In Focus: the Context of Outsider Art

Welcome to the final installment of ‘In Focus,’ a series of blog posts featuring question and answer sessions between me and PhD student Marion Scherr. In this last post, we’ll look at the term outsider art in an international context, and discuss the relationship between outsider art and the ‘traditional, mainstream’ art that is taught to college and university students. 

Steve Murison - Unwitch My Heart with Bile and Rum

Steve Murison, Unwitch My Heart with Bile and Rum


Marion Scherr (MS): What are your experiences or thoughts on how ‘Outsider Art’ is dealt with on an international scale? I’m always wondering why the term is used predominantly – and with a few important exceptions – in the English-speaking West, and hasn’t caught on in other countries/languages to a certain extent.

Kate Davey (KD): This is a very interesting question, and something I am working with at the moment. I think, even within Europe, there is a lot of variation about how the term Outsider Art is used and the connotations that surround it. From my experience, there are parts of Europe that still very much use a medical model when discussing outsider artists and the work they create. I think this is probably because that is where the work originated in many parts of Europe – in psychiatric institutions – and it was found predominantly by doctors (e.g. Prinzhorn and Morganthaler).

I am not entirely sure why it seems so different in the UK – it is perhaps more to do with the history of mental health than the history of outsider art. Certainly there are very few organisations that focus on a medical model in the UK. Even Bethlem Gallery, which is attached to the Royal Bethlem Hospital, does not focus on a medical model. The artists are very much at the heart of what they do, and it is about being an artist rather than a patient.

In places like America, terms like self-taught or folk art are much more common than the term outsider art, and again, I think it is more a reflection on social history than art history, and I think this is the case for much of the world. In recent years, outsider art from Japan has become a big market, with much of the work that falls under this category being produced in Japan’s day centres. Again, social reasons rather than artistic – and I think this is probably the key to understanding why the term is so different across the world. I am not saying I agree with this idea, because it instantly takes the focus away from the art and puts it on society, politics and medicine (which we are trying to move away from in the outsider art world and focus purely on aesthetic), but it certainly seems to be true.

Manuel Lanca Bonifacio

Manuel Lanca Bonifacio

MS: I would be interested to hear more about your thoughts regarding the position of ‘Outsider Art’ in relation to “general” art history as taught in schools and universities. Do you think ‘Outsider Art’ should or can be included into the curriculum of art history? If so, how would you suggest it should be contextualized?

KD: I think it very much should be a part of taught art history at schools and universities. I was lucky enough to be taught about outsider art during my undergraduate degree in art history, but nonetheless it was taught in a separate module that was actually entitled ‘Psychoanalysis and Art.’ So, again, it was separated from the ‘art’ world, and was taught as more of a medical module. There are so many examples of key modern artists being influenced and inspired by the work of outsider artists, that if we do omit it from what we teach, we are at risk of missing out a huge and vitally important part of history.

In terms of contextualising outsider art, I think history can contextualise it perfectly well on its own. It was created at a certain point in time, for a certain reason – and much of it did intertwine with social, political and economic history. I wrote my undergraduate dissertation on the links between German Expressionism and Outsider Art, and this is a perfect example of a well-known (now, anyway) group of artists wanting to imitate the intuitive rawness evoked by outsider artists as a reaction to their own social and political context. There are many moments where outsider art dovetails with the ‘mainstream’ art world throughout art history, and I think to ignore this is to do a disservice to the greater picture of what ‘art’ is and what it can explain about society and humanity (now, and historically).

We hope you have enjoyed the In Focus series! If you have any comments or questions, please do post them below. Both Marion and I would love to hear your thoughts on any of the topics we’ve been discussing. 

Featured Image by Matthew


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