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Spiritual American Trash: Portraits from the Margins of Art and Faith Paperback – April 2, 2013
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Praise for Spiritual American Trash
Bottoms makes a sincere attempt to infuse his accounts...with empathy and understanding.” Library Journal
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*** OUTSIDER ART IS: "Those works created from solitude and from pure and authentic creative impulses - where the worries of competition, acclaim and social promotion do not interfere - are, because of these very facts, more precious than the productions of professionals. After a certain familiarity with these flourishings of an exalted feverishness, lived so fully and so intensely by their authors, we cannot avoid the feeling that in relation to these works, cultural art in its entirety appears to be the game of a futile society." -- Jean Dubuffet ***
This collection of narrative essays is a fascinating genre experiment. The book is built around carefully researched facts that trace the lives of 8 very strange individuals (the artists) who few people ever fully understood during their lifetimes (in the personal sense, that is.) Each of these artists engaged with their art on an obsessive compulsive level almost as an act of spiritual devotion, and these artists were completely indifferent to the idea of media exposure for their work. Stunning, breathtaking works created by the artists profiled are projects so huge they defy description, it's hardly possible to convey the sheer scale and magnitude of what these artists created. The best I can do is a picture:
[...] <--that was made by James Hampton, an impoverished black janitor secretly created this in the course of 14 years. The work wasn't seen by anyone else until after his death and now his throne is sitting on display in the Smithsonian museum. James only used trash--he worked with nothing but paperclips, shiny foil, scraps of wood, and whatever similar garbage was at hand. I'm not making that up, that beautiful, complicated display was made from nothing but trash. When I see the throne I ask, "Why would someone spend 14 years building that pile of trash in the first place?" Perhaps the best answers available reside within these chapters.
The author clearly states that though he is engaging with biographical facts and facts are the organizing principle of the work, he the book is also a re-construction of stories from these artists' lives, and he must guess and improvise the dramatic moments that allow the book to maintain his narrative format. If pressed to assign a genre to this work I might call it "speculative history", "biographical narrative", "speculative nonfiction"--something like that. But whatever you call it, Spiritual American Trash is no doubt powerful, insightful, and original. Though this book revolves around the psychology of these artists throughout, in my opinion it's not--fundamentally--a book about mental illness. I see it more as a courageous investigation of human consciousness and a meditation on how little we actually know about consciousness. So check this book out: chances are you have never read anything quite like this adventurous and inventive work.
That’s the gist of Greg Bottoms’ Spiritual American Trash, a book that tries to come to terms with the art-making impulse of the outsider artist. Concretely, each of these ten or so spare but profound vignettes is a life reconstruction floating around the outer edges of the marginalized soul. Bottoms’ gift is the ability to look within, and transcribe what he sees.
And, as with Pitiful Criminals, a previous book, each vignette is a work of art. Voice, pitch, intensity—everything is in perfect alignment in Bottoms’ writing. Not one superfluous word. Which is why I think I can claim again that there is no better writing, fiction or non-fiction, being done today.