There is no such thing as outsider art…

… Only outsider artists

scottie wilson artsy

Scottie Wilson, Image courtesy of

First of all, I apologise for my absence, and I hope everyone is managing to stay safe and well in the strange times we are all living through. It’s been a tricky couple of months trying to get hold of books etc. for my studies due the closure of libraries during the pandemic. As things here in the UK start to re-open again, I am now able to resume my research – and, because of the slight break, I am feeling more motivated than ever.

This month, I have been re-familiarising myself with many of the key texts published in the outsider art field. I have been returning to books by Gary Alan Fine, Charles Russell, John Maizels, Colin Rhodes, and, this week, the simply titled 1972 book ‘Outsider Art’ authored by the late and great Roger Cardinal. This book really can be considered the defining text. It is where the term ‘outsider art’ originated from and was written as an English equivalent to Jean Dubuffet’s numerous texts on Art Brut.

augustin lesage - outsider art fair

Augustin Lesage, courtesy of 

Cardinal’s book does offer an introduction to the field and the term itself, but it is predominantly a close analysis of several ‘outsider artists’ and their work. Including, but not limited to, Adolf Wolfli, Scottie Wilson, Augustin Lesage, Madge Gill, Raymond Isidore, and Aloise Corbaz. However, it is not these individual reviews that interest me; instead, it is Cardinal’s refining of the term outsider art and what he asserts it does and does not encompass. Although much more liberal in his definition than Dubuffet and his strictly ‘anti-cultural’ Art Brut, Cardinal does suggest that he refers mostly to schizophrenic, autistic and innocent artists when he talks about outsider art. He excludes, quite notably, naïve art and primitive art. Naïve art because it is created by hobbyists who, although untrained, aim to have their work accepted and admired within the traditional canon. Primitive art because, although visually different to what we in the Western world might see as art, it is in fact very much part of a constructed societal culture.

This is all interesting. However, it is Cardinal’s assertion that the realities of those who make ‘outsider art’ are so disparate and diverse that we cannot group them under one term that strikes the biggest chord with me. In essence, he says that there is such a thing as an outsider artist, but there is no such thing as outsider art. If this is the case, then we cannot consider outsider art as a group, school or movement that we can massage into the mainstream canon.

aloise corbaz

Aloise Corbaz, image courtesy of

“To talk of art brut is, then, to talk about a large number of independent artistic worlds that ought not to be envisaged as forming a block, much less a school.” [Cardinal, p 46]

This is a particularly strong theory because it goes some way to explaining why outsider art continues to be marginalised by the mainstream art world. Historically, art schools and movements that have grown out of rebellion against the cultural and artistic norms of their time have eventually been welcomed into our celebrated Western art history. Think German Expressionism, the avant-garde artists of the early twentieth century, Surrealists, Fauvists. Rebellion has always happened, and despite the shocking nature of the work at the time of emergence, the movements noted above have come to be a comfortable and recognisable part of our cultural history. This, however, is not the case with outsider art. It has continued to linger on a parallel path, just off the main thoroughfare that is the accepted Western canon. Sometimes it knocks at the door, sometimes it is welcomed right in, but always it is asked to leave – usually through the back door, and quietly at that.


Raymond Isidore, image courtesy of

I know that Cardinal’s views on the term outsider art became much more inclusive as time went on, but I think his original theory here is absolutely key. It comes down – as always – to our need as human beings to categorise and group, and to our inability to understand or accept difference. Perhaps by acknowledging this, we can begin to look at work made by outsider artists as what it is – individual displays of incredible creativity. Maybe this want and need to group it, to define it, is preventing us from truly enjoying it.

What do you think? Is there such a thing as outsider art? What about outsider artists? Let me know in the comments below, or drop me an email:

You might also be interested in a series national arts charity Outside In are running on outsider art. It includes a number of fascinating blog posts by artists and arts professionals on the idea of outsider art – click here to take a look.


Roger Cardinal, Outsider Art, Studio Vista, 1972




5 thoughts on “There is no such thing as outsider art…

  1. George Lawrence says:

    Hi Kate,
    Welcome back! I hope you and your family are staying well and sane during these crazy times. I loved this new post – going back to the roots of outsider art and trying to define exactly what it is.
    I am no expert on the subject but I wanted to relate my thought from personal experience.

    I have known two people in my life that I would call outsider artists and neither of them knew the term or considered themselves “artists” at all. One was my elderly landlord in Brooklyn who painted scenes from his memory. He used crudely cut pieces of masonite and painted with leftover house paint- the same colors he used to paint doors, windows and furniture in the building. The images were scenes mostly from his childhood in Puerto Rico, usually including people and animals at play or at work. He hung the paintings with in the foyer and stairwell of the three-floor apartment building he owned.  When I asked him about them he said that when he painted he didn’t have to think or worry about anything else. He never tried to sell his work or show it anywhere other than the interior walls of our building.  When I moved he gave me one of his paintings which I had admired.  

    My second acquaintance was Clayton Landry, a homeless veteran in NYC (Kate- you know about him and have featured his work on this blog) who also drew memories of his life, mostly his life in the US Navy. When I asked Clayton about his artwork he said that it wasn’t art, it was just his memories. He carried a sheaf of drawings with him, like you would carry a journal, and made his drawings everyday on the street using parked cars as his drawing boards. I never saw him try to sell his work and he didn’t seem particularly interested in sharing it with others. 

    I bring up these two people as examples because to me their work and their way of making art seems like the essence of what it means to be “outside” the art world and still to create art that is beautiful and meaningful.  The thing that they had in common was a compulsion, a need and a drive to do the work, not in order to share their skill or their talent with others, but as a kind of personal release or cathartic act. Neither of them thought of themselves as artists or was interested in selling their work or being part of the “art world.” 

    So when you mention Cardinal’s assertion “that there is such a thing as an outsider artist, but there is no such thing as outsider art” it makes me wonder if, from the point of view of the person creating the work, there is even such thing as an outsider artist, until he or she is labeled as such by observers of their work. The same would be true of the work – it only becomes outsider art when it is labeled by others, not by the artist who created it. This definition would probably include the schizophrenic, autistic and innocent artists that Cardinal mentions because I would imagine that most of their work would be done compulsively, unselfconsciously and with little thought to the viewer of the work or the value of the product as a commodity in the art world. 

    I suppose this categorization (which I am not proposing as correct, only as a thought experiment) would leave out any self-proclaimed outsider artist or anyone who makes art “on purpose” for that matter (!) – so all that leaves the rest of us to do is observe, appreciate and preserve the work.  And I don’t know what it says to your point about the marginalization of outsider art by the mainstream art world.  All I know is that personally I am most engaged by the type of work that appears to have come directly from the soul or the psyche and is presented without filters, ego or concern for the viewers approval or acceptance. 

    George Lawrence

    • kdoutsiderart says:

      Hi George, great to hear from you, and hope you and your family are keeping well too!

      Yes, I completely agree! All of your reaons for being drawn to a certain type of art are all of the reasons that I feel drawn to it above all other art as well.

      I really see your point here, and it is an interesting one. I guess it always comes back to the definition of art and the definition of an artist (obviously, something that may never be agreed upon!). There is strong opinion amongst some academics that to be called art, something has to be hung in a museum or gallery. Not something I agree with, but it’s interesting thinking about the boundaries of what is art and what isn’t. Is anything that we call ‘art’ automatically art? Who gets to call it art? Again – always back to the question of who gets to decide!

      Thanks again for your insights, very interesting as ever.

      All the best, Kate

  2. robert says:

    We have been very fortunate to be able to view a number of examples of the works by the artists that R.C. references along with many other examples of Art Brut by artists he does not reference. We’ve also been able to view a goodly portion of the works collected by J.D. In all cases, one is struck by the originality, emotion, intuition, and energy that comes through the works (2 and 3 dimensional). As a sincere viewer, one finds oneself caught in a relationship with the artist that is more than visual. The beauty of the encounter is that one is not able to compare one artist against the other and make judgements on whether one image or object is more or less than the other. Judgement being suspended, the mind is free. The experience is deep. Art Brut is human expression that refuses to be stuffed into left-brain logic, silly opinions by silly people, and monetary valuations among other diseases. Most of today’s mainstram “art-world” is on a slippery downhill slope in comparison.

  3. Lisa Hester says:

    Hi, I am also a PhD candidate discussing a very similar topic with a different twist. I am using analytical psychology to describe two modes of creativity that correlate with insider/outsider art. We seem to be on very similar paths so I thought it would be relevant to share my own blog.

    Also wondering if you have read much into Hans Prinzhorn’s ‘Artistry of the Mentally Ill’ (1922)?

    I love your blog, well done!

    • kdoutsiderart says:

      Hi Lisa, great to hear from you!! Thank you for sending across your blog – I’ve just started having a look at some of your YouTube videos. Thank you for being in touch, it’s nice to connect with others interested in this area

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