum of words.

The French painter Jean Dubuffet was endlessly fascinated with the artwork of children and the mentally ill. He used the term art brut to describe their work and amassed a large personal collection of such art (which is now housed in a museum in Lausanne, Switzerland). He believed the concerns of mainstream culture and formal society made pure expression impossible. Only those constrained to the margins of society could be truly invulnerable to cultural influence and civil obedience. A principal example of this is the Swiss writer Robert Walser, who penned a number of his books from the confines of a mental institution (written famously in near microscopic script), yet Walser was already an established wordsmith by the time he was admitted. It's doubtful whether anyone would remember his name had his earliest output come from inside the walls of a sanatorium.

Publishing has not experienced the same monetary boom as the visual arts, and agents have little incentive to trawl outside their small pools of the openly privileged and overly educated. But independent and regional presses have an opportunity to seek out voices absent from the literary dialogue, to broaden the boundaries of form and language (and some have tried to do this with varying degrees of success). Until the playing field of language is leveled, we remain complicit in a prohibitive practice. And sooner or later we must ask ourselves: At what point does language become an exclusionary force and what does our willingness to exclude so readily and unquestioningly say about us?