Wednesday, January 28, 2015

Artist as Debtor vs. The Federal Art Project

Everything I've ever read about "doomed millennials" has been of the opinion we are doomed for one of two or both of these reasons: A.) We can't afford to buy cars. B.) We can't afford to buy houses.

On the other hand, we're doomed because of global warming, and we're all going to die.

Perhaps the two parties of authors on this stuff should get together and have a meeting.

I find it hard to believe that since I won't be able to afford another gas-guzzling car once my KIA dies means that I am "doomed." In fact, biking plays a much bigger role in my life since moving to Milwaukee than it ever has before, and I feel much happier, and spend less money. Not to mention it has a much lower environmental impact than driving, reducing (albeit in a very small way) the third pinnacle of the millennial doom factor.

Don't even get me started on being able to afford a house. I've considered moving into an immobile trailer.

I recently started following the arts/culture/arts criticism website Hyperallergic on Instagram. I usually pass by the photographs on their feed with relative indifference. A lot of it looks like contemporary, academic stuff I'm not really that into anyways. But a few weeks ago I noticed they were following something called the "Artist as Debtor" Conference at Cooper Union. Curious, I checked it out. Here is the description on the "Artist as Debtor" Conference website:

Contemporary art institutions amass great wealth through real estate development and the value of their holdings- why then do museums, art-related businesses and art schools rely so heavily on precarious and unpaid labor provided by artists? What are the connections between big money in the art world and the big debts taken on by so many young artists? Are artists encouraged to believe that extreme economic disparity is just part of the way the art world works? Do romantic ideas about merit and talent mask a system of indenture?

Very dramatic. A little bit whiny, too.

A quick search revealed that the tuition at Cooper Union is $36,900 a year, although the school has recently started offering a non-need based, half tuition financial scholarship for new and returning undergraduate students. This reduces tuition to around $20,000 a year. Still not cheap. I'm not scoffing or offering up any kind of jealousy for those who can afford to go to Cooper Union. I went to Lawrence, whose tuition is now up to $51,465 a year. Woof!

But that's just my point right there. The problem with the art world isn't that the people who go through the costly academics aren't making money after they graduate. The problem is that the majority of people who want to pursue a career as artists can't even afford it in the first place. I recently read this article in the Atlantic that reveals that although most people are aware that MFAs are a costly scam, more and more artists are choosing, of their own free will, to get MFAs.

The paradox never ends. While hinting at the irony of the "Artist as Debtor" Conference being held at Cooper Union, I would also like to point out that nobody who spoke at the conference even got paid. But that's just a funny, irrelevent side note. In addition, it's not just artists who aren't getting paid after they graduate. It's a large portion of recent graduates of all disciplines. The aforementioned "doomed" millennials. So stop whining, artists.

Interestingly enough, the last time the country was in a depression, artists got paid. It was actually part of Franklin D. Roosevelt's New Deal program during the Great Depression, which enacted programs that provided relief and recovery for the poor. Artists included. It was called The Federal Art Project, and it aimed to employ artists to create works of art for non-federal government buildings. It lasted from 1934 to 1943. Artists including Jackson Pollock were able to get their careers started because of The Federal Art Project. It is said that over 200,000 works of art were created during the time, and many of them are archived today at museums and through programs like the New Deal Art Registry.

Of particular interest to me are the scenes of wildlife, nature, and conservation that came out of the era:

Frank S. Nicholson, The National Parks Preserve All Life, poster for U.S. National Park Service, 1940 [source: New Deal Art Registry]

Various artists (including: Aloys Bohnen-assistant, Arthur Ames-painter, Hazel Sheckler-assistant, Jean Goodwin-painter, William McAuley-assistant), San Diego Scenes-Conservation, San Diego County Administration Center, 1939 [source: New Deal Art Registry]

You can still see this painting today, if you go to the San Diego County Administration Center. The National Parks posters, which are practically iconic now, are still used in NPS advertising. During the time these works were created, artists weren't seen as a burden on society, but as a way to help foster morale and promote hardwork amongst the people. They were valued then, and their artwork is still valued today. And, as we all know, the country made it out of the Depression. I won't say it's because of the artists, but Roosevelt thought that they were important, which is huge (almost unheard of) in government today.

Contemporary artists don't receive much government money, at least not from the Obama administration. I recently read this article on the 20 most powerless people in the artworld (also Hyperallergic) which quotes Obama saying something along the lines of "art history isn't very important for the economy right now." Don't worry Obama, I thought it was hilarious. And in a lot of ways, true. In these seemingly desperate times, art and art history aren't very important, in immediate ways, for the economy. But they are certainly important for other things, IF artists commit to using art in the right way. If we are indeed in a war with our climate and our environment (we are), it's important to study the ways in which artists have rallied for nature and conservation in the past. The poster and the painting I cited above are good examples. Nicholson's beautiful prints portray the utopian worlds that the National Parks could be if we preserve them, and the County Administration Center piece shows humans actively working together to conserve natural areas.

I am not advocating that every artist has to be a creative activist. However, I do think more artists need to start thinking less like they are poor, starving artists, and start thinking more like they are people who can make a difference in this society. I will bring up the example of vernacular artists. If you don't know what that is, a vernacular artist is (in very trendy art world terms) "an artist who creates their own environment." The best examples I can give are Emery Blagdon, Howard Finster, and Eugene von Breunchenhein.

Emery Blagdon, The Healing Machine [source: jmkac.org]


Howard Finster's Paradise Garden [source: Chatooga County, GA webpage]

Eugen von Breunchenhein, Summer Day on Venus [source: vonbruenchenhein.com]

These three artists, although very different from one another, have one thing in common: they all sort of "made due" with being poor throughout their artistic careers. They certainly weren't attending any kind of "Artist as Debtor" Conference or complaining because they couldn't afford grad school (or undergrad, for that matter). When von Breunchenhein ran out of money he made brushes out of his wife's hair. Blagdon made money off of being a landlord, and transformed a shed in his yard into the magical fantasyland of scrap metal and paper clips you see above. Finster made his environment out of hubcaps and discarded mirrors he found by scavenging around Georgia. With very little money or new supplies, they made some of the most famous works in the world of vernacular art, and also made names for themselves. 

Which brings me to my next thing. (This will all make sense in the end, I promise). I recently read about a neighborhood in Taos, New Mexico that was constructed by a group of people who call themselves "The Greater World Earthship Colony." Sounds a little bit Wicker Man-esque, but what they're doing is important. They're essentially doing what vernacular artists do: creating their own environments from the remnants of society that other people in Taos County have deemed to be "scrap:" plastics, old tires, styrofoam, etc. 

Architecute of the future- "biotecture"

Their intentions are a bit different from vernacular artists. They aren't building their own environments from an instinctual, aesthetic urge, but from a crippling need. They're also a bit more high-tech, and have a long-term plan for the future (sadly, and ironically, they won't be able to execute the plan fully for at least twenty years due to Taos County's "financial problems"). Their major objectives, laid out on their website, are to:

-Reduce the economic and institutional barriers between people and sustainable housing
-Begin reversing the overall negative effect that conventional housing has on the planet
-Create a less stressful existence for people in an effort to reduce the stress that they in turn place on the planet and each other
-Interface economics and ecology in a way that immediately and tangibly affects current pressing problems with existing life styles
-Provid a direction for those who want to live in harmony with their environment
-Empower individuals with the inarguable forces of nature

In layman's terms, they're trying to save the freakin' world, man.  

A year ago I might have thought they were crazy. But now I realize the importance of living resourcefully. When my seasonal job ended last September, I was scared. I had no idea what I was going to do. I didn't start looking for a job early enough because I didn't think it would be that hard to find one. I was wrong. It took me a good two months to find a job, and the one I did find is not a lucrative one. I complained, and whined, and stressed. A lot. But now I don't complain. I'm okay. I'm fine. I made it through. I had help, but I did it. In some ways, losing my job was the best thing that ever happened to me. It gave me the space and the time to reassess what I want in my life. It forced me to be more resourceful, to cook for myself more, to drive less, to spend more time with people I care about, to read more, and above all, to make more art.

So, world. Stop telling me that I am doomed because I can't buy a house. Stop telling me I am doomed because I can't buy a car. And artists, stop complaining that you are poor, and start using the astounding variety of available materials that are around you to start making the world a better place. You don't need to spend thousands of dollars on materials (paint, canvases, brushes, film, etc., etc.) to make artwork (no one's going to buy what you make anyways-ha!). The world is entering into very uncertain times. The fact that you can't pay for your MFA is the least of the world's problems. Let's start figuring out how we, as artists, can start turning this crap world into something a bit nicer for future generations. I guess I was kind of hinting at this in my last post about the relatively unpopular "bus stop of the future"/public art spectacle in Bay View. Yeah, it's ugly. But so, so, so, much of this world is ugly. The bus stop, at least, had beautiful intentions: to make art in a sustainable way that promotes a sustainable lifestyle. 

In the words of Roosevelt (the other Roosevelt), "Do what you can, with what you have, where you are." 

Everything, literally, on this planet, is connected.

Sunday, January 25, 2015

Riding The Bus

I can't sit here and tell you that the Lincoln/Howell/KK bus stop is the most attractive bus stop in the world. In fact, the general consensus is that it's actually pretty ugly.


South-facing wall

South-facing wall from a distance (Keith not ugly)

It also doesn't seem to offer much protection from the elements, which is usually the point of a bus stop, but that's an entirely different story. 

The other story is about me taking the bus for the first time since I've lived in Milwaukee. I had planned on taking the bus home from Bay View this morning, which would have required me to wait at this stop on Lincoln and KK. Unfortunately, in my lack of experience taking the bus, I missed it and ended up having to catch it at a stop a little farther north down KK. [In a moment of surprise hilarity, my friend Elisabeth from my last post pulled up while I was waiting and asked me if I needed a ride. I responded that I was "experimenting" with riding the bus and declined the offer. Just as a note, this is a great way to seem like a crazy person, if that is something you are ever interested in doing.]

As someone who owns a car, you might ask why I was choosing to take the bus. Recently, I read a book by Will Allen called The Good Food Revolution in order to gain some knowledge about a piece I plan to do over the summer. I read the book with the intention of learning about the problem with the food system in inner cities, but I ended up getting way more out of it than that. It ignited an old flame I used to have inside of me about leading a sustainable lifestyle. I used to be quite passionate about it, volunteering with the Student Conservation Association and Growing Power, and even devoting my senior project at Lawrence to the topic. But I became slightly apathetic to the movement in the two years after graduating from college due to a lack of security in my life and therefore a lack energy to devote time to less introspective activities. Sure, I biked to work all summer, but that was just a small act of sustainability compared to the many actions I can take to ensure a more sustainable future for the planet. 

In the past week I have done the following:

1. Started to crochet my own grocery bags out of leftover yarn
2. Biked to work (this is something I did all summer but have not been doing in the colder temperatures)
3. Bought a membership to a local co-op grocery store
4. Made sure that the food I bought all came from Wisconsin
5. Started a compost bucket in my apartment
6. Bought a french press coffee maker, the least wasteful form of coffee
7. Learned how to ride the bus

When I say "learned," I mean that in a very literally way. I had to ask my roommate everything from how much it costs to how to figure out when the buses come and where they go and how often and which stop to get off at....etc. I'm a complete novice to buses.

Despite the initial learning curve, once I was on the bus I realized I miss public transportation. Riding in a car by one's self can be a lonely, introverted experience. On the bus you encounter many different types of people, all with the common goal of getting where they need to go. I recall an experience I had in London where I am pretty sure I encountered a primordial dwarf while riding on a lesser-traveled portion of the Underground. [A recent search revealed that there are only about 100 primordial dwarves in the entire world. If the man I encountered was indeed a primordial dwarf that's a pretty remarkable public transportation story!]

With the recent addition of four new bus routes to Milwaukee's public transit system, riding the bus will be an increasingly easier task if this is something I want to continue to do. Which brings me back to the Lincoln/Howell/KK bus stop above. Designed by architect Roman Montoto, the piece was supposed to be an "eco-friendly," focal point/landmark for the Bay View neighborhood. It was funded by the City of Milwaukee along with several individual donors. It cost more than $200,000 in the end, and nobody really likes it all that much. In addition, I am not entirely sure whether or not the proposed solar panels are even functional. They certainly weren't installed very well. The piece overall is kind of a flop.

But I still think it's a flop in the right direction. My least favorite part of the bus riding experience this weekend was doing the actual waiting for the bus. It was cold, and I sat in a boring plastic cube and stared across the street into a women's gym where I watched older women doing barre exercises. A young man came and stood in the stop with me, and we didn't look at each other or say one word to each other. At least the bus stop on Howell and Lincoln can invite some kind of conversation between bus-waiters. Something like...

-"Hey, this bus stop's pretty ugly, don't you think?" 
-"Yeah, I agree. I don't think the city should fund 'art.' What is this bullshit?"

Although this is an imaginary conversation, it's a realistic one. In the end I would rather see this kind of conversation happening rather than no conversation at all, and I would rather that the City of Milwaukee put their money into a public art project, even one that is largely unpopular, rather than not put their money into a public art project. 

If, like me, the rest of the world has some kind of revelation about the way that they have been living, perhaps art can help to ease the process of transitioning to a more sustainable lifestyle. When I started to crochet my own grocery bags I at first wondered if it was a waste of time. Then I thought to myself, "Just think of this as an art project for the good of the world." This, in my opinion, is the challenge for artists right now. We have an important task to work alongside gardeners, farmers, researchers, scientists, composters, naturalists, conservationists, etc., etc., to help figure out how humans are going to live in this world in a more sustainable way. Reimagining bus stops is a good step in the right direction. Down with the plastic cubes!


I once had a dream that aliens came to the planet and we had to describe to them the way that we live. When we told them, they responded in complete surprise, "You mean you pour toxins into the water that you have to drink to survive?" "You mean you create plastics that you can only use once and then throw them away?" "You mean you drive around in cars that are harmful to the atmosphere?" They flew back to their home, laughing at us.

Wednesday, January 14, 2015

When Artists Like The Packers

If there's one thing I can confidently say about myself it's that I do not like the Packers, or football.
Now, Packer fans, please don't be angry. I don't actively protest football. I'm just largely apathetic to the whole spectacle. The Packers win, the Packers lose, and I don't lose any sleep over it.

Several times in the past, while "watching" sports of any kind with my friends, I have admitted to the way my eyes sort of glaze over whenever a game of any variety is on the TV. If there's a ball involved, or any kind of kicking, throwing, or goal scoring, my brain can't find the ability to concentrate. When others around me cheer, I usually am jerked out of some sort of day dream, and there is about a 95% chance I was not paying attention. Don't even try to explain the rules to me. I will literally fall asleep before you can say the word "quarterback."

It might seem funny, but this apathy for sports is not the normal kind of apathy that comes without consequence, especially in Wisconsin. The Packers are not just a football team. They are also a huge part of Wisconsin's identity. I can freely admit that I sometimes feel out of the loop when others around me talk about, complain about, or delight in the wins and losses of the Packers. Until recently, I have associated this Packers-related talk with athletes, jocks, and people I don't generally befriend solely due to a lack of similar interests (no other reason, I swear). Before I lived in Milwaukee I had never really known anyone in the artistic circles I surround myself with to be anything but mildly amused by sports. My good friend Josh is a serious Minnnesota Wild fan, and my friend Alli really likes the Chicago Bulls. Other than that, I couldn't really think of anyone who was interested in both art/music and sports. But that was before. Now things are different. Here in Milwaukee I have encountered a different breed of fan that is more common than I ever could have guessed: the artist Packers fan.

Take for example, my good friend Elisabeth Albeck, whom I met while working at the John Michael Kohler Arts Center. I did not know immediately that she liked the Packers. Of all the topics I endeavoured to discuss with her, the Packers were undoubtedly the last pick on my list. But one day this fall, I discovered unexpectedly that Elisabeth is in fact a big fan of the Pack (a trait that is doubly amazing to me because she is not even FROM Wisconsin). I asked her if I could pick (Pack?) her brain about HOW and WHY this had occurred, and like a true sport, she agreed.

Elisabeth (and BF Neil who kinda/sorta agreed to be photographed. Thanks, Neil!)

\\

Me: How long have you been a Packers fan?
EA: Since fall of 2010. I moved here from the East Coast by way of Ohio in 2010.

Me: Do you like any other sports?
EA: Not for following, no. But I like ping pong, tennis, and boxing.

Me: Why do you like the Packers?
EA: They are brilliant, but down to earth. They're so easy to be proud of for their talent and skill, but a lot of my affection for them comes from the way they conduct themselves as people: their team culture of optimism and determination. Their camaraderie with one another, and little rituals like their Lambeau leaps. Even their philanthropic and commercial involvements emanate a good-natured way about them.

Me: Favorite player?
EA: Ooph...Aaron Rodgers.

Me: Favorite Packers memory.
EA: There have been a lot, but I must say that my initial season of watching was pure magic. Neil is a huge, lifelong fan, from a big Packer family, and when we first started dating, I got a crash course in the team and culture. It was the divisional playoffs in 2010, against the Falcons. We watched the game at the Polish Falcon. There were children as tall as the billiard table worming through the standing-room-only crowd, and old folks parked at the bar who probably had been coming there for 50 years. It was packed to the gills. Neil was carefully contextualizing the lead up to each play to me, as I was still learning the rules of the game. I just remember each ideal scenario kept materializing, and the bar just went crazier and crazier. People were hooting and the energy was like nothing I'd ever experienced...it was a shared euphoria.

\\


The picture above was taken when Elisabeth and I watched a game with some friends in the fall. This was when I first discovered she liked the Packers. Ironically enough, we were watching the game on a huge projector at an art gallery (and in case you were wondering the object being thrown is a pumpkin). Perhaps this photograph suggests a bit of satire of the sport, but I can assure you that Elisabeth is a devoted fan. Not to mention a good friend. She readily conversed with me during this game despite wanting to actually watch it (unlike me). It was a good night with good people, one which I will look back on fondly amidst my Milwaukee memories.

This is not the only time I have watched a Packers game, however. A few Sundays ago I again had the opportunity to watch the game with a group of artists, this time at a cozy apartment in the ________ area (location excluded). The apartment had been magnificently renovated over the years by the current tenants and landlords, two Milwaukee artists. It was a perfect venue for observing an artist Packer party. Although my comrade Keith Nelson (himself an artist/ Packer fan) knew what was up, I would like to think that the rest of my fellow game-watchers were not aware that I was observing them closely (and actively taking notes). This game held a bit more weight than the last because it was against the Detroit Lions, and a deciding game for the Packers' position in the playoffs. I figured it would give me a better sense of the true dedication of the artist Packers fan, so I tagged along. 

The afternoon started off with good food, much like any social gathering would. Although I knew almost everyone, I felt slightly out of place. However, I was glad to be with people, and wondered what else I would have been doing on a Sunday afternoon. I quietly grazed and listened to the conversation. What was fascinating to me (almost like it was planned) was how the conversation usually veered to art during the dull moments or the commercials. Topics covered included the Mary L. Nohl fellowship, the difference between the Milwaukee art scene and the scenes on either coast, and current and upcoming shows in the area. Two of my favorite comments were made by the same person, once when he used the phrase "it would be like an NBA player trying to be in the NFL" in relation to his own artwork in Milwaukee, and another when he stated that athlete Jay Cutler usually looked miserable during games, "like an artist working a day job to make ends meet."

Another common topic of the day was attitude. Keith told the group a story about how the Milwaukee Bucks hired a psychologist to talk the team out of a losing attitude. I think this story was told in relation to the group's comments on Aaron Rodgers' positivity even in the team's toughest moments. The general consensus was that a good attitude equals good things, not just in sports, but in life, and probably, in the larger, unspoken context, in art. It hung in the air as we watched, surrounded by paintings on the wall, and sculptures on the floor. 

Later on, as I thought about the game, I tried to come up with similarities between artists and athletes. They are both highly disciplined, ambitious people who have to rely on a certain comaraderie to do what they want. 
They are constantly being judged by the public eye. 
They have to practice all the time to be any good. 
They are competitive. 
As mentioned, they need to have a good attitude. 

Maybe, I thought, these are the answers to my questions about the mysterious connection some artists have to the sport. Maybe Bill Viola and Clay Matthews are basically the same person.

Eh, I might be pushing it a little.

After all this research and game watching with like-minded people, I still don't really understand the attraction to football in and of itself. I don't find it to be beautiful or poetic, I'm intimidated by the machismo of it, and, quite frankly, I struggle to understand the rules. I can't change this about myself. 

Some people just don't like broccoli. I just don't like football. 

One thing I've learned, however, is that the love of the game is not entirely about a connection to the sport or to the players, but to the memories of watching the games, and the people you were with when you were watching them. This past Sunday, I received yet another invitation to an artist Packer party, this time the Packers v. Cowboys game. I declined and went hiking with a friend instead. Although I had a great time hiking, I can admit that I wondered what I was missing that day; the food, the people, the conversation. I felt the repercussions of not watching the game elsewhere as well. I went to the grocery store before noon and was annoyed at the mobs of people in the store buying food. I had completely forgotten about the game. After it had started I drove past a bar and saw a group watching through the window. I felt like a loner driving down the street by myself with no particular Packer destination in mind. Later on everyone was pumped that the Cowboys had lost, but I felt indifferent.

For me, living in Wisconsin and not liking the Packers is sort of like living at the North Pole and not liking Christmas. 

I'm proud to say that I at least gave it my best effort.

Next time, if I end up alone and irritated at the grocery store on a Sunday, I'll remember: good company is just a few TV screens away. 


Thursday, January 8, 2015

Josh Younggren's Philosophy of the World

A few months ago, I asked my dear friend Josh to write a short post about a band called The Shaggs. I thought their oddball status in the music world would be an appropriate fit for this blog, even though they don't fit specifically into the category of visual art. I also believed that I could ask him to write a "funny" piece about a band that I deemed to be relatively "funny," with songs such as "My Pal Foot Foot" and "Why Do I Feel?"- songs we used to laugh about in a college dorm room so many years ago. I realized soon that I was incredibly wrong, at least about the second part, having forgotten that my friend Josh thinks of music as anything but "funny" (unless it's like Kreayshawn or something.) I had also forgotten that Josh has never written anything short in his entire life (seriously, he once broke Blogger trying to publish a post on his own blog). So, needless to say, I probably won't be asking Josh to write anything for me again. Just kidding. I might, depending on how many views this gets. Kidding, again. But please, take the time to contemplate this post by my friend who knows much, much (much) more than I do about this topic. The Shaggs, it turns out, aren't really funny at all, but tragic, serious, monumental even. Their story is relative to all artists and artistic mediums. What The Shaggs taught me: when people put a lot of time and effort into something, you should take them seriously. Even if it's your friend Josh who writes the looooooo00000oooooongest blog post ever. Enjoy.

The Shaggs
by Josh

The Shaggs, "My Pal Foot Foot," 1969

Rachele asked me to write about a band called The Shaggs and their record entitled Philosophy of the World. For any of you who've heard of this wonderful masterpiece, you'll be familiar with what I'm about to discuss here. It doesn't matter if you actually enjoy it, you probably understand what it is, although the ways in which each of you listen to it vary immensely no doubt. Whether you find it incredible, hilarious, baffling, or just downright disturbing, Philosophy represents quite possibly the best and most famous example of “outsider music”. A term that attempts to group a collection of records released in the last 100 years into a tidy little genre. And as much as “genres” or “tags” or “styles” provide any real help to listeners in 2015, “outsider music” as a genre/tag/style's been providing zero help to listeners since day 1. OG.

As the 20th century progressed, records started to pop up by bands or individuals or unknowns that baffled. Records that existed starkly outside the Popular cannon, lacked what some might call “normal” qualities, generally perplexing audiences. It wasn't until many years after their releases, or however long a cult takes to gain traction, did any of these records become the closest thing we get to “household” names. But, the progression of “outsider” music starts with the advent of one recording technology and more than likely ends with the introduction of another and society that brought it forth. Not just underground but center-of-the-earth underground. Greatly misinterpreted, routinely abandoned, and radically innovative – outsider music has always been there for those looking for something they might never find again.

Disclaimer: I don't know enough to plot the path or even really highlight all of the great records that might be considered outsider – (I'd probably try if I felt Rachele would give me the space ;)).  It seems that within popular music criticism or commentary, a definition of Outsider Music has eluded many. And that may very well be the best we're gonna get. Definitions put forth in the past few decades have ranged from “music made by the insane” to “weird” to “avant-garde” to “pop”. It's kind of all over the place. But because why not, I'm still going to attempt just that. Not because I think we need more bickering over words that describe music, but because understanding what Outsider Music is allows us to look at what Outsider Music means today. And The Shaggs are the most logical place to start.

Their story is far-and-away the most well-known within the genre. I'll try and keep this short (please read Susan Orlean's wonderful 1999 article chronicling their lives, etc): a brief rundown so you stick with me here. The group formed in 1967 at the strict insistence of the member's father, Austin Wiggins Jr; his mother was a palm-reader who foretold that he'd marry a strawberry-blonde, have two sons his mother would never meet, and raise daughters who would form a musical group (and be famous, although the prophecy's truth is undoubtedly clouded in its incredible mythic existence). The first two came true, so he took it upon himself to fulfill the prophecy's entirety. Three of his children, Dot, Betty and Helen, would form the group. Swiftly removed from school in their late teens, they were set-up on a strict schedule of home-schooling, practicing and calisthenics, that as they reflected on it years later resembled a strange and borderline-cruel form of abuse. Forced to play shows for the locals at the nearby dance hall and nursing home, the girls worked and worked and worked, with very little social interaction and real desire to continue, only doing so because of their father. Mr. Wiggins Jr. forbid his daughters to date, so when her father found out that Helen had married a man in secret, years after their first recording, he chased her husband with a shotgun and kicked her out of the band (and the family). So the story goes.

In 1969, against the advice of the engineer, Austin paid for studio time ($60/hr), attempting to capture the band “while they were hot” [liner notes]. Philosophy of the World was created, and 1000 records were soon after pressed. (It is unknown what happened to a large majority of the first pressing. Around 100 are thought to exist – the others lost in an ostensibly shady production company's tactics, or they may have just been thrown away). The group would continue this same schedule. Several years later, they recorded another collection of songs that would eventually be released as The Shaggs Own Thing. In 1975, Austin Jr, died at the age of 47 after suffering a heart attack. The group disbanded. The three sisters forgot about the group and went on to live fairly average, semi-rural-American lives. Dot is actually working on a new record, having re-emerged in the past few years. Helen now battles severe depression and lives off disability. Betty appears to have forgotten about it altogether – it sounds like she lives a fairly normal Mom life.

Their story is as much fascinating as it is troubling; filled with unbridled  youth and surprisingly effective naiveté but constructed from the same stuff that makes up your every-person's anguish and loss. Entirely unconventional, foreign, strange, but ceaselessly enchanting, stunning and unavoidably human. The Shaggs as a group and the record that made them “famous” embody almost every crucial aspect of what outsider music is, why it was able to happen, and why it may never be able to happen again. But the likes of much better writers/minds have been struggling to figure out how to categorize or even agree on what makes a musician “outsider”. Lester Bangs wrote a short piece about the Shaggs in 1981 entitled Better than the Beatles (and DNA too) that was clearly a little more tongue-in-cheek than pure appreciation. Pitchfork's Dominque Leone had a long running feature entitled “Out” Music that discussed records that (to his admission) were not necessarily “outsider”, but just out – obscuring any definition. Henry Rollins wrote a short piece for LA Weekly discussing his love for the “outsider” music of George Crumb and Iannis Xenakis. Not to mention Wikipedia's definition, or Allmusic's (lack of one) “obscuro” tag. I'm not blaming anyone here, mind you. These are just a few examples of the obvious confusion surrounding this type of music. “Outsider Music” as a term has existed for such a long time, you'd think there'd be a little more clarity. Especially today. It's both interesting and extremely problematic that Charles Ives and Spooky Black exist as equals. 

So, I sat here for a few weeks trying to draw the line, trying to conceive some incredible new definition that might make sense of it all, might tie it all together, but you see right there's the problem. This fucking stuff is far too subjective and personal and individual to tie down. There's no real rhyme or reason to the whole thing. To Henry Rollins, Iannis Xenakis is an outsider, but “I” - the incredibly informed – know better. To Dominque Leone, Zs is an outsider group, but “I” know better. Even Wikipedia (aka everyone) thinks Charles Ives is ostensibly the first musical outsider, but I'd most likely argue Florence Foster Jenkins takes that prize. There's so conventional definition because the entirety of all of it is is fucking unconventional. But I believe there is one attribute that runs through all of this, holding things in line, in cult status, in obscurity and letting others go. Fame.

To me, The Shaggs are quintessential not because they're the battiest, or the most unconventional, or even the funniest. The Shaggs are the most famous outsiders. They never had a radio hit, never made money, never interviewed, never did what musicians do. But they managed to make themselves a household name in weird music. No one ever wrote articles about them, never “analyzed” them, ever cared what their intentions were. They were meant to be forgotten. But something just wouldn't let them go. The Shaggs have, by 2015, reached the peak of this enigmatic amoebic style. They're not getting back together (first of all), but more than that, when they were making music there's just no way they could have toured, or supported themselves, or signed to a label, or even continued. Their origin is as preposterous as their music. In seemingly definite terms, 1969 was just not the year for The Shaggs. And so they faded away. It's not that they didn't try, it's not that they didn't want to be famous, have money, or fulfill their grandmother's prophecy. It's that 1969 would not let them do all of these things.

In setting up this definition, however, it becomes even more problematic that musicians like Jandek and R. Stevie Moore, oft-sighted prolific “outsiders” in their own right, intentionally stayed hidden. And even though they would've never reached any kind of “hit” status, they purposefully tried not to. The Shaggs story, by “definition” contradicts the ilk of these other outsiders: The Residents, Luciano Cilio, early-Ariel Pink, Dean Blunt, even Burial. The contradictory intention amongst music labeled “outsider” almost demands a separate definition. But their affect is all essentially the same. It's what makes defining it so difficult. On one side we have the musicians who tried so hard to get famous but couldn't: The Shaggs, Tiny Tim, Florence Foster Jenkins, Sam Sacks, Jan Terri, The Kids of Widney High, JustinRPG, etc. On the other, a group of musicians who actively avoided fame: as mentioned above, Moore, Jandek, Joe Meek, etc. But running through every group, every album, every recording: fame. Or lack thereof. Fame has many requirements, convention being its most important. Convention is normal, it's easily understood, easily related to. We hear something like Taylor Swift and we immediately get it. It's carved into us; a rut our tastes love falling into, time and time again. Convention is easy and it makes money. Even better is the slightly unconventional (i.e. Chvrches, or Future Islands, or Beyonce), making us think we're hearing something new.

Nonetheless, convention is what every outsider lacks, but that's not what holds it all together. It's a lack of recognition, absence of praise, not making it. Inability to achieve this has always has had an ambiguous affect on those seeking it. Some try harder, some give up, some change course, a few might eventually even get there. But at what point does one know enough about one's effort to make a decision about it's worth? At what point do you reassess, do you reevaluate? At what point do you say enough is enough, I'm not (-in fact-) ahead of my time I'm just ridiculous? How do you gauge your own creative output's worth?

I believe this question is one we unconsciously check. Regardless of the year or technology or intelligence of the era – it's just something inherent in our makeup. But the time between start and reevaluation? I'm not so sure this doesn't change. See, recording technology has dramatically changed over the last 20 years. Today, DIY is easier than ever (Grimes, James Blake, Tame Impala, Girls, et al). Recording music no longer requires thousands of dollars, a connected uncle, and conventional talent. Anyone with a couple hundred bucks and a lot of time can do it. So it would make sense that with the increasing ability to access “pro” recording capability, more “outsiders” might get their hands on this stuff? More unconnected nobodies might be able to afford a record? You might even think we'd be in the High Renaissance of it all, right? All the glorious ambiguity and challenging ideas and progressive attitudes? Soon, we'll have the most incredible Philosophy's or Madcap Laughs or Songs of Pain. But herein lies the great paradox that is “Outsider Music” in 2015. Where the fuck did it all go?

Well, it's the times, the society, the technology, the kids, the parents. It's all these things and more that I don't really have time to dive into. But, I will say this: the Internet is a messed-up entirely crazy fucking thing. And who would have thought? It brought with it amazing power, incredible efficiency, and most of all immediacy. At the risk of sounding like one of those “zen” slow-down-when-you-eat write-ups etc, it also forever changed the ways in which we interact, communicate, and exist. More specifically, the speed at which we move. There's no time to wait. Instant everything. Immediate access all the time. Give it. I love it. But aside from this insanity, what we do with our lives and how we live and who we are, transparency is an expectation. The requirement seems to be: talking about what we're doing, sharing our everyday movements, discussing our interests and desires and, of course, hyping it all up.  If you're a musician, that can be downright oppressive. Where the fuck is your music I want to hear it right now. What are you doing? Oh?

It's not that the Internet-age single-handedly killed or is almost done killing the possibility of another group like The Shaggs, it's that we as a society will no longer allow the time it takes to have one. Remember, the Wiggins sisters spent two entire years practicing their music. In isolation, home-schooled to death and in great shape from all those sit-ups. Two years. Think about that. If you listen to the record, you can hear the precision, the correct-ness of it all. This wasn't some trio who just happened upon instruments and boom Philosophy. These were well-rehearsed, thoroughly prepared, perfectly executed compositions. After repeated listens, their music reveals a unique cohesion, one rarely heard on record – the vocals aren't spontaneous, the guitar isn't out of tune, the rhythm isn't random, this group is playing together. A well-oiled machine. Susan Orleans wrote that Austin Wiggins Jr. believed the girls only performed their song “Philosophy of the World” correct once. They developed a style completely removed from Western pop music, from any conventional music really, and just played it to death. Practiced until their father might finally approve, might allow them to lead normal lives. It's this dedication to something so errantly unconventional that's just never going to exist again. Not because we don't want it to, but because we just don't have the time for it anymore.

I can't escape the constant pressure of getting it out now. I assume anyone who grew up in this generation feels the same, trying to make anything with their life feels the same. It's different than previous generations. Even though I obviously didn't experience it back then, there's no way said pressure existed before. There's just no time to waste. If you're doing something that's not going to produce a desired result (i.e. fame), why keep doing it if you know within a month it's terrible? You move on and try something else. Quickly. 

I do believe we all start as outsiders. With little knowledge of how anything is supposed to work, we're fueled by the inherently-human desire to create something. Eventually, we learn what works, what doesn't. We make mistakes and correct them and persist. We (often) gradually shape our creation to other people's liking – we want other people to like what we make, don't we? We eventually achieve something a little more relateable, a little more conventional. It becomes comfortable. And maybe then we decide we want to be unconventional (now that we know what the convention is), but that becomes harder and harder as it's already built into the process. Some people though, they never got past that first step. They just held onto that inherently-human desire and went with it. They remind us where it all started, where we came from, where everyone came from. I'm sure the Outsider still exists. They have to. But like the ways in which everyone understands the term, or The Shaggs, who really knows what's going on? Or when we might see them again.      


Links:
BETTER THAN THE BEATLES (AND DNA, Too)

Susan Orleans The Shaggs article:

Out Music:

Henry Rollins


Examples:

Philosophy of the World

Kids of Widney High:

Florence Foster Jenkings:

Jandek:

JustinRPG:


For reference:

Iannis Xenakis “Keren”

George Crumb “Ancient Voices of Children”