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creativity & inspiration
What is Outsider Art?


More Definitions


Outsider Art & Honesty

Training vs. Truth

The Self as Audience

A Looming Danger





Outsider Art: A Definition

My first encounter with the phrase Outsider Art being used to describe a specific selection of art and artists was in 1972, in the excellent book of the same name by Roger Cardinal.

    I have come to use the phrase Outsider Art to refer to the creative work of artists who are self-taught and/or those who, for a variety of reasons, are what I consider fortunately impervious to being taught how to make art. It now includes all of the following:

The naive, the innocent, the self-taught,
the visionary, the intuitive, the eccentric;

The schizophrenic, the developmentally disabled,
the psychotic, the obsessive, the compulsive.

    The French artist Jean Dubuffet is perhaps more responsible than anyone else for our current awareness of what we now call Outsider Art. He coined the phrase Art Brut, which literally means Raw Art, to refer to art made by those described above. The raw and the pure, without the countless layers of training and cultural sophistication that afflicts most mainstream art, is what appeals to me and is how I identify that which I call Outsider Art.


Additional Definitions

In addition to the self-taught artists and the other groups that I have listed above, some artists, writers, dealers, collectors and curators often lump several other types of art and artists under the name Outsider Art. These may include such categories as folk art, primitive art, tramp art, prison art, African sign painters, African coffin carvers, Haitian muralists, Australian Aboriginal painters and others.

    It seems to me that what all these types of expression have in common is that they all are more or less outside the hierarchy and mainstream of Western and/or Classical art history. Leave it to us to think that what is not part of our Western system of expression is therefore outside. I suspect that to a lot of the artists we call Outsiders, we are the ones who actually look and act like outsiders.

    The strong appeal of all this work seems to be rooted primarily in its otherness. It brings us the surprising, the unexpected and the fresh. Our mainstream cultural heirarchy has become so refined and self-referential that we have developed a deep-seated longing for truly fresh, honest and original creative expression.

Some Outsider Art Issues

The term Outsider Art is not always welcomed by all of the artists to whom it refers, nor do all collectors, dealers and protectors of the artists always like the term Outsider Art. I personally do not always have the energy or resourcefulness to be politically correct everytime I see or talk about a particular artwork or artist. If it clearly fits the broad definition I presented above, then I call it Outsider Art first and get specific later if and when it becomes necessary to clarify my meaning or to avoid unintentionally offending anyone.


Outsider Art and Honesty

There is something about the immediacy, the honesty, the highly personal content of Outsider Art and artists that speaks directly to my spirit. I would rather be in a room or a yard full of Outsider Art and artists than one full of almost any contemporary mainstream gallery, museum or studio art.

    I think that the reason this work has such an impact on me is because in it I can readily see the pure creative human impulse made manifest without the diluting and crippling effects of art history or formal training. I have spent much of my adult life finding ways to forget or overcome what I learned in my high school, college and graduate school art classes and what I learned by osmosis from the Fine Art magazine - book - gallery - museum world. I am firmly convinced that true expression occurs when the artist speaks directly from personal vision, experience, memory, intuition, obsession or compulsion rather than from or to popular ideals.


Training vs. Truth

An appreciation of the beautiful and an understanding of how to design or make the beautiful or even the pretty can often be successfully taught and learned. Ulitmately, however, the only way to express the Truth is by being honest, either by decision or by default. I find that I am far more interested in the Truth than I am in the clever, the beautiful, the pretty or the pleasant. Outsider artists, for a complex and varied set of reasons as defined above, express the Truth.


The Self as Audience

There is a lot of work shown in the Fine Art gallery-museum circuit that is intentionally not pretty or deals directly with offensive, revolutionary or conceptual content. However it seldom has the same impact on me that Outsider Art does. I think it is due to the fact that to participate in the Fine Art circuit is to be conversant with and to care about the issues and visual language of that particular audience. In that world, the work gets made for an audience other than the self.


A Looming Danger

No matter how powerful and true an artwork might be, if concern for fame, cleverness, or creative one-upsmanship is as important a motivation for creating the work as is personal discovery and expression, then the work will be contaminated with a kind of cultural poisoning and it will not be Outsider Art. Now as we have begun to recognize and lionize the creative individuals who are making this body of work we call Outsider Art, we run the great risk of turning what is so wonderfully outside into just another segment of the mainstream inside.
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