Review of Donna Haraway: Story Telling for Earthly Survival and Eternity Has No Door of Escape: Encounters with Outsider Art
Donna Haraway begins by telling the story of meeting a new group of Princeton students, who all looked like Greek gods on account of the fact they all had such perfectly ordered teeth! She surmised this as a result of orthodontic standards inflicted on generations of children, standards established by ancient sculptors in the course of constructing the perfect male form.
She sits in her house, with her dog (later described as her wife), surrounded by the objects of a life, objects prompting a story and a digression leading to another object and another story: a Navajo woven basket an ‘eruption of dispossession’; her barking dog, an ‘inherited state of mind’.
The discourse is engaging. At core is the place in which she has led so much of her life in California built with her partner and their two sons many years previously. We know this because we see the old photographs (with Flamenco music) and videos – of her dog being put through its paces at a dog show; it’s about cross-species collaboration. Her performance in public television on the subject of Tarzan; it’s about listening and the anthropomorphizing of the natural world.
She speaks, and almost certainly with her approval, the filmmaker juxtapositions green screen effects: jelly fish arising from under the table and undulating sensuously off towards the ceiling; light stabbings into darkness, shadows flickering in a garden; periods of darkness on the screen where sometimes she speaks, or otherwise just, some reflection time. . . .
These visual interruptions or intervals weave around her weaving of a history of radical thinking and practice. A historian of biology initially, science fiction writing introduced her to feminist ideas and writing. Thinking practice is at centre, through string games (‘the soil of soul’), through Sartre and Marxism, the academic constraint on criticism and the paralysis of revolt against the fundamentals for survival.
She recounts the practice of work and play, the making of homes and communities through non-heteronormative joy, the making of kin, communities of care and concern through collective child-rearing and recognition of symbiance, ‘reforming kin…making flourishing on-going and possible’.
This film paces Haraway’s relentless flow of ideas and reflections on human development and the recuperation of the natural world, which some may find irritating but as an intervention into the norms of contemporary screen culture and Western living, the discourse is attractively provocative.
‘Art has no boundaries’ is the cliché with which we are familiar and the ability to be freely expressive is the principle upon which many liberal democracies base the freedoms espoused. Of course, we also familiar with the fact these principles are qualified, no less in the cosmology of the contemporary arts.
The film and photo archives of Europe have been thoroughly searched by the filmmaker to be able to document from the early 20th Century, the recognition of the mentally disabled as equally capable of self-expression and for their output to be rated alongside the work of other artists. The development of this acceptance is traced through from the doctors in Germany who began to collect the drawings, paintings and objects made by their patients, initially as a part of guiding their treatment. One of these, Hans Prinzhorn, published in 1922 a book that became an immediate best-seller, not least amongst artists and philosophers of the age.
‘Unloading hallucinatory overload onto paper’ is how one of the many contemporary experts on the art of the Outsider describes the practices of many of the individuals. The French artist Debuffet legitimated these works, the French Surrealists and the even the Spiritualists finding common ground. It was a time when breakdown of social cohesion and religion in rural communities moved many to embrace the practices of ‘mediums’, to freely ‘guide my hand’ as a recognized form of expression for participants; the ‘spiritualists’ created an accepting context for the work of patients.
The Company of Art Brut formed by Dubuffet and a group of French artists defined for them a legitimate area of arts practice. From then on commodification became mixed with passionate connoisseurship and a series of rivalries and disagreements about ownership, whilst at the same time following various collections from salon to salon. Not least to one of the early flagships of contemporary art, Documenta 5, when in 1972 director Harold Szeeman placed ‘outsider’ works alongside the latest artist celebrities’ offerings. It was an attempt to broaden borders around practice and create linking dialogues between such dispersed sources but was met with mixed reactions. Not it seems from the dealers who were eager, together with the institutionalization of Dubuffet’s collection in Lausanne, to see an official market opportunity opening up. Today happily, there are ateliers for the mentally disabled where work is sold in support of their care. The film provides a good briefing for newcomers to the topic.