Anonymity, pseudonymity, and outsider art

Konstantinos Vassiliou

Department of Visual and Applied  Arts, University of Western Macedonia, Fiorina, Greece

Pseudonymity has proved to be a vital practice for twentieth-century art, not only in the visual arts but also in literature. Pseudonymity has predominantly been used in a passive or protective manner; for example, to mask the identity of the writer or the artist in order to protect her or him from any spurious criticisms and even legal issues that may arise regarding her or his work. But further, pseudonymity has been an active cultural practice central to some artworks, especially in modernism. John Heartfield’s (Helmut Herzfield) anglicization of his name was important for strengthening the political dimension of his collages in Nazi Germany. Duchamp’s persona of Rose Selavy (a pun on the French expression rose c’est la vie) was important for his transvestite photographs by Man Ray and his mock-artwork Belle Haleine (1921); whereas his pseudonymic signature R. Mutt was an important tactic in his exhibition of Fountain (1917). In graffiti, pseudonymity is the norm for every signed work, and, as in the case of Banksy, it can have a major role in the reception and economic dimension of the artwork. The documentary (possibly a mockumentary) Exit through the Gift Shop (2010) makes a strong argument for the importance of a name in street art. In all these cases, pseudonymity may contribute to and even significantly strengthen the establishment of a creator. This is mainly because pseudonyms are usually constant in an entire series of work, and even sometimes for the whole of the artistic production of one person, highlighting creative patterns and authorship throughout different works.

Surprisingly, anonymous art may even be closer to a specific practice of pseudonymity that has retained a dubious status throughout modern art, namely forgery. In his extensive study of the subject, Thierry Lenain argued that despite the legal issues that have arisen from forged works of art, forgery can be a clear indication of the persistent, and at times haunting, character that authorship has achieved for the modern art institution.13
13. Lenain, Art Forgery: The History.
View all notes
Nevertheless, forgery has another, more artistic, dimension. It not only engages in a battle among connoisseurship, forensics, and mastery, but also implicitly involves the subject of the historicity of art. The paintings of Hans van Meegeren, for example, were not only masterful executions in the style of Vermeer but also probably the only way for the forger to guarantee that his artworks would be received in museums, since without the forged signature any kind of seventeenth-century Dutch painting would, in the twentieth century, appear at best mere craftsmanship and at worst an anachronism. The forger thus engages with the shifts of art history and the values of the existing art institution. The same thing applies to anonymous art. The lack of a name and the lack of information regarding the provenance of an artwork signal a distance in the expectations of modern and contemporary art history. As with forgeries, anonymous works can also undermine the historical conventions of art. As shown in the previous examples, especially Figures 1–3, the missing date of the artwork compels us to process it from outside the prevalent framework of art history.

Similar cases may appear in what has been coined “art brut” or more generally “outsider art”. As in anonymous art, the main hindrance to the institutional acceptance of outsider art had been the identification of a specified agent during the creation of the artwork—issues of intentionality and consciousness, and even prejudice against specific social categories, mainly against those who are regarded as mentally divergent. Outsider art in general, of course, involving naïf artists working on a solitary basis or at least outside the boundaries of the established art institution, has now become worldwide a very much accepted art form, with its proper market and museum institutions. As David McLagan has shown, the collecting practices of outsider art were not just about recording and saving the artworks, but also about playing a creative role in this institutional development.14
14. McLagan, Outsider Art: From Margins.
View all notes
But the whole category of outsider art is based on the premise of an identified creator, and one may argue that a common representation of the artist as “melancholic” and mentally unstable15
15. Cf. Wittkower and Wittkower, Born Under Saturn.
View all notes
has exerted a strong influence in shaping this kind of reception.

However, in contrast to outsider art, anonymous art has not had an extensive market and holds no major institutions or specialized press. This may seem surprising, given the flexibility and openness of the contemporary art institution to new practices and artistic fields. But anonymous art hints at the extent to which the idea of authorship still remains the central pillar of modern and contemporary art, and how this idea continues to be reflected in institutional values. The absence of an identified creator, whatever her or his intentions and scopes, is not something that is easily incorporated into the contemporary institution of art, despite the great internal reconfigurations that have taken place during the last century.

Add Comment

Required fields are marked *. Your email address will not be published.