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Location: Toronto, Ontario, Canada

Writer/Curator/Founder of The Autism Acceptance Project. Contributing Author to Between Interruptions: Thirty Women Tell the Truth About Motherhood, and Concepts of Normality by Wendy Lawson, and soon to be published Gravity Pulls You In. Writing my own book. Lecturer on autism and the media and parenting. Current graduate student Critical Disability Studies and most importantly, mother of Adam -- a new and emerging writer.

“There is no hope unmingled with fear, and no fear unmingled with hope.” -- Baruch Spinoza

Sunday, April 30, 2006


The Irony of Outsider Art

Soon to be on the web: The Joy of Autism: Redefining Human Ability and Quality of Life. Exhibitions October 5-November 5, Lonsdale Gallery, Toronto featuring:

Jonathan Lerman
Larry Bissonnette
Donna Williams
Michael Moon and
MukiBaum Centre for Complex Disabilities Students

and Lectures at the Al Greene Theatre, Toronto October 10-17 featuring (confirmed):

Michelle Dawson
Laurent Mottron
Nehama Baum
Ellen Yack
Susan Senator
Valerie Paradiz

Other tentative speakers and events yet to be announced.


The purpose of this event is to bring a different view about autism to the public. There are many parents out there getting their messages from the media. The media makes autism a "mystery," "a puzzle," an "epidemic" of such wide-spread proportions, that parents feel hopeless and worse, transmit this message in the way they feel about their children. Instead of receiving support for education, we pay for expensive services and "therapies," and wait for cures that will never come (at least for the autism part, not the subset of "symptoms")because autism, as stated by those classified as autistic, is not a disease, it is a way of being.

Quality of life issues will be discussed at length. By adapting, viewing autism from this angle of competence and ability, requiring support in the schools and in places of employment, our individual and familial QOL can be enhanced significantly.

In discussing the art, as I did when I organized the Jonathan Lerman exhibit last December, I try to avoid sensationalizing it at all costs. It is not "good art" because it was created by an autistic artist so we coo at it. An autistic artist is not a savant just because s/he can create art. At a cost to humanity at large, classifications have hindered as well as helped us. It is much like receiving that autism label -- a frame of reference that later means nothing. Labels can serve to guide us in how to support people, and hinder us by giving us a kind of "permission" to judge the person on their label alone. For me, labels, classifications are my expanding and contracting universe, this constant push-pull between regarding Adam for who he is, and helping me to understand that what makes him different is okay, something positive -- not an abnormality. As humans, we construct and deconstruct all the time. This process is important.

Someone alerted me about the sensationalizizng aspect of art of by artists with autism. As there will be, in art-historical terms (or construction let us say), "levels" of art in the sense that some work, like writing, is more fluid and natural, others a little more "contrived," it is vital to note that all of the work is important. Some people, like Jonathan Lerman, whose talent comes naturally, we would view for the art itself -- it doesn't matter that he is autistic. But we are fascinated that he is because this knowledge can also open up a window to understanding that he, despite his limited language ability, or his different "behaviours," sees the world acutely. Other work, like the work from the MukiBaum Centre, where art is used in more "therapeutic" ways, allows people to self-actualize, communicate, relax and more. If we view a piece by a schizophrenic artist, who draws their hallucinations, then we can validate that person and those hallucinations -- a better view than to call a person "crazy." It respects a fundamental difference between "their" world and "ours," perhaps building bridges to understanding that we are, artists, musicians or not, all quite similar despite our differences.

I don't like exhibiting work just because it is "done by so and so." In the art world, there is as much work as I don't like as much as I do, but it is a part of an art-historical discourse, and many who are not in the art world think it's all elitest bologne, but it's not, it is, it is all of it. People have been trying to answer the "what is art?" question, at least since the "modern" movement began in the 1800's.

So, here I am coming from two backgrounds now (art historical and parent trying to change the perspective of autism in the sense of questioning and looking at human diversity as a strength as opposed to a weakness thereby attributing hierarchical value to human beings), trying to bring the discourse to the fore through art -- NOT by sensationalizing it, but by being critical of the work itself as well as by ensuring that a form of communication is being valued here. As an art historian, we as a society regard the art as much as we do the person making the art. This is a fact. We are curious about the maker, their frame of reference. So, even though we often want the work to stand for itself, we as humans must know the author. Is that a bad thing? I don't think so.

I've always said that the challenge is to avoid the sensational -- did Jonathan receive media attention because he was a great artist, because he is autistic? Both? And when bringing attention to the artist and the art, on the other hand, do we not begin to pay attention to ability and begin to view others as competent, whole? There is still value in this (and I know we have, as a blogging community, debated this on a similar topic with Hollywood and basketball -- which is both dissimilar and similar).

Here are some good quotes I considered ellaborating for my exhibition essay. We live in a world where the current classification of this art is "outsider." I agree that in an ideal world, all art will be "insider," but that is not the nature of the art world -- to declassify.

Here are the quotes. I am thinking of calling my exhibition essay, as I did this post, The Irony of Outsider Art:

Lyle Rexer, Alexander Marra, and others argue that this raw art, or Outsider Art, art by the untrained, is on the demise as cures, drugs and therapies have dulled the senses and "different" minds:

"The insane were, in the beginning of the 20th century, sadly locked away in asylums and treated with electric shocks and other horrible detrimental "treatments." Ironically though, they were also given loads of pencils, paints and other materials to occupy them, in hopes that this would keep them from violent behavior. With all the time on their hands, being locked up 24-7 -- away from reality, the outside world, they found refuge in their art, where a newly created world of their own devise, had found a place to manifest itself. With this society of the insane dispersed and obliterated by drugs and more "humane" treatments, the society of the insane may have ultimately found its demise, at the hand of those who had once appreciated and cultivated it." (Alexander Marra, Outsider Art: The Art of the Insane).

Lyle Rexer, an Outsider Art-historian also notes the same cynism of a culture that has barraged it's differently-abled citizens with drugs and therapies:

"Within and beyond institutional settings, the expanding armamentarium of drugs to manage psychiatric conditions appears to have diminished the output and intensity of artistic production. As a result, some theorists insist that the time of art brut is long since over. Given the complex circumstances of creativity... any alteration of the significant conditions of inner experience could make the form-giving impulse disappear. Art making requires reservoirs of energy and concentration as well as an inner tension and irresolution that powerful therapies can devitalize or suppress. Nevertheless, the impulse to form is so bound up with conditions such as schizophrenia and autism that art-making -- art brut, true outsider art - will not disappear until the sources of these conditions, not merely their unacceptable behaviors, are eradicated." (Rexer pp.167-68)

There is some irony in the possible end to Outsider Art and its seasonable acceptance among society and the art establishment at such exhibitions as the annual Outsider Art Fair in New York -- increasingly frequented by collectors and museum curators. It suggests a downward trend and a homogenization, and raises ethical issues about cures, therapies and human difference overall.


Blogger Bronwyn G said...



Good work.

We could use some of that in Melbourne.

7:06 PM  
Blogger Kristina Chew said...

Perhaps it's Autsider Art.

7:25 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

To my understanding, as a viewer, "seeing" art is inevitably an attempt to translate a visual into a verbal experience. Everything I can learn about the social and cultural environment that produces art will no doubt be valuable in my understanding of the visual perception.

Your article is food for thought.


10:41 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

hey this is alexander marra. i was wondering where you found my paper on outsider art and why you chose to quote me. i am a historian foremost, not an art historian specifically, but in my studies with cultural anthropology i focuss on attitudes toward the marginalised and so-called insane in our society throughout the ages, especially the late 19th and early 20th centuries. if you can, please email me back at so we can discuss this topic further. i would be interested to know your background and your works on the art of the insane or anything else you're working on. thanks and look forward to hearing from you

12:24 PM  
Blogger Estee Klar-Wolfond said...

Will do. I am an art historian and curator of art, and writer. I enjoyed reading your paper which I found online.

2:54 PM  

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