The Autodidact: What Does it Take to Make it Big?

I can only apologise for the lack of posts in recent weeks – I hit the ground running at the start of 2018, and haven’t managed to stop just yet. However, I wanted to write a quick post for you as a couple of days ago, I was doing my usual crawl through the internet for the latest news on outsider art: upcoming exhibitions, auctions, in depth articles on individual artists, when I noticed the recurrence of a new word alluding to artists creating outside of the cultural mainstream. The word was ‘autodidact’, which literally means ‘a self-taught person.’


Interior (1944) by Horace Pippin (c) National Gallery of Art, Washington, DC

The first occurrence of the word appeared when I was reading an article on the new ‘Outliers and American Vanguard Art’ exhibition opening at the National Gallery of Art in Washington DC. The exhibition, the article notes, aims to “reconsider the ubiquitous but limited ‘Outsider’ designation as an umbrella term for autodidact artists.” Also interesting is the title of the exhibition itself – more specifically, the use of the term ‘Vanguard’ which means ‘a group of people leading the way in new developments or ideas.’ Both terms are new (to me, anyway), when it comes to describing the work of those traditionally known as outsider artists.


Aloïse Corbaz, image from “Brevario Grimani (circa 1943), 19 pages, bound, in a notebook, colored pencil and pencil on paper, 9 5/8 x 13 inches, collection abcd/Bruno Decharme (photo courtesy of Collection abcd)

The second occurrence of the term (that I came across within the space of about half an hour!) was in an Hyperallergic article about the American Folk Art Museum’s new show, ‘Vestiges and Verse: Notes from the Newfangled Epic.’ In this article, author Edward Gomez notes that the exhibition, “organized by Valerie Rousseau, AFAM’s curator of self-taught art and at brut… calls attention to the integration of text and image in works made by a diverse group of autodidacts.”

The most notable thing about the use of the term – following my reading of the articles and after a quick Google search – seems to be the predominantly positive slant the term gives to art work that is so often seen as ‘lesser’ or ‘not the norm.’ There is a whole Wikipedia page of celebrated famous autodidacts, including but not limited to authors Terry Pratchett and Ernest Hemingway, artists Frida Kahlo and Jean Michel Basquiat, and musicians David Bowie, Jimi Hendrix and Kurt Cobain.


Frida Kahlo, Self-Portrait with Monkeys (

I didn’t, however, see any renowned ‘outsider’ artists on the list. There still seems to be some sort of invisible barrier that separates these big stars of the arts and ‘outsider’ artists – despite there often being similarities in their backgrounds and circumstances. For example, although Basquiat’s background and style of work could undoubtedly be classed as ‘outsider’ (he ran away from home at 15, dropped out of school), he seems to have broken into the mainstream art world without too much trouble. In fact, he was the focus of a very popular exhibition at the Barbican that closed this month.

So, my question (as ever), is what creates this gulf between artists who gain fame and fortune through their work, and those whose legacies are confined to the barracks of ‘outsider’ art? What makes someone eligible to be included in Wikipedia’s ‘autodidact’ list? Do they have to be a certain kind of self-taught? I’d be interested to know your thoughts, so feel free to leave any comments below.  


9 thoughts on “The Autodidact: What Does it Take to Make it Big?

  1. dragermeurtant says:

    The real independent artist (‘outsider’) creates without clearcut influence of other artists, art-streams, and promotors. Still, as soon as the market incorporates (embellies, eats, digests) a particular artist, the banner ‘outsider (idependent) is stripped and removed. Henry Darger, though, recently was sold at 600 K. He was ‘reclusive’ and passed away as such. No change then. Autodidact: weired phrase. Should be replaced by ‘non-academic’.
    Yet, I heard there will be a DNA-test do determine where one stands, in or out…

    • kdoutsiderart says:

      Many thanks for taking the time to leave a comment. I agree with your thoughts on the term ‘autodidact.’ It’s a difficult word to use, and again, I think it plays into the academic versus non-academic divide that is currently very prominent in the art world. Thanks again – it’s great to hear others’ thoughts on the subject. All the best, Kate

  2. ROBPIXADAY says:

    Fascinating post! Guess I’m one. Definitely self-taught. “Outsider” and “brut” do have some negative connotations. I never say I’m self-taught anymore bec the one time I did, the person replied, “Well, that’s obvious.” Haaaa!

    Read an article a couple of years ago about this. The author suggested that art school grads have better art networks as a result of knowing other students, teachers. He added that doing shows in school prepared people and that having been through the educational critiquing process makes grads more confident. I don’t know how true all of that is. Interesting to think about, tho.


    • kdoutsiderart says:

      Many thanks for taking the time to leave a comment 🙂 I absolutely agree about art school. Even though people might not be overly aware of it, being at art school, you are immersed in that world. You find out what it’s like to receive criticism about your work, and you learn how to network, how to market your work and other really key skills that are slightly separate from the creative act of making. Thanks again – it’s always to useful to hear other people’s thoughts. All the best, Kate

  3. Donna Kuhn says:

    This was really interesting, Katie. I vaguely remember looking up that word but I did not retain the meaning. I actually don’t like the word, the sound of it, or saying it. I much prefer outsider or self taught or art brut or raw.

    • kdoutsiderart says:

      Hi Donna, many thanks for leaving a comment, it’s really useful to hear what other people think. I agree – I find it quite a clunky an difficult to use word. It also sounds quite ‘scientific’ if that makes sense. Thanks again for stopping by. All the best, Kate

  4. STUDIO FIEP says:

    Hi, I am an autodidact artist (1971) from the Netherlands and show my work on my blog ‘Studio Fiep’ because I want to raise more awareness for autism & art.
    I consider myself as an Outsider Artist because I’m autistic ( Asperger’s syndrome) and I’ve been diagnosed with complex PTSD. Two years ago I started painting as a way of selfexpression and communication. I had never painted before. I believe art to be a way for autistics to communicate in visual language and to portrait the world as they experience it.
    The blog is written in Dutch…but there are a lot of photo’s of my work. Excuses voor my poor English writing in this comment. Greets, from Natascha

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