“Beauty is Almost Too Common”: Professor David Laraway and Outsider Art

During the summer of 2012, shortly after Professor David Laraway had begun his doctoral coursework in Philosophy at the European Graduate School in Saas-Fee, Switzerland, he came across popular press reports featuring a botched attempt to restore a religious fresco in Spain. A well-meaning parishioner, Cecilia Giménez, had attempted to restore the painting in a village church. It had not gone well. The new painting—according to Dr. Laraway’s newest book, American Idiots: Outsider Music, Outsider Art, and the Philosophy of Incompetence—“was noteworthy precisely because of its stunning incompetence” (1).

Rather than dwelling in ironic relish over the fresco’s failure, however, Dr. Laraway began to consider the philosophical implications of the fresco’s fame. What does our reaction to incompetence—especially “stunning incompetence”—suggest about our collective relation to defective or “failed” creative works? Why are we drawn to art that falls so completely short of its aspirations? In short, what happens when art goes wrong?

In my interview with Dr. Laraway this past week, he was quick to clarify that the art he addresses in American Idiots “is not just poorly executed [art], but in some works, there is something going on that is of philosophical importance.” The difference between incompetent art and interestingly incompetent art, then, is that in the latter, “artists and musicians are totally faithful to their own muse even if they’re the only one that can hear the voice of that muse.” A focus on these artists and musicians can therefore help to answer a deeply philosophical problem: what can bad art teach us, in terms of ethics as well as aesthetics, about the gap we experience between a call that appears to us as infinite in its demands as the paucity of the resources that we can offer in response to that call?

The book’s first chapter attempts to provide a philosophical basis for the study of incompetence in the realms of music and art. Dr. Laraway notes that philosophers have increasingly begun to devote attention to the structure of not just propositional knowledge but to embodied, practical forms of knowledge as well: that is, not just “knowing that” but also “knowing how.” Contributing to this discussion, his book explores the significance of those occasions when an artist or musician inadvertently displays a stunning lack of “know-how.” While some philosophers have recently focused on describing our most primordial relationship to the world as one of “skillful coping,” Dr. Laraway is interested in the converse: the artist or musician whose works provide evidence of a total inability to cope skillfully with what the world appears to demand of them. And he claims that that inability actually demonstrates a deep philosophical puzzle, one that becomes visible in the context of bad art.

The artists that Dr. Laraway chooses to engage in his book are consequently multi-layered, from the hermit-type epic-writer Henry Darger, to indie rock darling Daniel Johnston, to the Louisiana-born artist/prophet Royal Robertson, to the New Hampshirite sixties band “The Shaggs” (if you haven’t before, you need to listen to the Shaggs). Each of these artists exemplifies the disparity between what they seem to experience as an infinite call to create and the insufficiencies of their art to respond to that call appropriately. Consideration of these artists is especially important because, according to Dr. Laraway, “artists who are more competent than they are often able to conceal, through their skillfulness and talent, the infinite demand of the call to which their work is a response. But the artists I study leave us nowhere to hide.”

American Idiots, then, directs our attention to the infinite demand which somehow shines through the material product, reckoning for a radical perspective of art itself (a perspective which, he argues, has been long taken up by “fans and aficionados” but has been largely ignored by scholars). At the same time, the book encourages a more humble strategy of approaching and appreciating less accepted works, steering us away from the temptation to either mock them or enjoy them only in an ironic mode. Accordingly, through this perspective we recognize the call that artists respond to and thereafter might feel capable of responding to it ourselves. We can address our own inadequacies and vulnerabilities and reckon with what we feel we owe to the world.

Ultimately, Dr. Laraway’s daring call is to reconsider beauty itself and our relation to it:

Borges, in one of his stories, has one of his characters say, “La belleza es harto común” (“Beauty is almost too common”). It’s become so common that we are blinded to it. These artists who strive and fail to respond to the call of art can resensitize us to seeing beauty in totally unexpected places. I think there’s a beauty in failure. And not just beauty, but responsibility; we come to recognize how much the world has given us and how little we sometimes seem to be able to offer in return.

So we all may be American Idiots; but if that’s the case, let’s enjoy the beauty of it.

This post was written by Isaac Robertson, Humanities Center Intern.

[1] Laraway, David. American Idiots: Outsider Music, Outsider Art, and the Philosophy of Incompetence, Atropos Press, New York, Dresden, 2018.

[2] Laraway, David. Personal Interview. 22 Mar 2019.

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