As The Outsiders exhibition at the AGO enters it’s second month, the period in which to enjoy and experience this diverse and crucial body of work draws nearer. These ten notorious and pioneering artists created an essential counterpoint to the visual culture disseminated by popular culture, and paved the way for the visual and social culture we sometimes take for granted.
While contemporary culture is defined by the prioritization and celebration of the individual, the post-war, pre-internet period was defined by a kind of oppressive conformity. Which, while providing a lot of pain and conflict, also made way for inevitable rebellion in the form of tight-knit and exclusive sub-cultures, who defined themselves by the differences that extricated them from wider society. This kind of anti-culture is most readily seen in the remarkable documentation by Danny Lyon of life in a biker and the queer, drag and trans population of Casa Susanna.
The title The Outsiders penetrates not only those whom were pushed to the perimeters of society by bigotry and ignorance like black photo-documentarian Gordon Parks, but also those whom found themselves hopelessly isolated within their communities of privilege, such as Diane Arbus. Park’s work confronted the general public with the striking realities and desperation of poor, black America. His intimacy with his subjects humanized them, and ignited a pivotal conversation around race and poverty in the first world country. Meanwhile Arbus, born into a white upper-middle class family, isolated from within, found compassion and kinship in those extracted from society based on both interior and exterior grounds, whether they be prostitutes, nudists or the mentally disabled. This scope of intimacy offers the viewer both objective and subjective lenses through which to view the people, places and events that populated American life in the post-war, pre-internet era.
These “outsiders” defined a kind of American sensibility, an aesthetic which has become ubiquitous with Western culture. Without the lively street photography of Gary Winogrand or the intimate “Photo Diary” of Nan Goldin, our perception of American life may have been limited to the polished agenda-pushing images found in advertisements.
What’s more, photography and filmmaking, being still a fairly new, and therefore undefined art forms made way for female, queer and people of color to breach the art world’s historically white, straight and male dominated canon. Finally, we were offered a fresh point of view, mediated through the eyes and experiences of those whom previously had little to no voice in culture.
Our continuous struggle with systematic sexism, racism, able-ism and queer and trans-phobia in our contemporary society reinforces the necessity and timeliness of this exhibition. Yet, while the show focuses on the photographers and the subjects outsider-ness, this is nothing short of a celebration of the differences that united communities in the counter-culture. While pain, rejection and fear is evident, so too, pride, unity and freedom are captured and emphasized in the vibrant photographs and films of these ten artists.
Catch The Outsiders at the AGO until May 29th.