Is this the end of Traditional Outsider Art?

“In the early days, self-taught art made its way to New York via pickers, who trolled around the back roads of the South looking for visually oriented wackos, bought their work in bulk, and sold it for a big profit.” [1]

The gap between traditional Outsider Art and the Outsider Art of the contemporary art world is become increasingly expansive. Often, when we conjure up an image of an Outsider Artist in our head, we imagine an obsessive recluse; perhaps incarcerated within a mental institution. In the twenty-first century, however, this is far from reality. The growing group of organisations and ‘progressive’ studios that liberally encourage creativity in those who are by various means marginalised from society are becoming the norm.

No longer do psychiatrists or doctors trawl institutions, inquiring as to whether anyone has made any ‘strange creations’ of late; once a common way of locating Outsider Art in the early twentieth century. Drug therapies, talking therapies and the general change in attitude, particularly toward those who are suffering with mental health problems, have altered the landscape of Outsider Art forever.

Lucienne Piery, in her book entitled ‘Art Brut: The Origins of Outsider Art’ claims:

“The fact is that inventive creations have not been located in psychiatric hospitals since the 1950s, when drug therapies became widespread, except for the few notable exceptions who are represented by precisely those patients who are not medicated.” [2]

The Outsider Art world is become more inclusive. The term itself is not so much a retrospective label, defining the work of artists whose work was uncovered on their death. Instead, it defines a new calibre of marginalised artists who are proactive in getting their art seen; who want to show it to as many people as possible, to have exhibitions and enter competitions. Despite what I mention here about the increasing inclusivity of the genre, there are many institutions who still yearn for the ‘authentic reclusive madman’. For example, the Collection de l’Art Brut in Lausanne; the collection pioneered by Jean Dubuffet himself, carries out a strict examination on works that are to be entered into the collection. Piery describes this examination:

“It is necessary to have a body of works in order to evaluate how independent and original the artist is… The examination requires information about the life and personality of the artist, his motivations and the conditions of creation… The museum’s selections and acquisitions are based on the following five criteria: social marginality, cultural virginity, the disinterested character of the work, artistic autonomy and inventiveness.”[3]

I think the more inclusive nature of Outsider Art can only be a good thing. The technological era we now live in makes it almost impossible for anyone to be culturally virginal; to find someone who is almost completely culturally untouched would be incredibly difficult.

Present day Outsider Artists have much more control over the interpretation, display and sale of their own work. They have been given more autonomy, but organisations that aim to provide a platform for marginalised artists act as a middle-man to help overcome their vulnerability to exploitation. The artists now have a say in whether their biography becomes the focal point; taking on more importance than their work, or whether they would prefer not to discuss their background at all. The interpretation of Outsider Art used to be the domain of the ‘white western’ curator, but that right has now been (quite rightly) handed back to the artists themselves.

[1] Larissa MacFarquhar, ‘Crazy About Art’ in the New York Times, 29th January 1996

[2] Lucienne Piery, Art Brut: The Origins of Outsider Art, Published by the Collection de l’Art Brut, 2001, p 195

[3] Ibid, p 197

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4 thoughts on “Is this the end of Traditional Outsider Art?

  1. Jason Troy Sullivan (@SullivanArtist) says:

    hello. i like your article. i consider myself an outsider artist who came in and then decided to go back out again and every now and then steps back in for a moment or two.

    i am somewhat obsessed with creating and communicating though. really somewhat. a lot.

    i have met many other homeless artists, institutionalized artists, and just the wandering artist that are coming out for a moment of human contact and they do not have portfolios, or biographies but they produce some of the most raw, real work i have ever had the pleasure of experiencing firsthand.

    • kdoutsiderart says:

      Hi Jason, thank you for your comment. This is exactly my experience of this ‘type’ of art (although it is not a type, it is just ‘art’). The art world is a commercial, often inhuman place, but there are so many people working outside of this world – working on things that they just have to communicate somehow. I think it’s fantastic.

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