Wild Art

October 14th, 2013, Phaidon Press
with David Carrier

Wild Art is the vast proliferation (like wild vegetation) of art forms that occur beyond the perimeters of what we call the established art world, or the Art System. These are forms of art that tend to escape the attention of art experts, art academics, art curators, art critics. They fall short of catching the eyes or ears of cultural channels.

Yet, these forms of art (parallel to, but ignored by, the Art World) are constituted of artists who, mostly professional people, have developed considerable skills, each in their respective media (whether it be the sidewalks, a plate of food, a pile of sand, or a block of ice), that forced our admirations as we came in contact with them. We decided to explore this extraordinarily vast field – a kind of new cultural frontier, mostly unmapped, unchartered — and offer a sample of what might be enjoyed for anyone who keeps their minds and eyes opened.

Regardless, these artists do not need the assent of the art world. They are already very well established, each in her/his art world. What came out of our investigation is the observation that there is not ONE art World, with  one single, monolithic system of values, but a plethora of art worlds, each with its exclusive system of values. We decided to enter each of these worlds — knowing, of course, that we have necessarily left many out.

Wild Art is not Outside Art.

Wild Art is not Self-Taught Art.

Wild Art is not Naive Art.

This is an introduction to the vast number of wild creative forms that proliferate outside the well-groomed art world. The contemporary art world is much concerned with the changing status of art shown in art galleries and museums.  Critics, curators and collectors devote a great deal of attention to determining the leading emerging artists. Their colleagues in art history are much preoccupied with considering the implications of these judgments for museum collections.

We are concerned with art that stands outside the art world. Art world art is art that has been tamed by the exhibition system. But just as wild animals live outside the realm of domesticated cats and dogs, so wild art exists outside of this art world, where life is governed by a complex bureaucratic system.

There is no difference in kind between wild art and art world art. Any one of our wild works of art could enter the art world. Indeed for more than a century, the art world has very often taken in previously excluded artists. Life within the art world is exciting because of these constant revolutions, in which an aesthetic system no sooner is presented than it becomes obsolete. But what has been maintained, through all of these changes in taste is a distinction in kind between art world and wild art. It is that distinction which we question. There is no difference between judging a tattoo, graffiti or a sand sculpture and an abstract painting in the museum.

Our analysis starts from first principles.

Every time we look at an object, we make an aesthetic judgment. This is especially true of objects meant to please us aesthetically – art objects. Yet ironically the vast majority of these objects never feature in art books, galleries or museums. This book presents a sample of the largely unseen, astronomic number of art objects, artefacts and art situations produced around the world, which are meant to arouse strong aesthetic emotions. We do not see them because they are far from us, geographically (this book covers worldwide art objects) and ideologically (these art objects are not what we are accustomed to seeing in museums). We may also not see them because they are not ‘sophisticated’ enough – or, arguably, too sophisticated. The mainstream art world has trained us to ignore whole genres and species of objects because they do not fit our criteria of acceptability.

The objects featured in this book do not fit; they are the misfits of the art world. They are often spectacular, frequently causing strong impressions. Their visual powers are obvious, direct and immediate; some are mesmerizing, some shocking, some weird and some hilarious. Together they all share one common denominator: they do not leave their viewers indifferent. This is what makes them so interesting.

Unlike the large majority of objects in the mainstream art world, often these objects do not require much discussion or theoretical discourse by art historians to sustain their validity. Instead they rely on specific cultures (often referred to as subcultures by visual studies or cultural history specialists).

Mainstream art is domesticated, like pet cats and dogs; by contrast ‘wild art’, like wild animals, operates outside of the familiar and domesticated perimeters of the gallery and museum worlds. Tom Wolfe nicely couched this opposition:

The educated classes in this country are all plugged into what is . . . an ancient, aristocratic aesthetic. Stock car racing, custom cars – and, for that matter, the jerk, the monkey, rock music – still seem beneath serious consideration . . . Yet all these rancid people are creating new styles all the time and changing the life of the whole country in ways that nobody even seems to bother to record, much less analyze.

This book is not about pitting one world against its opposite, the art world vs. the non- art world. That opposition itself is obsolete and irrelevant, for there are – not one, not two, but multiple art worlds and multiple cultures that produce uncharted streams of artwork. This book’s chapters highlight many of these different cultures, each of them producing an extraordinarily diverse array of objects and situations.

These quasi-infinite creations, objects and artworks are made in order to provoke some kind of aesthetic response. Focusing on the vast array of objects judged aesthetically, we enlarge the range of art possibilities. Considering aesthetic experiences in the streets, in restaurants, in toilets (!), in temples, on a beach, on the ice cap – all over the world and in innumerable forms – we see how much more there is to be seen than the art displayed in traditional museums.

The chapters in this book broadly follow some of the different strands of creation we were able to identify, and no doubt, more are to be found by our readers. Each of these art worlds is constituted in a similar way, each possessing its own criteria of validity and its hierarchical structure. It is as difficult to get to the top of the sand construction art world as it is to become recognized as a topmost ice artist, a tattoo artist of international renown or a major skateboard artist. Yet, in each field, the star status calls for instantaneous public recognition – within each of these vastly different art fields.

These ‘wild artists’ may not desire accolades from the inner sanctum of the established art world, nor do they necessarily care about being recognized by each other. Whilst it may not be star sand-sculptor John Gowdy’s immediate concern to be given a retrospective at the Whitney or Tate Modern, or to be revered by food artists, the system of validation and fame that guarantees success within each of these worlds is as much a cutthroat business as in the most exclusive art system. Each constellation of taste is structured the same way. The different art forms generate their own culture without any need of recognition from the mainstream art world. Each is the product and reflection of its own vernacular culture: raw, unpredictable and uncontrollable, yet highly competitive, demanding and exclusive.

Now, paradoxically, the boundaries of the art world have become increasingly porous. Previously ‘wild’ art objects have begun to move into galleries and museums and the mainstream art world has, over the past few decades, started to pay lip service to the multifarious forms of the alternative art worlds. Because there can be no set, final, and universal criteria defining art, this process has to be understood in historical terms, and in the individual introductions to the ten chapters, we explain what might be called the historical logic of each of these wild art categories. In some revealing cases, works by individual artists have already penetrated within the mainstream art world, while others are not. Yet, to say that these boundaries are porous is not to signal that they are arbitrary.

We hope our readers will enjoy the contents of this book as much as we enjoyed discovering the unfathomable diversity of wild art forms. One of this book’s basic premises is that one may be able to enjoy more than one art world. A viewer can experience the same intense joy from Christian Hosoi’s awe-inspiring, acrobatic ‘Christ airs’ performances as from looking at The Ascension of The Virgin by Raphael. Some wild art is static. But just as there is a great deal of contemporary performance art within the art world, so too in the world of wild art. This is wild performance art.

Working on this book has changed our own everyday experience of visual life. We have begun to pay more attention to art in the street, to tattoos and to the myriad other art forms found outside the galleries and museums. ‘There was a time,’ Kant wrote, ‘when I … despised the common people, who are ignorant of everything. It was Rousseau who disabused me. This illusory superiority vanished, and I have learned to honour men.’ Our experience has been similar.  We have learned to become ‘unsophisticated’ art lovers.

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