- Unexpected Parallels:Commonalities between Native American and Outsider Arts
"Otherances" tell more about the social and historical fantasies of the describers than about the people thus described.—Paul Arnett, "An Introduction to Other Rivers"
The fields of outsider art and Native American art, when compared with each other, provide discerning critiques of the ways that mainstream art institutions and their constituents tend to treat groups that have not historically been equal participants in the makeup of Western art history.1 By mainstream institutions, I am referring largely to museums, galleries, and the academy that construct the prevailing value systems of the Western art world referenced as dominant in terms of power and prestige. My intent is to provide a broad analysis that complicates prevailing ideas about Native and outsider art in relationship to fine arts as a framework of reference. The comparative analysis of these polar fields will seek to identify repetitive behaviors of the mainstream art world in dealing with marginalized groups. Through the identification of similar patterns of treatment, we are able to reach an educated understanding of mainstream value systems applied to groups considered "other." [End Page 47]
While my arguments may appear ambitious or overly generalized in terms of scope, I argue that a critical analysis of how Native and outsider arts are received has not to date been pursued in the literature.2 Thus my explorations of these intersections may serve to introduce this comparative platform for consideration by future scholars engaging in specific case study analyses. My aim is to introduce readers to the complexities of outsider and Native arts reception, and to likewise assist viewers and artists in being equipped to tackle difficult issues such as race and bias while negotiating relationships between the peripheral and center in various arts worlds. As an artist and as a Native American trained in the higher education system, I am inescapably engaged in the challenging relationship between the fine art world and the Native American art world. In this essay, I am seeking to extract core issues and find evidence of some of the larger challenges that are presented in this relationship of Native Americans and the academy. The African American theologian Cornel West has stated, "I'm as much concerned with how we understand modernity and the dominant culture as with the African-American experience."3 This statement parallels the motivations of this investigation, that through an understanding of the values of the mainstream art world, a greater understanding of self and community in relation to this entity can occur.
Establishing Foundational Characteristics and Differences of Native American and Outsider Arts
The world of outsider arts, also referred to as self-taught, folk, or vernacular arts, is defined by the characteristics of its makers. It is not restricted to a particular geographic location, race, or national heritage. The artist's primary attribute is defined as a lack of formal training or credentials. Along with this lack of formal training, there is a perceived lack of influence by the field of art history and mainstream communities. Outsider arts are therefore perceived as pure, unadulterated, individualistic forms of innate expression, often falling into various classifications such as rural, poor, less educated, mentally ill or unstable, prisoners, homeless, or any variety of other combinations that socially set them apart from the median. Their otherness is "based more on sociological and psychological factors that are held together principally by commonly made claims by Outsider Art's apologists. . . . This difference is not merely marked by exclusion from the mainstream of the professional (western) art world, but also by exclusion from, or marginalization in relation to, the very culture that supports the market for mainstream art."4 Thus, by the nature of its qualifications, outsider art [End Page 48] can be practiced by anyone fitting the outsider criteria of any race, in any country. Although outsider art is not ethnically based, because of its focus on the biography of its makers, the field has been linked to the category of identity art.
Native American art, like that of any other culturally specific group, is similarly defined by the characteristics of the artist. Identity lies at the...