In Focus: The Fascination with Outsider Art

Here is the third installment of the ‘In Focus’ series, which sees regular question and answer sessions between me and PhD student Marion Scherr. This post looks at the increasing fascination with outsider art, and the lack of the artist’s voice in exhibitions and publications.


Steve Murison - The One and Only Number One In Our Hearts Forever, Lemar

Steve Murison, The One and Only Number One In Our Hearts Forever, Lemar

Marion Scherr (MS): Although ‘Outsider Art’ is still a niche phenomenon, it seems to get more and more popular (considering the amount of exhibitions, specialist galleries, book publications etc.). Where do you think this increasing fascination with ‘Outsider Art’ comes from? Why do people seem to need this concept of the ‘Other’ or of the ‘Outsider’ in your opinion?

Kate Davey (KD): This is a really interesting question, and it’s something that I think I have figured out in some part based on my own experience of viewing outsider art. I think the ballooning in popularity of outsider art has in some respects had a lot to do with the art market and what sells. In recent years, the ‘otherness’ and ‘difference’ of outsider art has grown in popularity and galleries and dealers have managed to put a price on this.

If we move away from the art market – as I think this can sometimes muddy the water – in my opinion, the popularity of outsider art has come from people looking for something they can relate to on a more personal level. Certainly for me, fatigue with the ‘mainstream’ art world, and a sense that art was becoming more about money and sales and less about expressing an idea or a position, led me to become fascinated with outsider art. I think people (both art world and general public) can look at a piece of outsider art and feel like they are seeing a raw idea or expression. What I find with outsider art is that it gives me a physical reaction, which is something I rarely experience when looking at ‘mainstream’ art.

Increasingly, the world is becoming more capitalist, everything is based around making money and spending money, and I think there is a pull from outsider art because generally the artist has not made it to sell, or to increase their following, or to become famous. It is this naivety, and, ultimately, the feeling that we are looking at someone’s inner thoughts or inner voice, that is really magnetic. It is human nature to want to find out about people, to understand people who are the same as us, who are different to us, and I think outsider art really enables us to do this.

Particularly in the world we are living in today, outsider art can break down barriers between people from different backgrounds, from different countries, of different races and religion, and I think this is something people are actively searching for at the moment.

Jim Sanders

Jim Sanders

MS: Considering the popularity of the genre ‘Outsider Art’, it still surprises me how little we actually hear from the artists themselves when we visit exhibitions or museums etc. In most cases there is a curator or collector talking “about” the artist and his/her work. Your blog seems to be one of the rare exceptions in the field, where artists are invited to share their version of the story and experience with the term. I’d be interested to find out more about your thoughts on this issue. Why is it that ‘Outsider Artists’ are normally left out of the dialogue?

KD: Absolutely, I completely agree with you on this one. I think it’s definitely getting better, and there are certainly studios, projects and organisations that are working on rectifying this issue in the outsider art world by putting the artist’s voice at the heart of their work.

Personally, I find it incredibly important to include the voice of artists, not just in exhibitions and publications, but also in defining the term and discussing its development. I think the idea of curators and art historians defining what a movement is, who can be involved, and what is written about it is something that dates back a long way. I think the nature of outsider art and the artists the term can encompass is one of the stumbling blocks curators in this area have to learn to work with. Artists can be non-verbal; artists might not consider what they create to be art; they might not know how to talk about it. I think curators can try to fill this gap, when really, we should constantly be checking ourselves, making sure we’re working with artists at every stage of the process, enabling them to communicate about their work in whatever way that might be (video, words, poetry, other visual tools). And if they aren’t able to communicate about it, then realising that that is OK too. The work will speak for itself.

Because a lot of outsider artists have not travelled the traditional route through art school, they probably won’t have learnt about the art market and how it works along the way. They are creating as a form of catharsis, it can be an urge, or an innate part of their survival. It can be easy for curators who see the incredible output of outsider artists to take advantage, and I think this is something that has tainted the outsider art world. I am a strong believer in co-production, and as curators and promoters of outsider art we also have a social responsibility to not be another ‘institution’ that labels people, that puts words in their mouths, or groups people or artists in a way they are not comfortable with. It is difficult, and it is a learning process, but we need to overcome the historical idea that curators are the ‘expert’ or the ‘trend-setters.’

There is so much to be gained from working with artists directly, learning about their processes, how they work, what inspires them, and it is such a shame that this can so often be lost in the way work is displayed. Particularly with contemporary outsider art (where the artists are still living!), we have such a great opportunity to share the voices and insights of such a huge range of interesting people. It can be a great way not to just learn about art, but to learn about difference and similarity – and human nature!


Featured Image: Mitsi B, Time to Go

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