Wednesday, June 17, 2009

WHEN IS THE OUTSIDE NOT?


When my friend Sydney came to visit, she brought me a very intriguing book, called “Blackstock’s Collections—The Drawings of an Artistic Savant.” It was interesting to me right away to see that more familiar term “autistic” savant had been replaced by “artistic.” I’m not positive, but I think “artistic savant” is neither an official designation, nor in common usage. My impression is that is was coined for the book, to avoid the pejorative associations many still have with the idea of an autistic person—after all, the term in use before “autistic savant” was “idiot savant.” I Googled the term autistic savant, and it led me straight to a brief, fascinating Wikipedia article on Savant Syndrome. Here is part of what it had to say:

According to Treffert, about half of persons with savant syndrome have autistic disorder, while the other half have another developmental disability, mental retardation, brain injury or disease. He says, "... not all autistic persons have savant syndrome and not all persons with savant syndrome have autistic disorder". Other researchers state that autistic traits and savant skills may be linked, or have challenged some earlier conclusions about savant syndrome as "hearsay, uncorroborated by independent scrutiny”. Though it is even more rare than the savant condition itself, some savants have no apparent abnormalities other than their unique abilities. This does not mean that these abilities weren't triggered by a brain injury of some sort but does temper the theory that all savants are disabled and that some sort of trade-off is required. (see Prodigious Savants below).

The book Sydney gave me is a picture book of Gregory Blackstock’s visual lists. With typical autistic focus, Blackstock meticulously catalogues life around him with amazing and endearing detail. But that’s just the tip of his personal iceberg. Among his many other skills, he can play just about any insturment he picks up, and speaks 12 languages, many learned from co-workers during his 25 year employment as a dishwasher at the Seattle, Washington Atheletic Club. Retired since 2006, Blackstock is enjoying his free time and his fame. And while he is described as a classic autistic person, one look at this drawings, and it’s easy to see he deserves the term “artistic” as much as anyone can.

In reading about Blackstock, I came across another term that’s used to describe works that fall outside the regular accepted venues of contemporary artists: Outsider Art. Although this term was first coin back in 1972 as an English synonym for Art brut—a term used by French artist Jean Dubuffet to describe art done outside the parameters of official culture. In Dubuffet’s case, he had a special interest in art produced by insane asylum patients. These days, the English term covers a much broader range of art, including naïve art, folk art and art done by savants.


Another artist who was definitely an outsider, and likely an autistic savant, was the late Henry Darger (1892-1973). His unconventional childhood and heremetic adult life culminated in his astonishing and prodigious (15,145 pages of hand-lettered text plus hundreds of illustrations) life’s work, known by a portion of its title—“In the Realms of the Unreal.” A documentary, by the same title, delves into Darger’s background, and the posthumous discovery of his elaborate fantasy story, as well as his numerous other works.

Henry Darger died one year after the term Outsider Art was first coined, and appreciation of outsider artists was in its infancy, so he missed all the appreciation that has developed over the intervening decades. If his drawings and writing had seen the light of day back then, he might not have been fully appreciated in his time the way Blackstock is today: Gregory Blackstock had a gallery exhibition in Seattle in 2006. And this year will mark the 17th annual Outsiders Art Fair in New York. But then again, gentle reclusive Henry might have been very uncomfortable with the attention. But Henry Darger was not left outside in the cold, and has become a cultural icon, with references to him and his fantastic world showing up in poems, songs and a host of pop cultural references. Perhaps outsider is a term that, like idiot, that need to be replaced.

16 comments:

bobbie said...

I am not familiar with these artists. Thank you for the information.

What amazing drawings from Blackstock!

Lin said...

interesting info...different is many times labeled many things by those not understanding or appreciating. what is normal?

Sylvia K said...

I always learn something fascinating when I visit your blog! And today is certainly no exception. Amazing drawings by Blackstock. I see I have some more exploring to do!

Thanks, Deborah!

bobbie said...

Hi again. Re your comment - thanks for the link. I loved the bottle music!

Shellmo said...

This is very interesting - especially as I have a step-brother that has aspbergers sydrome (a milder form.) He is extremely intelligent in math.

Aleta said...

I found this post to be especially interesting. One of my friend's has a son who has autism. He is very bright in many areas - math, music, but he is not social. She has brought him to several different schools until she found one that would cater to his needs. They have small classes and are very social and it's helped him a lot. I'll have to share the first book you mentioned with her. I know she'd appreciate it.

fourwindsphotojournal said...

Amazing, isn't it? I knew a bit about this already, but much more now, thanks to you.

I will bet quite a few artists would love to have that one-focus ability. The everyday part of life takes up so much time, there is not much left for the creative mind to work.

Betsy from Tennessee said...

Very interesting post, Deb. I have two blogger friends who have autistic children. I personally have never had any experience in this area---but the more we know, the more we can understand these situations.

Thanks again.
Hugs,
Betsy

mom/caryn said...

This was such a good read! It was not only informative and interesting... it touched a place in my heart. It's a wonderful thing to know that everyone can find some way to express their deepest longings, their personal perceptions of the life they're caught up in...

Thanks for researching and sharing.

Cloudia said...

Darger! The Vivian Girls (?)
I smirkingly described myself as an outsider artist in my Tuesday post, here you go into it and awaken us to the wonder of humans and of art. Great post, Deborah!!!

Quiet Paths said...

Our son is fascinated by these artists. What a very interesting topic and great post.

Rachel Fox said...

Outsider art...I may have to look into that.
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Kathiesbirds said...

Deborah, I like this post and all the info. I have heard of outsider art and my brother has even catoagorized my art that way but I would never think of myself in the same catagory as these guys. Amazing! I am heading to New York tomorrow. I wonder if this exhibition is there now?

Indrani said...

God has His own ways, if He disables someone He surely makes the person amply talented. This was a very interesting read, Deborah. Such interesting pics and talents.

Beth P. said...

Thank you, Deborah. Very interesting stuff.

yes, a new name is needed, but it seems we are moving forward a bit?

Sue said...

your posts are always so interesting and so informative...I do like the phrase "artistic savant." The question is, where is the line drawn between a "savant" and a "genius" or "prodigy"? How would be classify Mozart today?