Thursday, June 16, 2011

Outsider Art?

Arthur Rimbaud
Illustration by Hugo Guinness
(Image from New York Times)

Lydia Davis has an interesting if rather densely packed NYT review, "Rimbaud's Wise Music" (June 9, 2011), of John Ashbery's translation of Arthur Rimbaud's Illuminations, which I won't attempt to summarize. I'm just curious about the artist as outsider, a role that Rimbaud seems to have taken upon himself quite consciously:
He had announced in a letter written when he was only 16 that he intended to create an entirely new kind of poetry, written in an entirely new language, through a "rational derangement of all the senses," and when, not yet 17, he made his first successful escape to Paris, financed by the older poet Paul Verlaine, he came prepared to change the world, or at least literature. He was immediately a colorful figure: the filthy, lice-infested, intermittently bewitching young rebel with large hands and feet, whose mission required scandalizing the conventional-minded and defying moral codes not only through his verse but through his rude, self-destructive and anarchical behavior; the brilliantly skillful and versatile poet not only of the occasional sentimental subject (orphans receiving gifts on New Year's Day) but also of lovely scatological verse; the child-faced young innovator whose literary development evolved from poem to poem at lightning speed.
His "mission required scandalizing . . . and defying," which he accomplished brilliantly, but one need not do that to be an outsider artist. Consider Ben Wilson, subject of Sarah Lyell's NYT article "Whimsical Works of Art, Found Sticking to the Sidewalk" (June 14, 2011):

Art on Muswell Hill
Ben Wilson
Photograph by Andrew Testa
(Image from The New York Times)

Mr. Wilson paints miniature works of art on gum stuck to sidewalks:
Mr. Wilson, 47, one of Britain's best-known outsider artists, has for the last six years or so immersed himself in a peculiar passion all his own: he paints tiny pictures on flattened blobs of discarded chewing gum on the sidewalks of London. So familiar is he here, painting in any kind of weather, that he has become something of a local celebrity and mascot.
How does he do it? Like this:
He developed a technique in which he softens the gum with a blowtorch, sprays it with lacquer and then applies three coats of acrylic enamel. He uses tiny brushes, quick-drying his work with a lighter as he goes along, and then seals it with clear lacquer. Each painting takes between a few hours and a few days, and can last several years if the conditions are right.
He's not like Rimbaud and doesn't set out to scandalize or defy, for as one admirer notes:
"I have found Ben to be consistently caring, always sympathetic, refreshingly humble and driven by a constant desire to please others."
Such a genial nature doesn't always keep him entirely out of trouble, however, for artists can be misunderstood:
The police often question him, but when he explains that he is not the one who spat the gum on the sidewalk, he said, they come around. He was arrested once and was brought to a local police station for questioning, but the charges were dropped after dozens of people wrote letters of support.
Unlike Rimbaud, he doesn't go looking for trouble, and seems to have supporters in sufficient numbers to keep him clear of it.

I have nothing very profound to say about all this, merely that I found both articles interesting and both artists intriguing. I knew about Rimbaud, of course. Who doesn't? I knew of his definition of art as a rational derangement of the senses -- a friend of mine once used that definition to claim that the US-USSR nuclear war doctrine of MAD (Mutually Assured Destruction) was clearly a form of art. Rimbaud is perhaps one of those artists who assisted in discarding what Baudelaire had called the artist's lost halo, reputed to have landed in the gutter.

But if so, then perhaps Mr. Wilson -- more of an outsider than that consummate inside-outsider Rimbaud -- has proven himself a saint of the streets, working miracles of transfiguration upon gum discarded and trodden underfoot, thereby retrieving that lost halo, possibly even polishing it a bit . . .

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At 1:22 PM, Blogger Kevin Kim said...

"...a friend of mine once used that definition to claim that the US-USSR nuclear war doctrine of MAD (Mutually Assured Destruction) was clearly a form of art."

Ha! I love it.

At 1:27 PM, Blogger Horace Jeffery Hodges said...

It was scary art . . .

Jeffery Hodges

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