'Outside the Boxes: On the Ethics of Outsider Art', by Eloise Grills

Photograph by londoninflames. Reproduced under the Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 2.0 Generic licence.

I discovered Vivian Maier on Tumblr, of all places.

It seemed ironic: the reclusive Chicago photographer, who for more than fifty years had kept 150,000 negatives hidden in dusty boxes, had gone viral.

Although Maier photographed all throughout her life with various devices, perhaps her most iconic work dates from the 1960s, when she used a Rolleiflex and shot in black and white. This camera, which could be held at chest height, contributed to her unique aesthetic. It could be hidden beneath coats, which allowed Maier to clandestinely capture subjects in intimate, vulnerable, often humorous moments. It also necessitated that her subjects were framed from below, which gave them a monumental look, and perhaps elevated her portraits above the banality of their subject matter. Maier also took self-portraits in mirrors and other reflective surfaces as she documented both the intricacies of the street and her relationship with it­—treading the liminal boundary between observer and subject.

The process by which Maier and her art have been exposed began shortly after her death in 2009. Her photographs are now received by an audience—the reluctant artist might disdainfully call it a peanut gallery—on an ever-increasing international scale.

Maier was recently the subject of an exhibition at the Centre for Contemporary Photography in Melbourne, Crossing Paths with Vivian Maier, and a documentary, Finding Vivian Maier, which was shown as part of the Melbourne Festival, and has recently received a general release.

The CCP exhibition presented a selection of Maier’s photographs alongside work by contemporary Australian photographers, video artists and performers. The exhibition highlights her preoccupation with the selfie and aligns it with our current fascination with the format. On a symbolic level, the show insinuates her work into the very photographic tradition from which she took pains to be excluded.

We can see distinct parallels between Maier and Henry Darger (1892­–1973), another outsider artist. Both Maier and Darger lived in Chicago, were deemed eccentrics, were uncoupled, and worked menial jobs (Maier as a nanny, Darger as a custodian). Both hid their prolific bodies of work from the world, and both have been the subject of documentary films.

Pages from Darger’s fifteen-thousand-page illustrated epic, Realms of the Unreal, have been exhibited worldwide, including at the Mueum of Old and New Art in Hobart, and shared interminably across social media.

The most significant similarity between Maier and Darger is that they stimulate the very particular tension we often feel when we encounter the outsider artist. We are compelled not just to understand and to appreciate the work that they left sealed inside boxes, but to apprehend the hidden nature of the humans outside them. This contradicts our second urge—to preserve the sense of discovery when we first encounter their work, in all its mystery.

These artists evoke not just nostalgia for the lost ideal of the enigmatic and elusive artist, but also a wistfulness for a sense of discovery we feel is also irretrievably lost. We are all perhaps looking for something new under the sun, the elusively un-Googleable.

Photograph by Insignifica. Reproduced under the Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 2.0 Generic licence.

Once outsider artists have been exposed, we are compelled to reveal them in the same relentless detail of our present. This urge is entrenched in a spurious rhetoric about the inherently communicative and attention-seeking nature of art. Finding Vivian Maier recounts John Maloof’s finding of the artist’s photographs at auction, and his attempts to discover her motivations for taking them by interviewing those who knew her (particularly the families of the children she nannied). The documentary repeatedly speculates that Maier would have been comfortable with being posthumously recognised.

Finding Vivian Maier ’s opening sequence contains a montage of news footage about the artist, in which one anchor states: ‘in death she found the fame she never had in life.’ Statements like this, variations on which recur throughout the documentary, reveal an expectation that people make art for validation, or to be remembered by others: a sentiment echoed by John Maloof, who tells a reporter: ‘my mission is to put Vivian in the history books.’

Photograph by Angelo Amboldi. Reproduced under the Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 2.0 Generic licence.

However private the artist may have been during her life, it is clear that she cannot escape the presumption that art-making is synonymous with self-disclosure and preservation. It is important, however, to consider that this may not be a self-evident truth, but instead the product of cultural and social mores about the purpose of art.

The sharing of content has increasingly become concurrent with our creation of it. The photo sharing tools adopted almost ubiquitously across the internet—including on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, and Flickr, among other social media sites—create an assumption that we primarily take photographs for the purpose of sharing what we see with other people.

Photograph by Paul Riismandel. Reproduced under the Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 2.0 Generic licence.

However, it is equally possible that Maier’s taking and keeping photographs had more to do with her obsession for capturing time than any desire to share her talent with the world. Finding Vivian Maier lends some support to this hypothesis, with children she cared for emphasising the way she treated her room as a private sanctum, requesting an industrial lock to keep it secured. Maier’s obsession with hoarding was not restricted to photographic negatives, either, but extended to film, cassette tapes, and newspapers.

As she grew older, Maier’s hoarding became more extreme. She filled her employer’s houses with stacks of newspapers—becoming hostile when any were removed—kept many of her photographs undeveloped, and rarely made prints from those she did develop.

Photograph by LN. Reproduced under the Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 2.0 Generic licence.

Maier was clearly someone who guarded her work jealously, a fact acknowledged by one of the interviewees in Finding Vivian Maier, who argues that she ‘would never have let this happen if she had known about it. They were her babies. She wouldn’t have put her babies on display.’

John Maloof, too, expresses some doubt about his motivations for exposing Maier’s work: ‘I can’t help but feel a little uncomfortable or guilty exposing the work of someone who did not want to be exposed.’ But he does it anyway.

In the same way, Darger’s paintings and writings were most likely intended for an audience of one. Darger’s masterwork, Realms of the Unreal—known in full as The Story of the Vivian Girls, in What is Known as the Realms of the Unreal, of the Glandeco-Angelinian War Storm, Caused by the Child Slave Rebellion —describes a fantastic battle between the famous Vivian Princess Girls and the Catholic Nations, in a war against the Glandelians, fallen Catholics who enslave and torture children.

Photograph by Brehan Todd. Reproduced under the Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic licence.

Darger’s life informs his novel: he was kept in an asylum as a child, and was the victim of hideous treatment by the Catholic Church. The First World War, which took place while Darger was writing Realms of the Unreal, is also echoed in the text’s structure.

Although the text frequently addresses an imagined audience member, it is likely that Darger, who is thought to have been autistic, used the work to play out his confused and upset feelings about the world; that he was writing for himself and God, no one else.

New York gallerist Edward Winkelman has suggested that Darger’s work is not art, as it lacks any communicative purpose. While ignoring the possibility that a work’s status as art could be based on the viewer’s interpretation rather than the artist’s, it nevertheless problematises the exposure of Darger’s work.

Darger and Maier continue to be exposed to the public. This exposure is often justified as a necessary contribution to the public good: in an age where we have low expectations for our own privacy, we excuse it as an appropriate means to culturally vindicated ends.

Photograph by Liesbeth dem Toom. Reproduced under the Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 2.0 Generic licence.

Even the concept of the work’s inherent aesthetic value is not without its problems. Although many of those interviewed in Finding Vivian Maier argue for her work’s aesthetic worth—photographer Mary Ellen Mark credits Maier with a ‘great eye, great framing, a sense of humour… she had it all,’—it is also made clear that her work has yet to be accepted by the high art establishment.

Mary Ellen Mark suggests this is because ‘something is wrong … there is a piece of the puzzle missing’. This missing puzzle piece, though, can be seen from another angle as a form of value external to the photographs themselves: the mystery of Maier’s life. Another interviewee admits: ‘I find the mystery of it more interesting than the work itself. I’d love to know more about this person, and I don’t think I can do that through her work.’

The value of Darger’s work is also commonly defined by its mystery, a reading amply demonstrated by the way it has been absorbed into an art world context. As in the 2013 exhibition at Hobart’s Museum of Old and New Art, ‘The Red Queen’, Darger’s paintings are often displayed individually, or as one or two panels, without the accompanying written text. This is despite Darger having originally intended the paintings to illustrate his epic text, tying them to it and to other images in a logical sequence.

This practice of separating Darger’s paintings from their context is a radical interference with the artist’s intent, comparable to the way fragments of Egyptian relics are often displayed in galleries. Shrouded in a rhetoric of mystery and unknowability, their true purpose is—allegedly—lost to the past. The enigma of the artefact, and its creator, adds a dimension of value external to the work.

Photograph by Liesbeth dem Toom. Reproduced under the Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 2.0 Generic licence.

The appeal of this sense of mystery and unknowability is linked to our sense that Darger and Maier lived that most antiquated of things: a truly private life. We wonder what it would have been like to be so perfectly obscure: we might even crave a similar privacy for ourselves.

Of course, in a world where the private and public spheres have become irreversibly melded, this seems an impossibilty. While having more privacy may be possible, it is not realistic: once one has been inducted into an expressive system of blogs and status updates, rather than the diary or other anachronistic media, it becomes extremely difficult to leave.

The way we understand this work, then, reveals something of a collective ambivalence toward this cultural moment. We at once romanticise the privacy and elusiveness of the past, and expect the invasive growth of everything afforded by the innovations in technology and communication that define our present. Living in a world where everything is at our fingertips evokes contradictory feelings: while is possible to know nearly everything, it is almost impossible to discover anything for ourselves.

Photograph by COD Newsroom. Reproduced under the Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic licence.

So maybe sharing the work of artists like Maier and Darger on social media is more apt than ironic. In any case, Maier’s photographs are decidedly Tumblr-ready (to use a term so oft-repeated as to be almost bereft of meaning). Her repeated use of selfies invite comparison with the Tumblog of many a teen, and her street photographs resonate on a frequency of nostalgia to which many Tumblr users are attuned. Darger’s use of appropriation and collage, too, is decidedly Tumblr-eque – if not entirely self-aware.

But I think there is another element to these artists’ appeal that explains their ubiquity online: they represent a democratic ideal in which the public can find and appreciate art outside the canon, giving it a democratic context and value.

In some ways, the popularity of Maier and Darger’s work is a celebration of social media’s capacity to facilitate grassroots movements. As Maloof notes in Finding Vivian Maier, over scenes of people engaging with her pieces in galleries: ‘they’re not waiting for the establishment: they’re claiming Maier’s work for themselves.’

Photograph by Angelo Amboldi. Reproduced under the Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 2.0 Generic licence.

Outsider artists don’t just inspire a sense of wonder and discovery, or an urge to share their work: they also afford us a sense of ownership – an authority to decide who is popularised, and who matters, in a new way.

By acting as tireless cheerleaders of these artists on social media and elsewhere, we are able to reassert our own value, and agency, as appreciators of their work.

To insinuate ourselves within the frame.

Eloise Grills is a photographer, and a writer of essays, memoir, comics and interviews. She lives and works in Melbourne, Australia.