"Nothing is more desirable than to be released from an affliction, but nothing is more frightening than to be divested of a crutch." -James Baldwin
We are addicted to labels. They conveniently allow us to simplify the unknown through the lens of our perspective. We sustain ourselves on a steady diet of simplified headlines, quips and soundbites and when we do, we cheat ourselves out of opportunities to learn.
As the art world mourned the death of artist Thornton Dial today, the majority of obituary headlines described him as a "self-taught, outsider" and a master of "folk" art. Admittedly I didn't know much about Dial's history, but when two arts writers I respect also took issue with these limiting descriptors, I decided I needed to learn more. Dial's career spanned 30 years and included numerous solo shows in New York galleries. He was featured in the 2000 Whitney Biennial, had a major retrospective at the IMA, and museums including the Met, the MFA Houston and the American Folk Art Museum include his work in their collections. To distill such an impressive, expansive career to "outsider" art diminishes the importance of his career accomplishments.
To me what was interesting about Thornton Dial was that his artistic career began when his first career ended. Dial was a railroad car metal fabricator at the Pullman Standard plant in Birmingham, Alabama. In his spare time he collected and repurposed objects into "things" that he never considered art. He pursued his creative practice full time after the Pullman plant closed, and when his work caught the attention of a prominent collector in Atlanta, Dial's artistic career began to take off.
His work has roots in African visual and oral traditions that were transformed to withstand the oppression of slavery and Jim Crow. Some of these artistic and cultural mediums include quilting, southern yard art and collage.
Critical acceptance of Dial's work appeared to be bifurcated between scholars and media. Dial's artistic sponsor was able to garner praise of his work by a small group of important curators and academics, yet his critical reception by the press was inconsistent at best and in some cases damning. Further complicating his reception within the art community, his work did not fit into a convenient, established "school" among art luminaries. Once the "outsider" label was affixed to Dial's work, it stuck.
A tale of two artists: An enfant terrible and a folk artist.
"Robert Rauschenberg (American, 1925–2008) was renowned as an enfant terrible, famous for his work in the 1950s, in the period between Abstract Expressionism and Pop Art. Born in Port Arthur, TX, Rauschenberg was barely exposed to art until he attended school. In the 1950s, Rauschenberg began to incorporate any material he could scavenge into his combines (sculptural collages) by incorporating found objects, traditional brush strokes, photographs, and any other materials he encountered."
"Thornton Dial (American, 1928–2016) was a self-taught artist from Emelle, AL, known for his large-scale assemblages that address issues of racism, war, and homelessness. Often referred to as an “Outsider artist,” Dial received no formal training, but, from a young age, was given to constructing sculptures from found objects and other recycled materials."
What's interesting to note about these Artnet descriptions is the similarity in the two artists' process, however their legacies could not be more different. Rauschenberg is hailed as a pioneer and Dial identified as an outsider. They were contemporaries, both from the south, both undoubtedly influenced by the south, yet neither of the Artnet bios touch on the distinctly African American artistic traditions that influenced their work. Rauschenberg ushered in a new artistic movement, while Dial was a really good folk artist.
What makes one a historical, artistic master and the other an outsider? Certainly education, criticism and institutional support the three legged stool required to sit in the art world. It's an ecosystem that is sustained by this criteria to this day. We somehow convince ourselves that artists like Thornton Dial are an exception, but how do we really know this to be true when we fail to understand and recognize the important cultural traditions that shaped these artistic geniuses?
Today I had to confront my own cognitive dissonance. Had I accepted that label in the obit headlines, I would have denied myself an opportunity to learn about an important artist and a lesser known artistic medium. "Self-taught" and "outsider" do not mean "lesser than", but the reality is that today's art world uses labels as the social currency to navigate within it. These labels relegate many worthy artists outside the circle. Language matters. Messages matter. Why? Because they shape history. Looking beyond labels by challenging them changes history.