The gulf between the need to create and the perceived lack of creative progress presents a conundrum for the human mind. Scientists, especially those working in the fields of economics, have constantly sought to explain cultural stagnation and the answer lies in a lack of collective creative enterprise. There is no individual neurological fix to this kind of stagnation. Nor is there any evidence of causation that can be linked to brain dysfunctions or mutations. Everyone can create. Further, there is no clear definition of what creativity is.[i] There are obvious social rules about what governs artistic enterprise some set by historical example and others by current fashion. Outsider Art is created by people who are said to produce outside these conventions. Outsider artists are dreamers who live out their dreams beyond the boundaries of the prescribed socio-economic order. The work of Outsider artists is instinctual; it throws off the shackles of civilisation and taps into the archaic primal mind to reveal another level of existence, a chaos that must be expressed. Outsider Art extends the human vision by crossing the boundaries between ‘originality and creativity,’ [ii] but it comes at a price. The primal mind operates in survival mode and this causes a number of heightened anxieties in a modern world setting. The production of art can also serve to placate these anxieties.
Art speaks to the notion of liberation. However, understanding the ancient symbolic messages left by our ancestors has posed a riddle for science. How do we explain the incongruity of the evolutionary findings? Science now suggests that ‘tool-making… can be pushed back at least two million years’ whereby ‘modern tool kits emerged very gradually over 300,000 years in Africa.’ Conversely ‘Neanderthals are now known to have had brains that were bigger than ours and to have inherited the same genetic mutations that facilitate speech as us. Yet, despite surviving until 30,000 years ago, they hardly invented any new tools…’ It would seem then that ‘it is quite possible to be intelligent and imaginative human beings’ [Neanderthals buried their dead] ‘yet not experience cultural and economic progress.’[i] What was absent from these societies was vision and a form of interaction that was based on interaction and past knowledge. As Brian Arthur argues in his book The Nature of Technology,’ nearly all technologies are combinations of other technologies and new ideas come from swapping things and thoughts.[ii] That said, the historian Christopher Lasch has noted our dependence on what went before has reached a point where there is a sense of everything coming to an end. ‘The sense of ending’ states Lasch ‘has given shape to much of the twentieth century literature’ and feelings of a dystopia.
The Nazi Holocaust, the threat of nuclear annihilation, the depletion of natural resources, well founded predictions of ecological disaster have fulfilled poetic prophecy giving concrete historical substance to the nightmare, or death wish, that avant-garde artists were the first to express.[iii]
The vision of avant-garde artists is still with us, but in modern competitive societies where productivity is everything, materialism and the quest for creative vision that is rooted in survival poses a deep psychological schism. As Lasch states humans have developed a culture of narcissism. Humans have lost the vision of a Golden Age.
The contemporary climate is therapeutic, not religious. People today hunger for personal salvation, let alone for the restoration of an earlier golden age, but for the feeling of momentary illusion, of personal well being and heath and psychic security.[iv]
Lasch goes on to describe how the radical politics of the 1960s filled empty lives, it gave people purpose, but it was never enough. The weather has more impact on well being than politics.[v] Environments and the emotions they arouse play a crucial role in well being as well as the ability to adapt to what we cannot control. Progress in the modern world is a well thought out systematic process that depends of positive, visionary creation that is the outward expression of internalised feelings and emotions.
[i] Matt Ridley Evolution and Creativity: Why Humans Triumphed. Wall Street Journal Saturday Essay. online.wsj.com/…/SB1000142405274870369180457525453338693313…
[ii] W. Brian Arthur  The Nature of Technology, New York Free Press.
[iii]Christopher Lasch  New York Norton Publishers p3.
[iv]Christopher Lasch  New York Norton Publishers p7.
[v]Christopher Lasch  New York Norton Publishers p7.
To understand Outsider Art is to conserve it. Generally we have valued the interpretative artists for their historical importance, familiarity and pleasure, but society has had little time for nonconformity. Outsider Art that exemplifies a ‘breakthrough’ in vision has traditionally remained beyond the borders of convention to be ignored rather than condemned rendering it invisible and devoid of any critique. [i] Times have changed. More recently Outsider Art has emerged in the context of post-modern, post-historical assertions, whereby there should be no judgements, no absolute truths, rules or conventions. A cultural shift has taken place which the social historian Christopher Lasch has called it The Waning of the Sense of Historical Time . [ii] Lasch laments the lack of historical reference. Similar sentiments have been expressed in the book The End of History and the Last Man  by Francis Fukuyama who argued that the spread of globalization and Western Liberal democracy would signal the endpoint in the multicultural evolution. [iii] For Fukuyama the changes are just the inevitable outcome of the bourgeoisie mode. Others have noted that since the end of the 1960s European Cultural Revolution interest in collective politics has waned in favour of the individual’s self-interest. Virtually all social commentators, acknowledge the profound changes; for example, on the right, Robert Bork in Slouching Toward Gomorrah: Modern Liberalism and American Decline (New York: Regan Books,1996) [iv] and, on the left, Todd Gitlin in The Sixties: Years of Hope, Days of Rage (New York: Bantam Books, 1987).[v] Both the left and right of politics characterize the counterculture as self-indulgent, childish, irrational, narcissistic, and even dangerous. [vi]
Notwithstanding there are some positive elements to the changes. Science has advanced and offers different perspectives on culture and its values. We can now conjecture an intrinsic purpose in being creative that is linked to human well being, but convincing people that making art is more important than buying a second car or taking a luxurious holiday is not an easy task. Art happens in the moment, but it also links us to history and the future. Undoubtedly, the creative arts have been enduring. The art of civilizations is, in many instances, the only thing left when cities and populations decline. We remember the past through peoples’ art. History and endurance requires vision. The ability to vision is not the same as the tendency to dream. We must awake from our dreams and rarely do we put their contents into effect.[vii] Visionaries take dreaming to another level whereby the fantasies can become the means to create a better more harmonious world.
The evolution of human creativity is complex nothing can truly explain the sudden development of human ingenuity of the last 45,000 years until now. The succession of discoveries that have included fire, flint and minerals provided new tools and hunting methods, which in turn culminated in tribal settlements and communities that developed agriculture, the domestication of animals, the manufacture of tools and implements. Alongside these discoveries was the acquisition of language giving rise to the expanding brain. Over time life became more rewarding, but also more intricate, more competitive and more conflicting. The quest for rewards became juxtaposed to punishments for non-achievement. The competition for success intensified. Opposing tribes fought hard for wealth and supremacy and the same drives that created progress, also led to defeat and chaos. Thus we live in on a planet of winners and losers. We must transcend this system if life on Earth is to survive.
Despite the hurdles and bumps on the way humanity has made extraordinary progress in a short space of time. However, this advancement is not due to individual skills or the rational ability to speculate on the future, what we understand to be a modern sophisticated society is the product of a collective intelligence. Scientists now agree that the collective intelligence of our predecessors gave the world the cultural evolution which we enjoy today. According to current scientific findings development lies in collective bargaining, that is to say people interacting are better able to move forward rationally and creatively. To reiterate this very important point, what appears to determine innovation and the rate of cultural change in nations and communities is the amount of creative communicative interaction. As we see from history some of the earliest communications between humans took place through artistic expression. Examples of these works exist across the world to remind us of the power of symbolism and metonymy. It should not surprise us then that any attempts at political dictatorship will lead to an attack on the arts and demands of absolute obedience. A picture paints much more than words, it creates imagination and vision.
[i]Jose Guimon 2006 Art and Madness Aurora Davis Groups of Publishers, p5.
[ii]Christopher Lasch  New York Norton Publishers p1.
[iii] Francis Fukuyama The End of History and the Last Man New York Free Press. Chapter 1.
[iv] Robert Bork in Slouching Toward Gomorrah: Modern Liberalism and American Decline (New York: Regan Books,1996)
[v] Todd Gitlin in The Sixties: Years of Hope, Days of Rage (New York: Bantam Books, 1987)—
[vii]Ariety S. Creativity: The Magic Synthesis. New York. Basic Books.
Theorists have generally looked to motivation as an explanation for creativity focusing on why some people are more creative than others. Most ancient cultures, such as the Greek, Chinese and Indian cultures had no real concept of creativity as they believed art was a discovery rather than a form of creation. Ancient societies believed that everything had a Divine origin. The ancient Greeks in particular did not have a word for “create” or “creator”. The great Greek philosopher Plato did not believe in art as a form of creation. He asserted that all art was an imitation.[i] There was one exception to this rule, that of poetry. The art of poetry had a particular spiritual status as did the poet who put it together. Indeed, the first conception of creation in the Western culture appears to have arisen with the Bible and Genesis when God was said to have created the Heavens and the Earth. From then onwards the idea of creation was concretized in a religious dogma whereby any act of creation was the sole domain of Divine inspiration, a position that lasted until the eighteenth century European Enlightenment.
Taste and consumption are strongly connected. Taste as a preference of certain types of commodity directly affects the choices we make and these choices in turn have an impact on markets. The causal link between taste and consumption is also influenced by a number of other factors including multi-media advertising, class, wealth and the availability of goods, so on and so forth. However, the theories of taste which build on the ideas of competitiveness, social status and emulation, such as those advocated by Bourdieu and Veblen are not the only criteria involved in fashion. Standards of taste and status are likely to be important to some, but many people do aspire to some form of individuality. We humans are not all the same. In addition, fashion tastes do not necessarily begin with the upper classes as Bourdieu and Veblen suggested. The Bohemians for example bulwarked against the status quo and devised their own form of ‘dandyism’. Hippies and beatniks were far from representative of the upper classes. There has never been a more exciting time to enjoy fashion.
Fashion is an art form. People who enjoy fashion treat their body as if it were a canvass or a Temple. There is nothing wrong with this providing it is carried out freely and without obligations to external forces and providing it does not infringe peoples’ rights.
Imagine a world without trends and fashion it would be a pretty dull place. There would be little to inspire us towards innovation or change.
Historically, fashion and taste for Immanuel Kant were merely a mark of social distinction. Kant did not include fashion in his aesthetics. Obviously the era of mass consumption has made taste and fashion more diverse and more interesting. The world has become more colourful and inspiring place through the changing fashions.
[Illustration: Mail Art Brownie Pie by Ungala].
The French philosopher and sociologists Pierre Bourdieu argued against the Kantian view of pure aesthetics, noting that the only permissible taste was that of the ruling class. He also rejected the idea of good taste as he believed there was only one choice in taste to be had. This idea was previously expressed by Georg Simmel [1858-1918] who gained an interest in fashion believing that the upper classes changed their fashion taste as soon as the lower classes copied it. Indeed, the middle classes copied much of the ruling class taste in an attempt to raise their social status, something they never managed to achieve.
Simmel’s contribution to social theory went far beyond fashion and taste. He was one of the first German sociologists to challenge the Kantian view whereby he put down the foundations for the school of anti-positivism. Simmel took Kant’s major question of what is nature and reframed it into what is society? Simmel’s aim was to locate some form of individuality in the context of a given culture in order to show that individual taste was declining. Simmel firmly believed that culture moulded individuals by usurping free agency and embedding people into belief systems which they had no say over. Simmel referred to “the cultivation of individuals through the agency of external forms which have been objectified in the course of history”.[i][ Simmel set the foundations for the structuralist view of society using the terms “forms” and “contents” to discuss social relationships, categories he believed were interchangeable. With this in mind Simmel had a great influence of early urban sociology.
Simmel’s ideas were somewhat influenced by Max Weber whereby Simmel used to topic of “personal character” to emulate Weber’s “ideal type”. He also wrote extensively on the philosophy of Schopenhauer and Nietzsche as well as on the works of the artist Rembrandt. [ii] Simmel’s books include such topics and emotion and love and his views held particular sway with the Critical Theory of the Frankfurt School.
[i] Donald Levine (ed) (1971)Simmel: On individuality and social forms. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, p. 6,]
[ii][Simmel Georg  Rembrandt: An Essay in the Philosophy of Art
Bohemianism remains difficult to define, it borders on the notions of the eighteenth century Romantic Movement without the ties of privilege enjoyed by the landed gentry. The Romantic Movement was largely concerned with the conservation of lands under threat by modern industry. Bohemians were opposed to property ownership and although their views differed on many things they did share one very firm belief in the inappropriateness of the bourgeoisie class. Immanuel Kant, in much the same way, also took the trends of his contemporaries into account. He warned against the divisions that might overwhelm society with the taste of one group usurping the taste of another. Indeed, in many respects Kant set the groundwork for what would become a system of modern aesthetics. In his aesthetic philosophy Kant noted how a particular category of good taste could set apart the majority in any one social gathering. Kant’s aim was for cohesion. In Kant’s view beauty could never be the object of property ownership or the realm of a superiority of class. Aesthetic judgement was instead based on subjective feelings. Further, Kant’s idea of taste could not be empirically judged. Good taste was not to be found in any one value or way of life; nor could it be had in generalisations that often applied when issuing judgements. Kant continually emphasised that the validity of good judgement could not belong to preferential group[s]. Taste then is deemed by Kant as being beyond reason. It is a highly experiential phenomenon that is personal rather than universal.
Importantly, Kant stresses that our tastes, even on seemingly unimportant things, can never fully account for our judgements. Of course contemporary modern culture might present as being in opposition to Kant’s view since there is a general feeling that modern technologies have overwhelmed what we understand to be the individual’s independent judgement, not to mention unique subjectivity. Kant would probably have argued that this cannot be the case because every judgement of taste depends on the senses [sensus communis]. Here we see Kant’s assumption that while the senses are a very individual experience there is a general consensus amidst communities which allows judgements of taste be shared at a spiritual [transcendent] level of their existence. In this concept not every member of a community has to agree with a judgement of taste, but every member of the community share in its proposition. Moreover, Kant is not concerned with trivial matters of taste. Rather, he aspires to a universalism of harmony and consensus. With this in mind Kant set the mood for a modern society of a mass consumer taste that unifies populations under the banner of bourgeoisie capitalism.
Art is a symptom of the way we live our lives. As the philosopher and psychoanalyst Slavoj Zizek noted, art is also the panacea for preventing the symptom from becoming a full blown illness.[i] At the same time it produces a wonderful array of ideas, objects and possibilities.
In order to better understand the historical adaptations of culture and taste we need to turn to the works of Immanuel Kant [1724-1804]. It was Kant who gained the most influence in determining style because he linked it to reason and judgement. Plato, Hume and Kant believed that aesthetics had to portray something pure and beautiful, which led to a lengthy inquiry that was designed to find the ‘essence’ of beauty, otherwise referred to as, the ontology of aesthetics. [ii] In Immanuel Kant’s major work Critique and Judgement  aesthetics were determined in relation to the pleasure people acquired from objects and/or events and this was viewed through the ideal of what appeared exquisite and pleasing to the eye, whereby pleasure and beauty where interchangeable and one could not exist without the other.
Kant’s idea of essence and beauty remained steadfast until the beginning of modernity in the 19th century. Social relations also began to change at this time. The 19th century was the period in which the new sociological and psychological sciences were born. Researchers made attempts to understand the social relations that gave rise to culture and taste in order that undesirable traits might be altered. The working class culture was of particular interest to academics because the working class were the biggest threat to the still young and fragile capitalist class. The European Enlightenment was well established, but it was not without contest. The already bitter divide between the labouring class and the landed gentry was to be mediated by the bourgeoisie.
The whole concept of a class was encapsulated in a pyramid of good and bad taste that rendered Kant’s dictate that pleasure and beauty must coexist highly problematic. The middle class bridged the gap between the very rich and the very poor and this led to ongoing tensions. The working class who were largely uneducated and perceived as uncouth were said to be in need of constant constraints. Small misdemeanours could land someone in jail or in many cases a mental asylum. However, the authoritarian state was no solution to keeping people in line because the lower classes were needed as labour in Europe’s bourgeoning manufacturing economies.
The church stepped in with reforms aimed at taming the spirit of the working classes, which in turn deprived them of their culture. The church provided a visual learning experience, which contained metaphysical and spiritual interpretations of the canons and this contributed to a shift in the values and tastes towards more contemporary forms of aesthetics. As time progressed this change in taste was set in place by growing trends in consumerism. It also led many gifted people into a style that was known as Bohemianism.
Bohemians were a diverse group that rejected the bourgeois values. They deplored the ownership of private property and demonstrated this by not having any permanent abode or affiliations with the acquisition of material wealth. They rejected the strict moral codes preferring to live their lives in freedom. This often led to drug and alcohol use and open sexual relationships. They refused to tie wealth to the pursuit of art and literature, art had to exist for art’s sake, it needed to be pursued regardless of whether it generated income, which generally meant the Bohemians were poor and forced to live on their wits for the sake of art and the contentment it brought with it. Bohemian groups consisted of writers, artists, political and philosopher thinkers as well as intellectuals; people who had much to give a society so divided across class lines.
[i] Slavoj Zizek  Art as Symptom in the Sublime Object of Ideology.
[ii] Immanuel Kant  Ontology of aesthetics in Critique of Pure Reason.
Picture: Octave Tassaert’s The Studio, painted in 1845, when the bohemian began in Paris.
Our conscious lives are only a miniscule part of our mental world. Our mind has learned to adapt consciousness in accordance with an established paradigm that resides in a pre-conscious state. Freud  first identified a pre-consciousness as an area in the brain that stores information that can be recalled as opposed to the unconscious where information can not be known and consciousness where we make what is believed to be known decisions. Our brain’s play tricks on us, but we can also play tricks on our brains.
Let me give you an example from the research of the renowned neuroscientist V.S. Ramachandran who tells the story of how a patient after having his leg amputated was experiencing dreadful pain because his brain believed the leg was still present and badly injured. When Ramachandran put a mirror next to the good let and told the man to look at the reflection in the mirror, what he saw was two legs, one real and one reflected. The brain interpreted the images as two good and very real legs and the pain subsequently ceased.[i]
What can we learn from Ramachandran’s mirror experiment? Nothing can be changed from within an old paradigm we must change the paradigm, which in terms of the individual or whole communities requires a kind of rebranding. We need to be able to trick the adaptive unconscious in much the same way ‘it’ attempts to trick our consciousness into thinking we have control over our decisions when almost everything we do is, in part at least, already scripted.
[i]V.S. Ramachandran. Phantoms in the Brain.
Picture by Du Brae 2014.
Outsider art is not included in the general category of aesthetics because society has adopted a single minded approach to beauty and taste. Some theorists have put this down to an adaptive unconscious, [i] or to put it differently our conscious mind is only the tip of the iceberg almost all of our feelings, decisions and behaviourisms are the product of information stored in the unconscious which constantly adapts our perspectives of the world. Indeed, most people still view art as an accessory to their home furnishings and have tastes that are influenced by comfort and liveability; hence they often prefer the soft tones and lines of the classical product. Historically, classical taste has been a way for the middle classes to demonstrate their entrepreneurial values against those of the upper classes, principally the aristocracy. The middle classes have always aspired to be like the upper classes and have expressed this by replicating their tastes. The social class systems have a lot to answer for when it comes to the divisions in art. Outsider Art, for instance was considered to be beyond normality a view that supposedly matched the people who created it. Taste, then is not a neutral phenomena.
Taste is said to be an individual’s personal and cultural patterns of choice and preference.[ii] Most of us subscribe to some form of taste that allows us to make distinctions between things we like and those we do not like or find inappropriate and distasteful. Taste relates to most of our choices in life and it usually governs our actions, but taste is not just targeted towards ‘styles, manners, consumer goods and works of art’ [iii] taste is also about social protocol and rules. We are taught from a very early age to obey the rules of taste so as not to offend anyone. Social and cultural phenomena, or taste, are closely associated with the acquisition of power and social relations as well as the way in which we have all been conditioned to live within the prescribed normality. This in turn can be linked to status, education and social origin. Taste also relates to our mental status. People with different abilities are likely to have different tastes as are people from different socio-economic levels. In other words aesthetic preferences are governed by what we have been taught and believe, which in turn guides many of our life-world experiences.
The Outsider artist does not fall into the mainstream levels of taste because s/he abides by a different level of consciousness. It is not the case that the artist has chosen to be Outside the mainstream of society and its prescribed structuring; it is just the way it is. If one takes the adaptive unconsciousness to be a reality then all logical conscious decisions are subject to adaptation by an unknowing pre-conditioning. This makes understanding and accepting Outsider art very difficult for very many people. We cannot simply offer a quick pill fix to alternative behaviour; albeit many have tried. People often fear the unknown and the misunderstood qualities of the Outsider artist. It is true also, that the Outsider artist might not be an easy person to deal with. Temperament plays a crucial part in all creativity. What is not familiar and comfortable to the individual can impact on the senses in a negative way because it plays havoc with the established feelings and emotions – patterns that have been set in place since early infancy – or what the sociologist Pierre Bourdeau has called the habitus. [iv] When the subject is so fixed into the habitus any change sends a warning to the brain that something is wrong whereby the fight or flight mode of operating will cause reaction and recoil.