In this post, writer Nick Moss responds to Cornelia Parker’s current installation at Frith Street Gallery and reflects on how, in opposition to Parker’s ‘insider art’ – which feeds us messages of unquestioned assumption – outsider art has the power to contain the multitude of voices that go unheard in the art world.
The first reaction of anyone who sees themselves as “progressive” when first encountering Cornelia Parker’s current installation at Frith Street Gallery (28 April 2017-21 June 2017) will doubtless be euphoric. All the right boxes are ticked- it’s a mocked-up nightmare of the USA under President Donald Trump. In 2016 Parker was commissioned by the Metropolitan Museum of Art to create a site-specific installation for the museum’s roof garden. The ensuing work, Transitional Object (PsychoBarn) was apparently inspired by the paintings of Edward Hopper and by the Bates family’s mansion from Alfred Hitchcock’s 1960 film Psycho. According to the press blurb “PsychoBarn loomed on the city’s skyline as a harbinger of things to come – signalling that all was not so well in the American psyche.”
Parker visited New York at the end of October 2016 to give lectures about the PsychoBarn prior to its de-installation. Its closing date was Halloween, “the old festival of All Saint’s Eve, which has been famously elevated in the USA to a theatrical celebration far removed from its folkloric and religious origins.” Parker and her husband used their iPhones to film people dressed up on the streets. The resulting video American Gothic 2017 “captures ghoulish revellers having their last hurrah, mingling with the crowds of the un-dead. On All Hallows night in Greenwich Village every American archetype, good and bad, seemed to be out promenading the sidewalks, from superheroes, vampires, clowns, ghouls, trolls, Freddie Krueger and Hannibal Lecter, Uncle Sam, Dorothy and the characters from The Wizard of Oz.” The scenes are displayed in slow motion and accompanied by a slowed-down location soundtrack, which provides a low drone as background noise. On a 4th screen is footage of Trump supporters outside Trump Towers, celebrating his election. This is shown in real time, but without sound.
I have no axe to grind against Cornelia Parker. I have been moved by some of her previous work-Anti-Mass particularly. This is therefore not a critique of her work per se. It is, however, written as Parker takes up her role as 2017 official election artist, and reflects therefore, necessarily, on the politics inherent to American Gothic, and what they say about “progressives’” responses to the Trump election.
The first thing to note is that, were the Halloween scenes to be played in real time they would show happy, pissed revellers looking to dress up and party. This is no pre-apocalyptic “last hurrah” , no mournful parade-it’s a time when the streets are taken over by ordinary people, masking themselves and taking advantage of their anonymity to get absolutely wasted ! In slowing down the footage Parker is passing judgement on the revellers purported departure from the “folkloric and religious origins” of the festival. I’m always bemused by the fact that people who describe themselves using that mealy-mouthed epithet “progressive” stop seeing the liberatory element of the abandonment of “tradition”, when said liberation involves working class people behaving riotously in the street. George Orwell , in Down and Out in Paris and London, contends that “Fear of the mob is a superstitious fear. It is based on the idea that there is some mysterious, fundamental difference between rich and poor, as though they were two different races.” Parker manipulates her footage of the crowd and in doing so her fear of that crowd (and eo ipso that of her presumed audience) is made apparent.
So the procession of ghouls is manipulated to meet the need of another crowd-that embodied in disillusioned progressive opinion- who want to see their passive despair reflected back at them in the comfort of the gallery space. And on the 4th screen they get to stare open-mouthed at the crowds of ecstatic Trump supporters. As already noted, this footage is silent. This is a shame-as we see groups such as Blacks for Trump and Latinos For Trump actively explaining their motivations to the camera, but are denied the chance to hear them. Presumably we are supposed to be already part of a consensus that they have nothing to say worth hearing. It is worth noting though, that the primary claim of the working class and poor people who voted for Trump, for Le Pen, for Brexit, was that thy were “the forgotten”-the casualties of deindustrialisation whose voices now counted for nothing. A working class vote for A right wing politics that in the long run are against the voters’ interests is,in essence, an expression of powerlessness. It is a gesture against the political Establishment, for sure, but more than that, it demonstrates a belief that change can no longer be effected by solidarity-that you can only , for instance,get new housing stock by driving out the family next door. It is the beginning of the war of the poor against the poor. Such being the case, we might want to consider how “progressive” is an artwork that actively erases the voices of those who are already “the forgotten.”
In his Outline of a Theory of Practice (1977) Pierre Bourdieu noted that “The most successful ideological effects are those which have no need for words, and ask no more than complicitous silence”. American Gothic demonstrates this precisely by engaging us in the act of “complicitous silencing” of the voices of the Trump supporters. We are seduced again into the act of ignoring those who feel themselves “forgotten”, while the parade of slow-motion grotesques goes on around us.
What we have then is the opposite of what first appearances lead us to believe. Once all of the manipulation of footage, all the technological mediation is stripped away, the 4 screens show the raucous celebrations of Trump supporters, and the Halloween debaucheries of the costumed revellers of New York. What we have in fact is a 4 screen technological effacement of the voice of the working class, a 4 screen installation that doesn’t challenge its anticipated audience , doesn’t provoke, but tells them just what they want to hear. Trump is bad, and these are frightening times. We can agree. We can accept that it’s not Cornelia Parker’s role to point us towards a way out of the Bad Times. But we should surely expect more from art than a (perhaps unconscious) reproduction of Bourdieu’s “complicitous silence”-in this case in fact a “complicitous silencing.”
As much as we might flinch at the difficulties inherent in the use of the descriptor “outsider art”, we might best see the logic of the term in relation to those art forms antonymous to it. There is a sense in which much art now-the Hirsts, the Quinns etc-by virtue of their cost, their materials, their intended audience, might best be called “oligarch art.” But if outsider art has an antonymous counterpart art form, then that must be, logically, something like an “insider art”-and American Gothic is insider art paradeigma. It does nothing other than offer platitudes to an audience who will already agree with the point it so clumsily makes. Outsider art, then, must be the opposite of this. It will contain the multitude of voices that go unheard in the art world. The loud, the ugly, the distressed, the vicious,as well as the sublime, the beautiful, the soothing. It will admit all that is excluded from the discourse of the mainstream. It may do this therapeutically, as pharmakon, as celebration. What it will not do is silence, look away from or exclude. In that sense then, as opposition to insider art, we might still make positive usage of the term.