When traveling, no activity gives me greater pleasure than visiting museums. I’ve been to many of the usual suspects in Europe: the Louvre, the Prado, the Uffizi, the Tate, and so on. The list is shorter than I’d like it to be, but it isn’t embarrassing. The same is true of the major North American cities I’ve been to as well. I’ve learned a great deal, and I’ve seen a lot of art that continues to move me… but nothing has inspired me — as an artist — quite like the American Visionary Art Museum in Baltimore.
When I try to describe the place to people, I often discuss it in emotional terms, comparing my experiences there with my visits to, say, the Art Institute Chicago. When I walk out of the latter museum, I feel humbled and small — the work so great, my human life so minuscule by comparison — and ready to contemplate the nature and purpose of the universe. To be clear, this is exactly why I typically visit museums: they teach me a great deal about being alive, if in a somewhat low-key way. The work I encounter, hung on elegant walls surrounded by carved marble beneath tremendous ceilings, keeps its distance from me. It says “I am resolved: you may look, but you may not enter.” It is more than human.
When I walk out of the AVAM, by contrast, I am typically a completely different man. I feel invigorated. I want to grab the nearest tool that will allow me to make a mark of some kind — a pen, a hunk of coal, my own blood — and start painting… and I don’t even paint. I’m less inclined to think things than to do things: to make changes, to invent, to overthrow, to sound my barbaric yawp. The AVAM gallery is human-scale; the art is human-scale, too, but liberated from what we typically accept as human constraints. It’s not polished and perfected; it’s raw and welcoming.
The key difference between the AVAM and every other museum I’ve mentioned here, of course, is that instead of Renoir, Picasso, Caravaggio, Degas, etc., the AVAM features outsider artists. If you aren’t familiar with the term, here’s a technical definition… but essentially, outsider artists are artists who happen to be self-taught and who exist and work outside the mainstream not only of the art world, but often (though not always) of the entire world in general: prisoners, residents of mental institutions, homeless people, and so on. I should mention right away that this does not mean the work is any less powerful or important or meaningful. It simply speaks in a different voice than one typically hears in the Guggenheim or the LACMA.
In any event, what I have been wondering lately is whether any parallel to outsider art exists in the theater — and if not, why not. Naturally, my first thought was Fringe theater… but my impression of Fringe theater is that it doesn’t quite fit the outsider bill. There’s too much coherence, too much high-class aspiration (just a touch is enough to do it), too much professionalism. Beyond that, however, no candidates come to mind.
This may be because theater demands so much on the part of its practitioners. Whereas an outsider painting can be made on cardboard with a few tubes of acrylic paint and a make-shift brush, an outsider play would (often, though perhaps not always) require space, a script, time and wherewithal to rehearse, more than one lone practitioner, and so on. If you can’t get keep yourself out of treatment for schizophrenia, how are you actually going to put on a show? In all of my thinking on this subject, the only example I can come up with is the lovely film Cosi… which is, of course, entirely fictional.
But still, I wonder: what if we set our sights on achieving in the theater what the American Visionary Art Museum achieves in its gallery? What if we tried to make theater that sent people bursting out into the streets after the curtain closed to go make revolutions in their lives? To take pen in hand and write, or to create in some other way, rather than simply having a deep discussion about the story over a glass of wine and an appetizer at a nearby restaurant? Wouldn’t that be a good thing? I know it would be for me.