Brian Gibson: Fessing Up

Featured image: Agnes Richter, needlepoint jacket [notmodernart.tumblr.com]


Following Brian Gibson’s fantastic previous post, entitled ‘What does it mean to be an Outsider?‘, he has written again for kdoutsiderart. This time, focusing on ‘confessional’ art. Here, her discusses whether artists who have experienced trauma or health issues feel ‘obliged’ to create art that is overtly confessional?

There are a lot of people (past and present) whom I really admire who have the ability to write down, draw and paint to reveal a deeply personal, integral part of themselves succinctly and often explicitly. I have the greatest respect for those people who have such courage, placing a personal account of a particular aspect of their life in the public realm. There are certain works that have completely stirred me emotionally: Frida Kahlo’s drawing of her miscarriage and a painting of an abusive relationship by an artist showing at the Outside In Exhibition at Pallant House Gallery and the Outside In: West exhibition at the Somerset Museum are but two.

When so much art of the modern era can be said to be autobiographical and increasingly stacked online into categories, is it wrong or demeaning to place such works into a genre defined as ‘confessional art’? I certainly don’t think that the two works which I have mentioned were specifically created to fit a market within a particular realm of art practice, even so, there are some artists such as Tracy Emin who seem to have made a very successful career out of  ‘fessing up’.

Personally, I don’t know what to make of Tracy Emin anymore. She is now very much part of the art world establishment (I don’t begrudge her success), having evolved from what could be considered a quasi-outsider stance, in part due to the way in which she presents herself and her  work, tapping into the psychoanalytic influenced work of Louise Bourgeois and such works from the Prinzhorn collection as Agnes Richter’s needlepoint jacket. Whatever one thinks of Ms Emin herself or her work, she  seems to know how to profit from fessing up her past, whilst remaining in the driving seat. Likewise, the pianist James Rhodes has spoken openly about his experiences of abuse and mental health issues, he too seems to be in the driving seat, which to be honest is a pretty enviable position. Whilst this tack might work for some individuals, I am not so sure if this should be considered a creative formula for all those artists who have experienced mental health issues or trauma of some kind.  Even so, it can be tempting to mis-read such paths to success, acceptance and acknowledgement as being primarily down to being completely open; revealing your trauma, displaying it in your artwork, and putting it in the public realm for all to see.

I fundamentally believe that people should not be silenced for what they have experienced. I have heard enough about people in glass houses and it being better to remain silent than be thought a fool. However, with the increase of social media platforms, I have noticed an increase in people telling their story because they can, but I wonder what happens after the rush of ‘likes’, when people find something new to share, does anything change significantly for the person concerned?  There are some wonderful blogs out there with some incredibly powerful images; there are also other stories which I fear will go unheard and unseen.  It takes a lot of courage to fess up, to speak out and say something but my concern is that a lot of confessional art will over time be reduced to the status of another form of ‘the selfie’.


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