Outsider Art

Term: Fall 2010

Subject Code: GSOC

Course Number: 5288

It is a cliche of current cultural criticism that traditional boundaries -- between high and low art; art and politics; art and life itself -- have become hopelessly blurred. When piles of bricks are displayed in museums, when music is composed for performance underwater -- when a few minutes of silence is called 'music' -- the boundaries become so fluid that conventional understandings of art strained. This is manifest in the difficulties that arise among art historians, aestheticians, social scientists and policy makers when they try to delineate what is art, what it should include or exclude, whether and how it should be evaluated, what importance to assign to art, and whether or not to support the artistic community with public funds. This class we seek to understand these changes in the meaning of art in two ways. First, we survey recent sociological theories of art, reading texts by Becker, Bourdieu, Geertz, among others. We then examine how these theories illuminate a concrete empirical phenomenon, "outsider art" -- that is, works created by "pure" amateurs (be they folk artists, madmen, hobbyists or homeless people), putatively unsullied by academic or commercial pressures. Our larger goal is to explore myths and realities of the socially marginal and the aesthetically pure by analyzing the role each myth plays in the ongoing transvaluation of contemporary culture.

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