Over the past couple of months, I have been trawling through reviews of outsider art exhibitions published in the UK national press. It has been an interesting exercise, returning to some of the exhibitions I have visited over the past 10 years; this time, with my researcher’s head on. After diving into several of these reviews – most of which focused on the Wellcome Collection’s Souzou: Outsider Art From Japan, the Hayward Gallery’s Alternative Guide to the Universe and the Whitechapel’s Inner Worlds Outside, I started putting together a list of words and phrases that kept cropping up; words that actually seem a little out of place in a review of an art exhibition.
Mysterious, disturbing, criminal, eccentric, alienated, troubled, miserable, painful, tragic, psychosis, obsessive, chaotic, unhinged, imbecile, insane, lunatic, depressing, ranting, desperation, relentlessly garbled, utterly ridiculous, lost touch with reality.
The above are just a few of the words and phrases that jumped out at me. It’s not the most positive list, but this kind of sets the tone, as you can imagine, for what these exhibition reviews included. This emotive and, quite frankly, dramatic language is not uncommon when it comes to literature associated with outsider art exhibitions – whether that is in the press, in exhibition catalogues, or alongside the art in the exhibition space. This led me down a bit of a worm hole, thinking about the role of the art critic in representing outsider art to the wider public.
As I have mentioned before, we don’t teach our students about outsider art (in the UK, anyway) when they enroll on an art history course at any level, and usually, when a friend or family member asks what it is I’m researching and I answer with ‘outsider art,’ the majority of people look very puzzled. Actually, I was once asked if outsider art meant art that was created outdoors. But this puzzlement is understandable – the general public never hear about this work, and for the most part, many of even the most well-known outsider artists are only really known within the outsider art field. Because of this, we rely heavily on what we read about outsider art; from curators, from historians, and from critics. And because the work is, for the most part, pretty unknown, the language these curators, historians and critics use can be dramatic – or even voyeuristic to some extent. Human beings love hearing about the ‘weird and the wonderful,’ and they love hearing about people who aren’t like them (just think about the fascination a large part of society has with watching Netflix documentaries about serial killers). So this is what the critics play upon.
When writing about outsider art, critics have an extra bonus in that the majority of (certainly the ‘traditional’) outsider artists did not consider their work to be ‘art’, and therefore did not write or talk much about it themselves. This means the critic is able to imbue their own views onto this work, and, particularly with the national newspapers, reach much wider art and non-art audiences. This kind of power and freedom (no fear of reprisal from the artists) is no doubt a factor in the overdramatising of this type of work. It is important to consider the role of the curator in this story too. Critics need some to pin their review on; something to ‘appraise against’; a theme or a narrative. Many exhibitions of outsider art are group shows lumping together anyone and everyone who might fit comfortably (or uncomfortably) under that spacious umbrella. So critics are left to review disparate works and people, finding common themes where they can; and this common theme is often health or disability.
The role of the critic in the wider art world is also paramount here. The art world is a market system, and there are people who run the system for their own or others’ gain. Critics are just a small cog in this wider network of sales, exhibitions, and fame. A small, but important cog. Critics are self-imposed definers of taste. They say what’s good and what’s not good, and, much of the time, their views will be plumped up by ulterior motives. I have mentioned Howard Becker and his sociological views about art in previous posts. He talks a lot about the theory of reputation, and how reputations (of artists, and of works), “develop through a process of consensus building in the relevant art world.” He also notes that “the theory of reputation says that reputations are based on works. But, in fact, the reputations of artists, works, and the rest result from the collective activity of art worlds.”
I found a nice quote by critic Laurence Alloway, which I’d like to finish with. He nicely summarises what he thinks the role of the critic should and shouldn’t involve:
“I think art criticism should be part of the communication system of a mass society, not elite-dominated, not reduced to a single tradition, and certainly not possessing any absolute value.” 
 Becker, Howard. S., Art Worlds, University of California Press, 2008
 Kalina, Richard, Imagining the Present: Context, Content and the Role of the Critic, Routledge, 2006
4 thoughts on “Outsider Art and the Art Critic”
whilst i know my words and imagery from disability equality training i wonder which of those words given i’d appreciate having applied to my work.
I plump for Mysterious, disturbing, eccentric, alienated, troubled, miserable, painful, utterly ridiculous,
but then when i stand back and think about it i really don’t like anyone saying to much about what i do. In my experience they always get something wrong
Many thanks for your comment – yes, exactly! I think this is a key point. A lot of ‘traditional outsider artists’ never wrote about their work (or even saw/thought of it as art), so we don’t have their intentions or wishes available to us. This leaves people in positions of power able to put their own views/words/assertions onto others’ work.
Am really enjoying reading theses, especially like this one xx
Thank you!! xx