Taxonomy: The Problems of Categorisation

Above image: Bill Traylor, Brown Mule, 1939 (source:

“Categorisation is something that we do naturally and unconsciously every day. We recognise one animal as a cat and another as a dog. We organise objects in the world around us in ways that reflect these categories. In our kitchens, we keep baking trays with other baking trays, saucepans with other saucepans and keep food separate from cleaning products. We categorise ideas, people, tasks and objects. Categorisation is fundamental to the way we think.” – James Sinclair, 2006.

As humans, we categorise things to make sense of the world; we link new things to past experiences, and we group similar people or ideas. We group genres of books in the library. We archive our emails in labelled folders. If we did not do this, we would “become inundated by our environment and unable to cope.”[1] This is a poignant theory with regards to the relative ambiguity of Outsider Art.

I am not sure if you have heard of the fictitious taxonomy of animals described by writer Jorge Luis Borges in 1942. It looked at the work of John Wilkins; a 17th-century philosopher who proposed a new language that would parallel as a classification system. Borges wanted to illustrate the arbitrariness of such a way of categorising the world, so used an example of a taxonomy taken from an ancient Chinese encyclopaedia entitled ‘Celestial Emporium of Benevolent Knowledge.’ The list described in the encyclopaedia divides animals into one of 14 categories:

  • Those that belong to the emperor
  • Embalmed ones
  • Those that are trained
  • Suckling pigs
  • Mermaids
  • Fabulous ones
  • Stray dogs
  • Those that are included in this classification
  • Those that tremble as if they were mad
  • Innumerable ones
  • Those drawn with a very fine camel hair brush
  • Et cetera
  • Those that have just broken the flower vase
  • Those that, at a distance, resemble flies.

Quite ridiculous, right? It is a similar story for the huge list of terms we have that fall under the umbrella of Outsider Art (not quite so ridiculous, but probably equally as long). Here are just a few that I have come across at some point: self-taught art, visionary art, primitive art, naive art, marginalised art.. etc. etc. Sometimes giving things labels help us make sense of them, but it can also mean we end up generalising about people or situations that, actually, we have absolutely no idea about.

I have written before about my position on the debate with regard to the term Outsider Art. I sit somewhere between thinking we should not need it, and thinking that to have a label means that people recognise it. Particularly people who have not been aware of it before. We have seen, more so in the last year, an exponential increase in awareness of the subject (particularly in the UK, thanks to a number of high profile London-based exhibitions on the subject). Now, when I tell someone what I blog on, they have some idea what I am talking about. And surely, this can only be a good thing. Raising the profile of this art is of course number one on my agenda. But following close behind is number two on the agenda: to eliminate the discriminatory and redundant term used to describe it. It is a double-edge sword, it seems; raising people’s awareness of a term that one day we hope to be rid of.

Shinichi Sawada

Shinichi Sawada

Outsider Art is one of those terms that would fit into that ‘other’ tick box you get on forms, or your ‘miscellaneous’ email folder. It is where everything that cannot be neatly categorised can be bundled up, and we can smile, thinking we’ve hoovered the dust up. Everything is in its place. But it is this attitude that means that it is becoming increasingly difficult to break open Outsider Art and get people to actually think about what they are grouping together. To put it crudely, we are grouping people diagnosed with mental health issues with ex-offenders, ex-offenders with those who have not been to art school, and those who have not been to art school with artists who paint or draw in a way that is not similar to what we conventionally consider to be art. We are, in essence, grouping people. Is this not the same as those sweeping generalisations that go against our twenty-first century ideas about acceptance, inclusivity, and political correctness? Do all women like the colour pink, all men like cars and sport? I do not recall other types of art being categorised in this way. Surely this in some way goes against our innate need for categorisation, because – like the Chinese encyclopaedia – it does not make any sense.

To move forward, we need to continue to break down the barriers around what we consider to be Outsider Art. We need to have open conversations about what it is, where it is going, and what it all means. But then we need to consciously think about – as humans with innate needs – how we can better categorise the work under this umbrella. I, for one, have not figured this out yet, but I feel like we are making some progress simply by raising awareness about it. It feels like the first step on a ladder that looks a little something like this: Awareness > De-constructing > Re-constructing. And maybe the re-construction of the category will provide evidence that we actually do not need such a term – we will realise that the work of ‘Outsider Artists’ actually fits within the ‘accepted’ canon of art history; after all, all art made in the past is, by its existence, the history of art.

Let me know what you think in the comments below, or on Twitter: @kd_outsiderart


[1] Kate Griffiths, ‘The Role of Categorization in Perception’, 2000


6 thoughts on “Taxonomy: The Problems of Categorisation

  1. Steve says:

    I really enjoyed this article bud.One of my favourite blogs. Here are my fourteen points I’d use for my art classification encyclopedia:

    1. Art that has been chased through a forest
    2. Anything Yeti orientated
    3. Not yet made
    4. Art carried primarily in supermarket bags
    5. Paintings of unoccupied wheelchairs
    6. Sketches of weevils
    7. Things made of oil
    8. Cats
    9. Art that has been lost in the post
    10. 4th year exam mistakes
    11. Anything rejected due to hairs
    12. Oil paintings of slimey rocks
    13. Et cetera
    14. Anything traced in graveyards

    These would make my life much easier to navigate.

  2. johndockus says:

    Perhaps only in solitude, through renunciation of society, outside of the huge network of social media, can we be free. The price to pay however is isolation. Once we reach out to connect with others in different locations, to share what we’ve done, that’s when tags and labels are applied. The huge amount of information now flowing through social media channels must be pared down for competing interests and limited attention spans. Categories and tags are the levy walls and viaducts to direct flows of information, to create pools where individuals with “common interests” can find each other, splash around and swim together. Even those who try to avoid category, end up in a category of those who try to avoid categories. The most obvious qualities are seized upon, then tags are applied. One is then fitted into a category. The longer one succeeds in eluding category the more likely one is to find oneself adrift in the vast sea of Indifference. Again: the price to pay is isolation. Mystery, what defies category, is kept by most people at a distance from fear and distrust. It’s a kind of phobia which draws individuals together into groups. One feels safer and more sense of belonging around the easy and superficial. So again categories are resorted to quite often for social reasons, to bring together individuals who one suspects already agree and only desire approval and affirmation from each other. To be too different, ranging too far from the familiar, to scramble expectations and to create havoc out of which comes a new way of seeing, is to hack away at the umbilical cord connecting us all to the huge network of social media, the Mother’s milk of social interaction, of acceptance, of getting “likes” and “followers”. It’s a double-edged sword to be sure, because indeed categorization falsifies and fails to do justice to the full richness and complexity of any individual, but to get the honey of any attention, one must reach into the buzzing hive and, unless one is a Zen Master, at least once get stung: which means being tagged and categorized.

    Window-dressing, the shop window, populates the internet, wares are displayed, attempts to lure in potential buyers who in lieu of cash pay in praise and compliments. We look at each other’s work, peering at it through the glass, but rarely enter the door; and when we do enter, the little bell tinkling, we mostly browse, skimming surfaces, spending little time considering individual objects with much depth and attention, often departing without leaving a trace. Shopping – and collecting – has become significant in our time. Individuals collect favorites, have “Best of” lists to help define their identities within larger constellations of groups. Top ten favorite movies. Top ten authors. Top ten list of Outsider Artists. Put it on YouTube with a soundtrack for dramatic effect. Nothing speaks so much to this tendency to abbreviation, the “In a Nutshell” mentality and bowing down to Category, as the popularization of the top ten list.

    Some of the more profound posts in the blog world and most interesting and challenging art seems on its own to receive less attention and fewer comments. Maybe initially the silence is from awe and wonder, but eventually such work passes by unremarked on, unable to be easily assimilated, unless those like yourself bring some attention and appreciation to it. Otherwise it floats out into the vast sea of Indifference, where the yawning abyss swallows it up. It says something about how the nature of attention has changed, where the “sweet spot” of social interaction and popularity is, where one must aim, the compromises one must make, if one is to gain any traction and to keep others as part of an audience coming back for more. Human consciousness itself has been radically transformed by social media, so that now categories as pre-sets seem to be built into it, even before anything is seen or heard or experienced. Conditioned and programmed, we rely increasingly on automated processes, things done for us, so much so that one day, who knows, a simple line drawing of graphite on paper may seem something done only by an “outsider artist”. The chip has been planted. As William Burroughs observed: The word is now a virus. Things go “viral.” Everything has a code. The time of Cyborgs as not science fiction but Reality is near. It’s something happening to us all, to human consciousness itself.

    In the end it will be outsider artists who reveal without pretension and affectation what we have lost of our humanity in the name of Progress. Outsider artists are shamans who sweat poison out of the cosmic body, playing out contemporary maladies we secretly share. They do a lot of crazy things, not always successful. They dig holes and crouch in them, with mud smeared on their faces. They sit shivering in the dark blowing on glowing embers. But they continue on in the night of the soul, pursuing their obsessions, until they break through with something created never before seen. To me the outsider artist is he or she who channels and transforms into personal vision and unique expression the archetypal lone voice that cries out in the wilderness.

    • julia margaron oak (@julia_m_oak) says:

      Exquisitely put
      Outsider artists take a leap of faith, Its not a genre but a modus operandi.
      The more I think on this the more I think that the Trauma experience is the route- to being a shaman-to being an Outsider Artist. From trauma in the womb, through birth and into lifes happenings. It turns on a switch inside. Try to block it and it destroys you.

      • johndockus says:

        Great comment, Julia. Absolutely not a genre. Speaking for myself, something has happened to me – Trauma – not in the popular sense, but Trauma in the sense of an accumulation of inward devastation which snowballs out of my control and slides down a slope and drops off into oblivion, and I’m at the top holding on by a string for dear life. It’s in this situation that I make my so-called art. How a modus operandi comes about, how one finds oneself in the middle of it, doing what one does… I’d say inward necessity is also a component of outsider art. For an outsider artist, it’s not about gallery shows and establishing a career. It’s about rescuing one’s very identity from sliding down into oblivion. I personally don’t even know if I’m an outsider artist. “Outsider artist” – another damn term, another category. All I know is that absolute oblivion is looming over me, and the abyss is below me, all waiting to swallow me up and silence me forever. It’s a serious situation which can’t be dismissed with jokes. It’s deep and beyond words, and definitely, in my personal and solitary experience of it, beyond category. I don’t feel most modes of communication can help me. I don’t feel better chit-chatting. I start a drawing, or a painting as an inner compulsion, not fueled by aesthetics – it’s obsessive – I don’t know what else to do with myself. But I also have the opposite pull in myself, spilling myself into apathy, spreading myself thin, wasting myself, destroying myself. It hurts to create. Giving birth hurts. How I destroy myself forms like a crust over something much more deep and significant happening underneath, which I feel unable to share with most people, but which occasionally erupts into something which compels me, gets me working on it, my very nerves and brain and arteries and heart fusing with it, and becomes a work of art. But this “work of art” is not really a work of art to me. It’s a focal point to which I anchor myself, hanging over the abyss. Certain individuals are inwardly compelled to accomplish unusual things because they have nothing else, a unique individuality not understood, no daily love, no encouragement. Indeed, trauma shocks many great works of art into existence. Such works might be considered surrogates or substitutes for love never received, which is why outsider art despite its craziness often can be so profoundly and personally moving.

  3. Brian Gibson says:

    Really interesting article . I often draw parallels between Punk and Outsider Art as I was about when punk broke into the mainstream ,which is kind of what is happening with the Outsider movement , more and more people are becoming familiar with the term. For me there are a lot of similarities between these two realms. The do-it -yourself attitude and the you dont need to be technically skilled in order to produce brilliant work or doing away with the need for a gallery or big record label to present your work. I am sure though, that there as many outsider artists out there were bands with attitude who would be only too willing to sign up if the opportunity arose . So a lot of similarities and also a lot of differences . I dont recall there being being so many specific categories initially. That would happen later with terms such as Oi ,New wave , No wave, Post punk and such like I dont recall listening to anything like Prisoner music (unless you count The Clashes version of Junior Murvin’s Police and Thieves etc ) or Disability music but thats the kind of art thing i might find myself looking at in an outsider magazine.
    What I find interesting is that with punk there was a infrastructure of friends and fans creating fanzines and making the art work for record sleeves. It would seem that Outsider Art is for the most part very much an area that still operates within the same framework of the established art world .
    But like Punk as the term Outsider becomes more common place ,more and more people will (a) identify with it and (b) use it to their own ends .

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