Self-Taught Genius seeks to frame the collection of the American Folk Art Museum as an archive of the culture of self-education in the United States. The exhibition’s organizers draw their interpretation of the word “genius” from roots in the Enlightenment and Romanticism, embracing a definition that underscores the potential in all human beings for exceptional creativity, intuition, and insight. The use of the term “self-taught” embeds the works in a continuum of self-actualization outside of formal educational structures, calling up the resistance to hierarchical institutions and indoctrination that is foundational to the spirit of the American narrative. This premise is satisfyingly inclusionary and long overdue.
For artists whose work has been ghettoized within fraught categories like Outsider Art, Vernacular Art, Psychotic Art, and Intuitive Art by patronizingly simplistic or exploitative analyses and mythologies, the American Folk Art Museum’s framework is incredibly validating without being over-compensatory. Those who have followed the historicization of Folk Art and its many overlapping fields and terminologies will find it deeply refreshing to see these artists rightfully recast as key players in the shaping of American visual culture. To experience the use of the word “genius” in an art context without its application solely to white men is also a gratifying bonus, to say the least.