Willis Earl Beal (The first rule of outsider art is don’t talk about outsider art)

I saw this show last summer, at the Weeksville Heritage Center in Brookyln.  You can hear people laughing when Willis Earl Beal starts to sing.  His performance was both awkward and great.  He wore a cape, and at one point he brought out a whip.  The opening band was a really slick jazzy R&B outfit with a large band, but Beal mostly sang over a reel-to-teel tape deck.  He played guitar lap-style on one or two songs, in a way that suggested someone eating with the wrong end of a fork.

The Pitchfork review of Beal’s new record contains the sentence “At one point last year, he even told Time Out Chicago he wanted to be an outsider artist, somehow forgetting that one of the conditions of being an outsider artist is not knowing you’re an outsider artist.”  But is it really possible that celebrated outsider artists, the famous ones like Daniel Johnston or Thornton Dial, don’t know how they are described by the art world, that they are somehow shielded from the many portrayals of themselves and their work that have appeared in various media, or, even more outlandish, that they somehow aren’t capable of understanding those portrayals?  These are not stupid people.

We All Live Under the Same Old Flag, Thornton Dial, 2010

Maybe the rule Beal really missed is that one of the conditions of being an outsider artist is pretending you don’t know you’re an outsider artist.  The first rule of outsider art is don’t talk about outsider art.

But why would someone like Beal, blessed with a booming and versatile voice and skilled in a popular but rarely-heard-these-days vocal style, want to be an outsider artist?  What is the benefit of being an outsider when you might be able to be an insider?  He could sound like Aloe Blac if he wanted, right?  Well, one of the advantages is awkwardness.  This is a particularly powerful strategy in popular music, where being able to portray a cool person is a prerequisite.  If you don’t have to be cool and everyone else does, you can do and say a lot things other people won’t or can’t.

Of course, not all of what is considered outsider art is awkward.  Thornton Dial’s art isn’t, but Daniel Johnston’s art and music often is.  Still, the freedom to be awkward in performance may be one of the reasons Willis Earl Beal says he wants to be an outsider artist.

What happens when awkwardness becomes an aesthetic strategy?  What is the difference between a confrontational performance and an awkward one?