Recently, I have been returning to the classic texts of outsider art in an attempt to uncover where the marginalisation of this type of work really began. My research has uncovered a few key areas that illustrate how ingrained the idea of ‘otherness’ and ‘us’ and ‘them’ is when it comes to outsider art and the artists who create it. This marginalisation and imbalance of power is so embedded in the culture of outsider art; in how it emerged, in how it is described, and in how it is valued, that it is difficult to move past its history and look towards a new, integrated outsider art that enjoys the same reverie as works that are readily welcomed into the cultural mainstream.
My research has first led me to explore the emergence of outsider art. And here, already, we can see structural power imbalance at play. If we think back to the key developments in the emergence of outsider art, we see a pattern; outsider artists being ‘discovered’ by those already in positions of influence and power.
The first major – and most obvious – example is Jean Dubuffet and his coining of the term Art Brut. The story of Dubuffet and his support for Art Brut is an excellent illustration of how the system works. Dubuffet, for a start, was already an accepted part of the cultural mainstream. He was an artist in his own right; a disillusioned one, albeit, but accepted nonetheless. It was his position on the ‘inside’ that enabled him to throw caution to the wind and leave the mainstream for a world of raw and unfettered creativity. This example speaks to sociologist Howard Becker’s idea of the Maverick artist; an artist who has already achieved acclaim and acceptance within the mainstream who then goes it alone, creating more daring and outrageous work. Becker uses Duchamp as his key example, but Dubuffet equally fits the mould in his search for something different and other. The idea being that you have to already be on the inside to make real change – and to get noticed for it.
Now Dubuffet’s name is inextricably linked with Art Brut and outsider art forever more. In his position as the creator of Art Brut, Dubuffet held – and still holds – all of the power. Often, it is not the artists whose names we recall when we talk about the category of outsider art, but Dubuffet’s name; he is now the father of this genre.
Like Dubuffet, there were other European artists who before the First World War were becoming disillusioned with the art world. They were dissatisfied with culture and society as a whole and were looking for something more authentic. It is these artists we see looking for inspiration in other communities, countries and continents – think Picasso and his intrigue with the primitive, or Kandinsky and his fascination with art made by children. It is similar to how the middle classes now seek authenticity in other cultures through travel. But still, it is a search for the other, a search for something different. This directly relates to a number of European artists becoming interested in the art of psychiatric patients following the publication of Hans Prinzhorn’s Artistry of the Mentally Ill in 1922. They were looking for something other, and they found it here, in the work of those who were removed both physically and socially from the worlds of these mainstream artists.
There is a history of this type of dissatisfaction amongst mainstream artists. But, almost always, their new and shocking work eventually becomes accepted as ‘progress’ and is welcomed into our historical canon – for example Surrealism, Expressionism, Fauvism, Cubism. This, however, has not been the same for outsider art. It has remained on the outside, a parallel running alongside the canon of the twentieth century mainstream.
Aside from artists already in acclaimed positions within the mainstream, we also have psychiatrists and medical professionals to thank for the emergence of the category of outsider art; particulary, of course, the work of psychiatric patients. I have mentioned Hans Prinzhorn already; psychiatrist, art historian and founder of the Prinzhorn Collection, but there are numerous others including Walter Morgenthaler, Dr Paul Gaston Meunier, Dr Charles Ladame. Whether we agree with the sharing of work by patients in psychiatric hospitals (with the issues of ethics and consent that come with it), what is at the core of this side of the emergence of outsider art is vulnerable artists being presented to the world by medical professionals. Again, people who already hold some kind of societal influence.
The third group that emerged during my research is arts professionals who hold some clout in the art world. Ultimately, it is curators, collectors, dealers and directors who shape the canon, and therefore the possibility of acclaim, celebration – and even just visibility – lies at their door. In his 2011 book ‘Groundwaters: a century of art by self-taught and outsider artists,’ Charles Russell tells the story of Alfred Barr, the first director of MoMA. Barr was in fact a great believer in the value of outsider and untrained art, organising a number of exhibitions that showed his support. His vision, however, was not matched by MoMA’s board of trustees, and Barr was consequently removed from the position of director. Although he remained employed in the collections department, MoMA has shown very little support for untrained art ever since. Here, we have the perfect example of how powerful people can change the course of history. Who knows what kind of art world we might be experiencing today if the work of untrained and outsider artists had garnered more support from MoMA’s trustees at the time.
So, even just the way outsider art has emerged as a field is made up of unequal power dynamics and issues of otherness. It is no wonder then, that there is difficulty in encouraging those inside the mainstream to see this work in the same light as trained artists. There is such a strong history of marginalisation here, right from the very beginning, and what is most apparent is that in this display of ‘us’ and ‘them,’ what we most desperately need are the voices of the outsider artists themselves.
As always, I’d love to hear your thoughts. You can post them in the comments below, or email email@example.com. Thanks for reading!