Art by self-taught artists of the Shirota & Dolgota project.
An exhibiton Beyond the Establishment at The Russian Museum, Sankt Petersburg, Russia. Curated by Natalya Petukhova.
Beyond the Establishment
Text by Natalya Petukhova, art critic, curator of the "Shirota & Dolgota" project,
Employee of the Department of Sociocultural Communications of the Russian Museum
The exhibition Beyond the Establishment is the Russian Museum's first major attempt to showcase the works of self-taught artists with disabilities, mental disorders and/or psychiatric experience right next to recognized works of contemporary art, that is, to include them within a global artistic context.
Viewers may wonder why these particular artists were chosen. What do they have in common apart from social criteria? In my opinion, each of the represented artists has their own recognizable visual style. All of them are independent creative agents. Their visual language has been formed through their life experience and reflects their own thoughts and desires rather than the demands of the art market. And the fact that such diverse artists can be seen in one exhibition clearly shows that there is no universal style for artists with disabilities, mental disorders and/or psychiatric experience, just as there is no such thing for normotypical artists.
The title Beyond the Establishment is an attempt to move away from discriminatory terms used in art theory. There is no suitable Russian term to define art created by people belonging to minority groups. The terms art brut and outsider art, which sounded natural at the time when they were invented, now seem outdated, but researchers still use them for lack of anything better.
The term art brut was invented by the artist Jean Dubuffet in the middle of the twentieth century to define his own work and the pieces from his collection. According to Dubuffet, only art that meets certain requirements warrants this term: "Art brut is a purely free, spontaneous, instinctive (brut) artistic process, all stages of which are reinvented by the artist based solely on his own internal motives and impulses ... And consequently, it is art (art) in which only invention and fantasy are manifested, as opposed to the chameleons and monkeys that are inherent in cultural art."
The fact that art brut focused on the aesthetics of artworks rather than the medical or social characteristics of their artists was a real breakthrough and brought the term from the margins to a new level of recognition in Western countries.
But since only Dubuffet himself and the staff of the Collection de l'Art Brut that he established in Lausanne could determine what belonged to art brut and what did not, the term acquired a closed, exclusive character. Perhaps it is for this reason that the term outsider art, proposed in 1972 by Roger Cardinal as an English-language synonym for art brut, has become more common in the world.
Yet over time, the term outsider art has absorbed a huge range of art forms: the art of children, indigenous peoples, residents of remote villages, women, prisoners, people with mental disabilities, tattoos, folk crafts, amateur art, etc. It indicates the social status of artists, which no longer seems appropriate in the 21st century when "contemporary art is freed from all qualifications and willingly accepts everyone." Outsider art was needed to introduce a new phenomenon for the establishment, but now, due to the vagueness of its boundaries, it has turned into a marketing tool: a way of positioning the works of socially marginalized artists within the art market.
The title Beyond the Establishment partly follows the same path of romanticizing the distinctiveness of minority groups, and this is intentional. Our goal is to raise the ethical questions of accepting people with disabilities. What does it mean to achieve symbolic inclusion? And how much does symbolic inclusion contribute to achieving real inclusion? The question still remains open, but it seems to me that using the right expressions contributes to increasing the symbolic status of the art of minority groups.
I think the most appropriate expressions are "art of people with disabilities", "art of people with mental disabilities", "art of self-taught artists," or "art of amateur artists". These terms do not bear the stamp of aesthetic selection, as in the term art brut, but reflect social reality honestly.
I would like to believe that one day society will reach such a level of inclusion that special terms like these will not be required, and that everything worthy of being called art will be called as such, without additional explanations. But since this is not yet the case, we must look for the most neutral options.
Thanks to the efforts of Jean Dubuffet, Roger Cardinal, and other representatives of this art form, there are more than 400 galleries and museums in the West that exhibit artists with physical and mental disabilities and experiences with psychiatric illness. Their works are included in the collections of the largest museums of the world. (For more information, see Anna Suvorova's article).
The situation is different in our country. In the Soviet era, the visual language of many artists who received treatment in mental hospitals was very far from the standards of beauty imposed by the authorities, and besides this visual language could sometimes be close to that of the Western avant-garde artists, "ideologically alien to the soviet man". Accordingly, this art was not approved by the regime and was available only to a narrow circle of specialists in psychiatric fields, who, due to the specificities of professional optics, viewed it from a pragmatic point of view as a method for diagnosing psychiatric disorders. Art critics were not allowed into this field, and therefore such a tradition of art criticism and recognition as that in the West did not form.
Museum workers attribute this lag behind the West to a lack of researchers on the works of artists with mental disabilities. Researchers, in turn, lament the lack of artists, and therefore material, on which to write scholarly works, while in Europe and America, the selection of artists is very large. At the same time, many Russian artists with disabilities, experiences of psychiatric illness, and mental disorders live in closed facilities and do not possess the proper working conditions.
The artists presented in this exhibition are rare and positive exceptions. They do enjoy the proper conditions to realize their talents.
Ilgar Nadzhafov worked in the art studio of the charitable organization "Perspektivy" from 2001 to 2019. He used to say that he could not draw if he did not have the proper conditions: a free and supportive space of like-minded people. For the last year and a half before his death in 2021, Ilgar could not come to the studio due to the pandemic. And he really did stop drawing, as he had warned.
Sergey Fedulov works in the studio "Studio No. 6", where he has the chance to come and just be an artist thanks to the competent approach of directors Vera Svetlova and Alexander Nedera, who are receptive to all their clients' ideas and do not interfere in their creative process.
Alexey Sakhnov is an artist who works against all odds, mostly in his room in a psychoneurological asylum (ПНИ/PNI) while looking everywhere for materials: the local garbage dump, the library and offices of the asylum employees, and the Perspektivy art studio. He was lucky to find support from the asylum's lead doctor, Alexander Ilyin, who himself was no stranger to art and became the first collector and organizer of Sakhnov's asylum exhibitions in the 1990s. Ilyin once shared a story about how a cleaning lady threw out Sakhnov's works, thinking it was rubbish.
Yulia Kosulnikova's works were treated the same way. It is known that before professional curators became interested in them, her works were not preserved by the staff of the PNI where the artist lived. They were given to other asylum residents for reuse.
Many artists living in psychoneurological asylums have similar stories, since most of the PNI staff formed their ideas about what a work of art should look like in the Soviet years and are rather rigid. They either believe that art requires realistic forms, or they entirely reject the idea that the works of asylum residents might have artistic value. Sometimes, this idea is only accepted after the artist receives recognition from competent specialists like art historians, curators, or museum workers.
Exhibitions in major cultural institutions inspire PNI employees to look closely at the works of their residents and PNI directors to begin establishing art studios inside closed facilities. Such studios provide an opportunity for artists to express themselves, because for many asylum residents, art is the main, if not the only, mode of self-expression and communication with the outside world.
It is very important, both for the artists and society at large, that the works of artists with mental disabilities are not only exhibited, but also preserved in museum collections. After all, such works are interesting not only because they were created by marginalized artists, but also because they are real works of art: they are beautiful, they have novelty and originality, and they are capable of evoking strong feelings and bringing aesthetic pleasure. Contemporary art will lose a lot without them. And since one of the purposes of museums is to preserve cultural spaces and artifacts, it is necessary that the works of artists with disabilities become part of museum collections along with those of normotypical artists.
Maybe someday we will achieve real social inclusion. And our exhibition, we hope, will become a step in that direction.