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New Book: Now available: The Outsider Art of Neil Douma.

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The Outsider Art of Neil Douma, available now on  Amazon.com

  Introduction.      

Art enables us to find ourselves and lose ourselves at the same time.

                                                            Thomas Merton

Neil Douma has never called himself an outsider artist, but as an artist he feels outside the mainstream and even though he has won several local awards for his work his art is hard to place amidst the conventional arts societies. Neil is undoubtedly marginalized and his work is seldom taken seriously by those who call themselves art enthusiasts, or experts in art appreciation. His materials are random, he may paint intuitively on the black pages of photograph albums or on other occasions he will turn his hand to carving and painting wood into vehicles, machine replicas or animals. Notably, the techniques in Neil Douma’s works are generally hard lined and confronting and much of his style revolves around cartoons. He will use the same contours and textures across all his subjects, be it landscapes, fantasy or portraits. Indeed, to understand Neil’s work one needs some insight into the world of outsider art’s cyborgs and simians. Neil Douma’s montage is prolific and it does appeal to an outsider audience and collectors of this work are on the rise across Europe and the United States of America.

       Outsider art, also called raw art, is controversial.  It calls into question the authenticity of the artistic project as well as the general purpose of art as an object of free expression.  Outsider art raises a number of questions about belief, behaviour, feelings and emotional responses as well as the various levels of conscious awareness (or lack of it) involved in the production of art.   Outsider art strips bare the question of whether we as humans actually know what causes our feelings. [2]  The general view is that almost all our actions are products of the unconscious including our emotions. Hence, outsider art can be viewed as a gateway to the inner emotions.

       All art is a pool of emotions and outsider art is emotion at its most explicit often promulgated with intense feelings that draw shock and horror from novice onlookers; or it is treated as humour.  The clever artist circumvents the criticism by producing his or her own humour, but this does not explain what might be going on in the mind of the outsider artist.

Two Roads to Responding.

       A Professor of psychology at the University of Virginia Tim Wilson, drawing on the work of evolutionary scientist Joseph Le Doux, tells us that when information from the outside world reaches the sensory receptors and moves on to the sensory thalamus it has a choice between two different roads. The information ends up at the same place, the amygdala.[3]   The amygdala is the oldest part of the human brain, it resembles a small almond sitting at the centre of the limbic system.  This is the area that controls the heartbeat, blood pressure and other autonomic nervous system responses that connect to the emotions. The two roads however, take different routes to the amygdala and each road has a different impact on human behaviour.    

      Le Doux calls these routes the high road and the low road.  The high road goes first to the cortex the area responsible for information processing, thinking and evaluation and then to the amygdala. The high road is slower, but it allows for more analysis. The low road takes the information straight to the amygdala with very little processing, instead it draws an immediate reaction designed to signal danger and initiate a direct response.  

      The two roads to action give rise to various subtexts which begin with a question. What causes the high road processing to override the low road action?   We know that the low road eliminates conscious awareness, but should this also lead us to assume that humans have emotions that they are not aware of? Tim Wilson thinks “yes”.[4]  Or to put it differently, can we experience emotion through abstract mediums such as art which can be had at a distance? How does this translate into creativity?  The outsider artist travels on the low road to produce a spontaneity that is crucial to the genre and in doing so he or she can distance him or herself from the emotional impact of the subject by projecting onto the object, namely the piece of art.  

      LeDoux endorses the view that brain states and bodily emotions are the facts of emotion that override awareness and that conscious feelings are merely a small edition in the mechanics of information processing.   This view may well describe the difference in intensity between the mainstream artist and the art of the outsider. We all process information differently depending on culture and lifeworld experience. The differences in emotional responses are not always clear.  Historically, art has been regarded as an object of beauty based on the compulsion to nourish the soul. Outsider art contests any notion of beauty or authenticity.  Outsider art is a compulsion or feeling of necessity. This brings outsider art closer to the notion of an addiction rather than a folly or random pastime, keeping in mind that not all addictions are harmful.

The Cartoon and Stimuli.

      In 2013 the neurologist Richard Restak gave a talk at the Brainwave Festival in New York, an event that attempts to understand the relationship between creativity and the brain’s functioning. In his address Dr Restak asked, “what happens in the brain when we look at a cartoon?” He went on to explain how the brain works to comprehend things.

This is the occipital area…it gives you the whole totality…; it tells you what the things are… The dorsal, which is this part on top, is important for scanning the cartoon, what scripts are being evoked, what’s coming out of the temporal pole. This all occurs before reading the caption.” [5]

         Restak goes on to describe the processes involved with language, as well as the mesolimbic reward system.

        “… cartoons activate this system of reward… People laugh at cartoons because in the cartoon there is an incongruity”, a strangeness that jolts the brain making cartoons “great brain enhancers”.[6] The brain records the cartoon experience as pleasurable, it remembers it so it can be activated again in the future.  This is the same process that drug users have difficulty in reversing.  

      Why choose humour for serious art? The renowned neuroscientist V.S. Ramachandran suggests that the individual feels at one with the comic character because he or she overcomes feelings of self-abrogation.  He then asks, “is this a peak shift effect?” Or put differently, a much stronger reaction towards stimuli which exaggerates the most important characteristics? [7]  If aesthetic aspects are broken down to formal elements such as a circle, line or realistic drawing they can be made more easily acceptable to the brain’s processing mechanisms. This can make for a different kind of perspective that commonly travails exaggerated features not just in art, but also in life. Specifically, acute detail and repetitive patterning are both features that are brought about by the feeling of reward.   We like something so we want to do it again.

      The most important reward pathway in the brain is the mesolimbic dopamine system, (composed of the ventral tegumental area (VTA) and the (NAc) nucleus accumbens). [8]  This area is a key detector of a rewarding stimulus. Under normal conditions, the circuit controls an individual’s responses to natural rewards, such as food, sex, and social interactions, and it is an important determinant of motivation and incentive.[9]  In simplistic terms, activation of the pathway tells the individual to repeat what it just did to get the reward and it will produce no end of reminders.  It also tells the memory centres in the brain to intensify all the features of the rewarding experience so it can be repeated again and again over longer periods of time. Not surprisingly, what is being described is a very old pathway set down in the evolution of humans.   The use of dopamine neurons to mediate behavioural responses to natural rewards is seen in worms and flies, which evolved one billion years ago.[10] The VTA and NAc pathways are part of a series of parallel developments which also involve several other key brain regions and circuits.[11]   

     To be clear, the VTA is the site of dopaminergic neurons that tell the organism whether an environmental stimulus (natural reward, drug, stress) is rewarding or aversive. The NAc, also called ventral striatum, is a principal target of VTA dopamine neurons. This region mediates the rewarding effects of natural and induced rewards. When certain features are exaggerated the brain’s reward system is enhanced and more direct. [12]

Humour.

       Humour has gained popularity in art over the past 100 years for its challenge to the status quo as well as for its more politically subversive elements. Humour calls the established social and cultural values into question.  Much of the humour can be traced back to the early twentieth-century avant-garde artists, in particular the Dada, Surrealism, Fluxus, Pop Art and Mail Art movements. Marcel Duchamp’s Fountain (1917) is a well-known work of humous art of its time. The work consists of an upturned urinal. The avant-garde movements challenged the way we see objects and the world. Duchamp was part of the Dada movement that protested the devastation of the First World War and the use of everyday objects in art was a means of mocking a society that glorified war.  

      The surrealist movement flowed from the same sentiments when its leader Andre Breton used the terms gallows comedy or black humour to signify the way humour often arose from the victims of hard times.  Black humour was designed to capture audience sympathy through the use of laughter and the same impulses have captured the imagination of some outsider artists.  Andre Breton’s Two Surrealist Manifestos were issued by the Surrealist movement in 1924 and 1929 and stated art is:

Psychic automatism in its pure state, by which one proposes to express — verbally, by means of the written word, or in any other manner — the actual functioning of thought. Dictated by thought, in the absence of any control exercised by reason, exempt from any aesthetic or moral concern.[13] 

       Many artists of the period became fascinated with jesters and clowns. The jester epitomizes the Dada and Surrealist trend for social critique, but the idea was not new. The jester or fool was a popular entertainer at court during the medieval and Renaissance periods.  He or she was generally a member of the nobleman’s household who was employed to entertain.  The jester was also the itinerant performer who played the fool for common folks at the fairs and markets. In the Tarot, “The Fool” is a card of the Major Arcana. The tarot depiction of the Fool includes a man (or less often, a woman) who is distracted from what is important and is therefore said to be courting trouble ahead. Throughout history the jester has resonated with a life lived on the edge, generally due to feelings of difference. The other side of this character is the folly, or a licence to mock those who hold power and control.  In literature, the jester is symbolic of common sense and of honesty. The display of pretence is intended to mimic the superficial characteristics of humans.  In Shakespeare’s King Lear for example, the court jester is consulted for his insight.   Being thought of as feeble minded and the lowest member of the court the jester has had licence to speak freely without causing serious insult to the monarch.[14]  The popularity of jesters has remained with us both as theatrical entertainment and in the depictions of jesters and clowns created by modern artists.  

       Walt Kuhn (1877-1949) was an American painter and an organizer of the famous Armory Show of 1913, which was America’s first large-scale introduction to European Modernism. [15] He is best known for his white-faced clowns which feature today as puppets and dolls, white masks and fancy-dress costumes.  One of the most popular painters of modern clowns and jesters was Pablo Picasso. 

      Hiding the face has had special significance throughout history.  The mask has often been associated with spiritual or magical powers as in the journey to astral plains taken by priests and shamans.  Although the religious use of masks has waned, masks are used sometimes in drama or psychotherapy since they allow the individual to project painful experiences onto an object. The same transference happens more expressly within art.  The artist introjects his or her ego onto the object being created, this includes non-tactile objects as in visualization.  The practice is normally attributed to Sigmund Freud where introjection occurs when a subject takes into itself the behaviours he or she attributes to other external objects, especially of other people. A common pattern is where a child introjects aspects of parents into its own persona. Introjection can be a defence mechanism. Bruce Nauman’s multi-media installation Clown Torture 1987, depicted a clown randomly covered in grease paint and lipstick undergoing varying stages of a nervous breakdown. For Nauman, a clown’s mask was a potent metaphor of the fraught relationship between reality and artifice, which is such fertile ground for comedy[16] and outsider art.

      The jester, clown, mask and cartoon characters are all a means of defending the self against the status quo and it can be done from a position of anonymity. This is the mark of an individual estranged from the mainstream, both mentally and/or physically.  Outsider art presents us with a similar mix of mental distortions experienced by the creator, they are dissociations, unreal assertions, fantasies and deep levels of universal vision, often referred to as mysticism or spirituality, all of which need to be understood as shifting moments in consciousness. 

       In the book A Thousand Plateaus by Gilles Deleuze and Felix Guattari (1961) the writers describe how a conflict between two modes of social organization coincide with two models of reality. One is arabesque and favours order and hierarchy. The other is rhizomatic and favours an undoing of all such orders and hierarchies. A rhizome is the root of a plant that travels laterally underground and proliferates unpredictably.[17] The rhizome is a plausible descriptor for the outsider artist whose mind is constantly attempting to stretch detail and experience as far as he or she can.

 The Authentic Life.

    An authentic life is believed to be the ability to know reality and to approach daily situations with rational thinking, but what constitutes reality is, in itself, scientifically open to question. When what we see is not what the brain records and many of our feelings and emotions are said to come from the unconscious how can we know reality?  Our brains are very good at guesswork. While reason moves along a continual line of uncertainty the outsider artist is grounded in what most of us would call the abyss, a place where reason is of no consequence.   Yet, reason cannot be regarded as a constant in anyone’s world.  We can never be sure that what is right today will be right tomorrow. Everything is in flux.  Nonetheless, most people have faith in their experiences, those which they call reality. The question then is this; are these experiences truly real?   Outsider art might look very raw, but at its source it cannot be differentiated from any other form of imagination which depicts our world in all its primary rawness and honesty.  All art transcends the real in favour of sublime possibilities. We live in a world of symbols and archetypes, which many outsider artists take to be Divine.

       Spontaneous art is lucid, it comes from a dreaming.  In the ancient world art was perceived as a reward from the gods, but the issue of Divinity in modern art is rarely raised. Moreover, the general definition of an outsider artist is one who is untrained, institutionalized or experiencing a disability or mental difference (generally referred to as an illness or disorder) and a life that carries a great deal of social stigma.   Outsider artists often feel rejected, alienated, detached from what most people call reality, but they are not disunited with their own internal self and it is from this different mental perspective that the outsider artist emancipates his or her own brilliance.  In ancient times the shamans travelled to distance worlds using the mind and they were applauded.   Shamans carried out ritual transmigrations that were highly valued within their societies.  Art that was once an expression of religious devotion and transmigration is now a substitute for individual human survival. Hitherto, the outsider artist has struggled through his or her craft.

Belief.

      The necessity of religious and/or artistic expression for human survival occupied the thoughts of philosopher Fredrich Nietzsche who predicted the literal end of a supernatural Being was imminent.  In The Gay Science Nietzsche points to the western world’s reliance on religion as a moral compass. 

“God is dead. God remains dead. And we have killed him. How shall we comfort ourselves, the murderers of all murderers?[18]

      Nietzsche’s works foresaw how the decline of religion and the rise of atheism would bring about a struggle between the spiritual needs of humanity and the materialistic ego. He wrote

After Buddha was dead, people showed his shadow for centuries afterwards in a cave, an immense frightful shadow. God is dead: but as the human race is constituted, there will perhaps be caves for millenniums yet, in which people will show his shadow.  And we, we have
still to overcome his shadow!
[19]

     The Outsider artist has learned how to exploit the religious or spiritual shadow, but still experiences the fear of annihilation.   Philosophers Heidegger and Deleuze read Nietzsche and tried to understand Nietzsche’s schizophrenia as a condition inherent in the modern world, not a disorder, but a symptom of social capitalistic trauma. 

With schizophrenia, the subjective self resists any solidification. Let’s consider the concept of viscosity of fluids to understand how identity relates to schizophrenia. Identity is constantly shifting. For most people our identities will shift slowly over time. The viscosity of their identity resembles that of tar: it has a really gunky resistance to change and so tar will move slowly over time. For schizophrenics their identities are highly viscous, resembling something more like water, which quickly conforms and changes to adjust for just about any stimulus.[20]

        Nietzsche was concerned with spiritual matters and spent most of his efforts in questioning some of the basic foundations of belief. One cannot ignore the tendency for outsider artist Neil Douma to do the same especially in his cartoons.  He resorts to a hearty laugh when he is describing some of his work.  Douma’s world is transcribed through his imagery which is also an immersion in the intense colour and tones that his art brings to life and which in turn highlight life’s fragility.

        Laughter can help people solve problems that demand creative solutions, by making it easier to think more broadly and associate ideas and relationships more freely.[21]  Humour is a known source of ideas and inspiration.  Schopenhauer once said that the sense of humour is the only divine quality in humans.  Jung linked spirituality with humour.  Jung believed there were spiritual benefits in laughter as laughter can break through personal barriers enabling us to live more authentically and in touch with our true nature.[22]   According to Jung we are at the mercy of the subliminal archetypes that originate in the collective unconscious. Jung’s view is untestable and therefore unscientific, but in light of modern biology and what we have learned about memory we might redefine Jung’s suggestion as an inheritable set of subconscious impulses with connections to adaptations over the generations.  Every myth and archetype will become reinvented over time possibly with remnants that are transferable along hereditary lines.  That history presents us with different realities should prompt us to think further in terms of individual realities that might present as vastly different to those we expect.  Through the literature(s) and various culture(s) we identify with the characters in stories that have included Divine heroes, goddesses and gods?  Further, in light of our modern insights the notion of a collective unconsciousness could be revitalized and interpreted as more than just a psychosis or dream. This would throw a completely different interpretation onto the work of the outsider artist.  In other words, the discoveries in neurobiology, evolutionary biology and epigenetics have provided new perspectives on Jung’s writings which could be extended to the artist’s ideas and experiences, important insights we can all learn from.

Art enables us to find ourselves and lose ourselves at the same time.

https://quotecatalog.com/quote/thomas-merton-art-enables-us-K7QGkga/ Retrieved 10th December, 2017.

[2] Tim Wilson 2002 Strangers to Ourselves: Discovering the Adaptive Unconscious. The Belknap Press Harvard University Press Cambridge Massachusetts and London, p 115.

[3] Ibid

[4] Ibid.

[5] Sarah Larson This Is Your Brain on Cartoons The New Yorker March 6, 2013  https://www.newyorker.com/culture/culture-desk/this-is-your-brain-on-cartoons. Retrieved 10th December, 2017.

[6] Ibid.

[7] Art and the Brain – Page 61 – Google Books Result

https://books.google.com.au/books?isbn=0907845452 Retrieved 10th December, 2017.

[8] Molecular Neurobiology of Drug Addiction http://neuroscience.mssm.edu/nestler/nidappg/brainrewardpathways.html Retrieved 10th December, 2017.

[9] Ibid.

[10]  Ibid

[11] Ibid.

[12] Ibid

[13] “Surrealism”. MOMA Learning, accessed 18 Oct. 2016 and

 ‘André Breton, Manifestoes of Surrealism, transl. Richard Seaver and Helen R. Lane (Ann Arbor, 1971), p. 26. See also https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Surrealist_Manifesto Retrieved 6th November, 2017.

[14] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Walt_Kuhn  See also Adams, p. 30. The relationship between Kuhn and Davies is chronicled in Bernard B. Perlman, The Lives, Loves, and Art of Arthur B. Davies (Albany: State University Press of New York, 1998). Retrieved 10th December, 2017.

[15]  Ibid.

[16] Clown Torture | The Art Institute of Chicago www.artic.edu/aic/collections/artwork/146989 Retrieved 12 December 2017.

[17] A Thousand Plateaus by Gilles Deleuze and Felix Guattari (1961) Chapter 13.

[18] Nietzsche Frederich The Gay Science.  Penguin. Section 108

[19] Ibid.

[20] https://www.quora.com/Was-Nietzsche-undersocialized-To-what-extent-did-this-affect-his-tendency-to-overgeneralize-or-the-epistemic-soundness-of-his-writing-philosophy. Retrieved 10tyh December, 2017.

[21]   Goleman, Daniel Jay, PhD. Emotional Intelligence. 84-86. NY: Bantam Books, 1995.

[22] Jung, C.G. (1970), “Civilization in Transition,” CW 10. Princeton: Princeton University Press.

Outsider art, Gippsland.

I am delighted to be able to bring you the work of a wonderfully talented outsider artist named Neil.    We have not yet reached a point in society where outsider art is fully accepted as a legitimate expression of creativity.  Outsider art still sits on the fringes  of what remains, in some quarters,   an elite collective of  artists and followers who see art solely as a thing of beauty and prestige.  Art has a much deeper purpose. Art taps into the unconscious and it has the potential to heal what has been all to dreadful to confront consciously or to speak of.  Outsider art is an important genre that reveals all aspects of the artist’s inner world.   What is art if it  is not meaningful and how can art be meaningful if the artist (any artist) is not free to portray his or her emotions in ways that are genuine and deeply held.  Outsider artists are, in my view, the bravest of people.  Their work sits at the cutting edge of science and its most resent discoveries on perception, interpretation and resonance.  Outsider artists connect the sense based experiences to the intellect and I think anyone who deliberates over the outsider art that follows will see just how we all have a sense of fantasy and the absurd and just how powerful that can be as a form of artistic expression.

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