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Get to Know: Outsider Art

Posted by jase on July 27, 2009

The term outsider art was coined by art critic Roger Cardinal in 1972 as an English synonym for art brut (French: [aʁ bʁyt], “raw art” or “rough art”), a label created by French artist Jean Dubuffet to describe art created outside the boundaries of official culture; Dubuffet focused particularly on art by insane-asylum inmates.

While Dubuffet’s term is quite specific, the English term “outsider art” is often applied more broadly, to include certain self-taught or Naïve art makers who were never institutionalized. Typically, those labeled as outsider artists have little or no contact with the mainstream art world or art institutions. In many cases, their work is discovered only after their deaths. Often, outsider art illustrates extreme mental states, unconventional ideas, or elaborate fantasy worlds.

Outsider art has emerged as a successful art marketing category (an annual Outsider Art Fair has taken place in New York since 1992). The term is sometimes misapplied as a catch-all marketing label for art created by people outside the mainstream “art world,” regardless of their circumstances or the content of their work.

In 1991, the first and only such organization dedicated to the study, exhibition and promotion of outsider art was formed in Chicago: Intuit: The Center for Intuitive and Outsider Art. Chicago is often recognized for its concentration of self taught and outsider artists, among them — Henry Darger, Joseph Yoakum, Lee Godie, William Dawson, David Philpot, and Wesley Willis. Intuit maintains a non-profit museum, open to the public, which features exhibitions of art by intuitive, outsider, and self taught artists.

The term outsider art was coined by art critic Roger Cardinal in 1972 as an English synonym for art brut (French: [aʁ bʁyt], “raw art” or “rough art”), a label created by French artist Jean Dubuffet to describe art created outside the boundaries of official culture; Dubuffet focused particularly on art by insane-asylum inmates.

While Dubuffet’s term is quite specific, the English term “outsider art” is often applied more broadly, to include certain self-taught or Naïve art makers who were never institutionalized. Typically, those labeled as outsider artists have little or no contact with the mainstream art world or art institutions. In many cases, their work is discovered only after their deaths. Often, outsider art illustrates extreme mental states, unconventional ideas, or elaborate fantasy worlds.

Outsider art has emerged as a successful art marketing category (an annual Outsider Art Fair has taken place in New York since 1992). The term is sometimes misapplied as a catch-all marketing label for art created by people outside the mainstream “art world,” regardless of their circumstances or the content of their work.

In 1991, the first and only such organization dedicated to the study, exhibition and promotion of outsider art was formed in Chicago: Intuit: The Center for Intuitive and Outsider Art. Chicago is often recognized for its concentration of self taught and outsider artists, among them — Henry Darger, Joseph Yoakum, Lee Godie, William Dawson, David Philpot, and Wesley Willis. Intuit maintains a non-profit museum, open to the public, which features exhibitions of art by intuitive, outsider, and self taught artists.

Jean Dubuffet and art brut

French artist Jean Dubuffet was particularly struck by Bildnerei der Geisteskranken and began his own collection of such art, which he called art brut or raw art. In 1948 he formed the Compagnie de l’Art Brut along with other artists, including André Breton. The collection he established became known as the Collection de l’Art Brut. It contains thousands of works and is now permanently housed in Lausanne, Switzerland.

Dubuffet characterized art brut as:

“Those works created from solitude and from pure and authentic creative impulses – where the worries of competition, acclaim and social promotion do not interfere – are, because of these very facts, more precious than the productions of professionals. After a certain familiarity with these flourishings of an exalted feverishness, lived so fully and so intensely by their authors, we cannot avoid the feeling that in relation to these works, cultural art in its entirety appears to be the game of a futile society, a fallacious parade.” – Jean Dubuffet. Place à l’incivisme (Make way for Incivism). Art and Text no.27 (December 1987 – February 1988). p.36 Dubuffet’s writing on art brut was the subject of a noted program at the Art Club of Chicago in the early 1950s.

Dubuffet argued that ‘culture’, that is mainstream culture, managed to assimilate every new development in art, and by doing so took away whatever power it might have had. The result was to asphyxiate genuine expression. Art brut was his solution to this problem – only art brut was immune to the influences of culture, immune to being absorbed and assimilated, because the artists themselves were not willing or able to be assimilated.

Cultural Context

The interest in “outsider” practices among twentieth century artists and critics can be seen as part of a larger emphasis on the rejection of established values within the modernist art milieu. The early part of the 20th Century gave rise to cubism and the Dada, Constructivist and Futurist movements in art, all of which involved a dramatic movement away from cultural forms of the past. Dadaist Marcel Duchamp, for example, abandoned “painterly” technique to allow chance operations a role in determining the form of his works, or simply to re-contextualize existing “readymade” objects as art. Mid-century artists, including Pablo Picasso, looked “outside” the traditions of high culture for inspiration, drawing from the artifacts of “primitive” societies, the unschooled artwork of children, and vulgar advertising graphics. Dubuffet’s championing of the art brut — of the insane and others at the margins of society—is yet another example of avant-garde art challenging established cultural values.

Terminology

A number of terms are used to describe art that is loosely understood as “outside” of official culture. Definitions of these terms vary, and there are areas of overlap between them. The editors of Raw Vision, a leading journal in the field, suggest that “Whatever views we have about the value of controversy itself, it is important to sustain creative discussion by way of an agreed vocabulary”. Consequently they lament the use of “outsider artist” to refer to almost any untrained artist. “It is not enough to be untrained, clumsy or naïve. Outsider Art is virtually synonymous with Art Brut in both spirit and meaning, to that rarity of art produced by those who do not know its name.”

  • Art Brut: literally translated from French means “raw art”; ‘Raw’ in that it has not been through the ‘cooking’ process: the art world of art schools, galleries, museums. Originally art by psychotic individuals who existed almost completely outside culture and society. Strictly speaking it refers only to the Collection de l’Art Brut.
  • Folk art: Folk art originally suggested crafts and decorative skills associated with peasant communities in Europe – though presumably it could equally apply to any indigenous culture. It has broadened to include any product of practical craftsmanship and decorative skill – everything from chain-saw animals to hub-cap buildings. A key distinction between folk and outsider art is that folk art typically embodies traditional forms and social values, where outsider art stands in some marginal relationship to society’s mainstream.
  • Intuitive art / Visionary art: Raw Vision Magazine’s preferred general terms for outsider art. It describes them as deliberate umbrella terms. However, Visionary Art unlike other definitions here can often refer to the subject matter of the works, which includes images of a spiritual or religious nature. Intuitive art is probably the most general term available. Intuit: The Center for Intuitive and Outsider Art based in Chicago operates a museum dedicated to the study and exhibition of intuitive and outsider art. The American Visionary Art Museum in Baltimore, Maryland is dedicated to the collection and display of visionary art.
  • Marginal art/Art singulier: Essentially the same as Neue Invention; refers to artists on the margins of the art world.
  • Naïve art: Another term commonly applied to untrained artists who aspire to “normal” artistic status, i.e. they have a much more conscious interaction with the mainstream art world than do outsider artists.
  • Neuve Invention: Used to describe artists who, although marginal, have some interaction with mainstream culture. They may be doing art part-time for instance. The expression was coined by Dubuffet too; strictly speaking it refers only to a special part of the Collection de l’Art Brut.
  • Visionary environments: Buildings and sculpture parks built by visionary artists – range from decorated houses, to large areas incorporating a large number of individual sculptures with a tightly associated theme. Examples include Watts Towers by Simon Rodia, Buddha Park and Sala Keoku by Bunleua Sulilat, and The Palais Ideal by Ferdinand Cheval.

Notable outsider artists

  • Nek Chand (b. 1924) is an Indian artist, famous for building the Rock Garden of Chandigarh, a forty acre (160,000 m2) sculpture garden in the city of Chandigarh, India.
  • Ferdinand Cheval (1836–1924) was a country postman in Hauterives, south of Lyon, France. Motivated by a dream, he spent 33 years constructing the Palais Ideal. Half organic building, half massive sculpture, it was constructed from stones collected on his postal round, held together with chicken wire, cement, and lime.
  • Henry Darger (1892–1973) was a solitary man who was orphaned and institutionalised as a child. In the privacy of his Chicago apartment, he produced 15,000 pages of text and hundreds of large scale illustrations, including maps, collaged photos and watercolors that depict his child heroes “the Vivian Girls” in the midst of battle scenes that combine imagery of the US Civil War with fanciful monsters.[1] – link to Henry Darger Room study collection
  • Francis E. Dec (1926–1996) was a U.S. lawyer disbarred in 1961 after what he claimed was a conspiracy and who spent the next thirty years of his life in isolation mailing increasingly paranoid rants to the media. His outlandish worldview and unique writing style made his rants become cult items circulated as involuntary humour and underground poetry.
  • Howard Finster (1916–2001), a self-taught artist, was a preacher from Summerville, Georgia who claimed to be inspired by God to spread the gospel through the built environment of Paradise Garden, his masterpiece, and over 46,000 pieces of art.
  • Madge Gill (1882–1961), was an English mediumistic artist who made thousands of drawings “guided” by a spirit she called “Myrninerest” (my inner rest).
  • Paul Gosch (1885–1940), a schizophrenic German artist and architect murdered by the Nazis in their euthanasia campaign.
  • Alexander Lobanov (1924–2003) was a deaf and autistically withdrawn Russian known for detailed and self-aggrandizing self-portraits: paintings, photographs and quilts, which usually include images of large guns.
  • Helen Martins (1897–1976) transformed the house she inherited from her parents in Nieu-Bethesda, South Africa, into a fantastical environment decorated with crushed glass and cement sculptures. The house is known as The Owl House.
  • Tarcisio Merati (1934–1995), an Italian artist, was confined to a psychiatric hospital for most of his adult life during which time he produced a vast amount of drawings (several dream toys, bird on nest etc) , text and musical composition.
  • Martin Ramirez (1895–1963), a Mexican outsider artist who spent most of his adult life institutionalized in a California mental hospital (he had been diagnosed as paranoid schizophrenic). He developed an elaborate iconography featuring repeating shapes mixed with images of trains and Mexican folk figures.
  • Achilles Rizzoli (1896–1981) was employed as an architectural draftsman. He lived with his mother near San Francisco, California. After his death, a huge collection of elaborate drawings were discovered, many in the form of maps and architectural renderings that described a highly personal fantasy exposition, including portraits of his mother as a neo-baroque building.
  • Judith Scott (1943–2005) was born deaf and with Down Syndrome. After taking a fiber art class at an art institute for the disabled, she began to produce objects wrapped in many layers of string and fibers.
  • Bunleua Sulilat (1932–1996) was a Thai/Lao myth-maker and informal religious leader who organized large groups of unskilled volunteers for the construction of two religious-themed parks featuring giant fantastic concrete sculptures.
  • Miroslav Tichý (b. 1926) wandered the small Moravian town of Kyjov in rags, pursuing his obsession with the female form by secretly photographing women in the streets, shops and parks with cameras he made from tin cans, children’s spectacle lenses and other junk he found on the street. He would return home each day to make prints on equally primitive equipment, making only one print from the negatives he selected. His work remained largely unknown until 2005, when he was 79 years old.
  • Adolf Wölfli (1864–1930), a Swiss artist, was confined to a psychiatric hospital for most of his adult life during which time he produced a vast amount of drawings, text and musical composition. Wölfli was the first well-known “outsider artist,” and he remains closely associated with the label.
  • Kiyoshi Yamashita (1922–1971) was a Japanese graphic artist who spent much of his life wandering as a vagabond through Japan. He has been considered an autistic savant.
  • Scotti Wilson (1928–1972) (born Louis Freeman), emigrated from Scotland to the United States and opened a second-hand clothes store, found fame when his casual doodlings were noted for their dream-like character.
  • Bill Traylor (1854–1949). Better characterized as “self-taught” than “outsider,” Traylor was born into slavery in Alabama. Unable to read or write, he first began drawing in 1939 at the age of eighty-three. He worked full-time for the next four years to produce over eighteen hundred drawings. He used a straight edge to create geometric silhouettes of human and animal figures which he then filled in with crayon and tempera. He is known for his intriguing use of pattern versus flat color and a remarkably intuitive sense of space.
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