Life vs Work: The Dangers of a Biographical Interpretative Approach

“The centrality of biography to Outsider Art is not only an integral component of its categorization and valuation, but something which, through autofictional praxis, can be deliberately co-opted as a savvy marketing device, or made to function as a potent mechanism for a critique of the category itself and the foundations on which this particular classification are predicated.”[1] – M. Kjellman-Chapin.

The above quote by Kjellman-Chapin highlights one of the most prevalent questions surrounding the exhibiting of ‘Outsider Art’; whether the ‘story’ or the artist’s biography should be displayed alongside the work.  Many believe that without the biographical context, we cannot really place works into the ‘Outsider Art’ category. But with a focus on biography, surely we are eliminating the formal and visual elements as the most important parts of the work?

There has been great controversy surrounding the use of biography with regards to Outsider Art exhibitions; particularly if the biography is not written by the artist. Create, an exhibition which took place in 2011 at the Berkeley Art Museum was a survey of work by 3 local disability-focused arts centres: Creative Growth, the National Institute for Arts and Disability (NAID) and Creativity Explored. The exhibition received great criticism for exacerbating the idea of ‘us’ and ‘them’ with its excessive medical labelling. Lawrence Rinder, co-curator of the exhibition used an abundance of medical language in his interpretation of the works on display. He wanted to put definitive labels on people by making clear the difference between developmental disability and mental illness. Rinder continued to exacerbate the idea of the ‘isolated outsider artist’ by claiming that artists such as Judith Scott created their work from nowhere when in fact, many of the artists would regularly go on museum visits and have access to art books. It seems a little naïve to assume that the artists were cut off completely from the world particularly in the twenty-first century. On a visit in 2012 to the Halle Saint Pierre in Paris, I noticed a similar thing. The artists whose works were on display were all named as ‘anonymous,’ yet a rich biography was provided about them all.

It is this use of the biography that worries me the most. Not only are the artists’ voices being taken away, they are being given a projected voice from someone who appears to be of higher authority. This is the danger with supplying a biography; even more so perhaps with regards to the sensitive realm of Outsider Art.

Galleries and curators can sometimes be guilty of playing on the biographical history of an Outsider Artist to raise the status of an exhibition.  Andrea Fritsch has identified an interpretative strategy related to Outsider Art which is based on Pierre Bourdieu’s The Forms of Capital (1986). The approach “offers a framework that allows the economic value of activity outside the realm of normal market transactions to be discussed in economic terms.”[2] More simply, using the term Outsider Art can ascribe artists with a status, or cultural capital, that curators, collectors and other art world insiders can benefit from. By highlighting the biography of the artist more than the art work itself, the work is second to the status of the artist. In essence, the artist becomes the ‘art’, which reduces the worth of the actual work’s formal, stylistic and aesthetic properties.

Although in some cases it might be apt or relevant to supply an artist’s biography; after all, art is an extremely effective educational tool that can teach us a great deal about social history, it should never overshadow the credit the work itself is due. A patrimonial approach to interpretation, as suggested by Anthony Fitzpatrick in Framing Marginalised Art, is perhaps the way forward. This approach focuses on “fostering relationships with artists grounded in a profound respect for their creative processes and social/cultural environments that inform their work.”[3] This is a technique most commonly employed by community arts organisations who aim to promote the work of Outsider Art because of its intense visual power. They do not, however, ignore the voice of the artist, but instead support the artist in their creative endeavours because of the exploitation they are potentially vulnerable to.


[1] M. Kjellman-Chapin, Fake Identity, Real Work: Authenticity, Autofiction, and Outsider Art [Available online:], p 148

[2] A. Fritsch, ‘Almost There: A Portrait of Peter Anton’, A Journal of Collegiate Anthropology, No. 4, Vol.1, 2012 p 97

[3] K. Jones et al., Framing Marginalised Art, UoM Custom Book Centre, 2010, p 30

P. Kuppers, Nothing About Us Without Us: A Disability Arts Exhibit in Berkeley, California, Disability Studies, Vol. 32, No. 1 (2012) [Available online:]


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