The problems of ‘outsider art’

By Lucie de Rondeau Noyer


william-edmondson credit christie's

William Edmondson. Photo credit: Christie’s.


Since the label “outsider art” was coined in 1972 by art critic Roger Cardinal, it is generally agreed that such a category is problematic. For example, if you define an “outsider artist” as a creator who is poor, unrecognized, marginalized or dealing with mental health issues, then why would Vincent Van Gogh not be an outsider artist? It could be argued that it is because he received at least elementary art training, whereas “outsider art” often stands as a synonym for “self-taught art”. However, my answer would be simpler: Vincent Van Gogh is not an “outsider artist” because he was established as one of the most valued and celebrated artists of the late 19th century and held a conspicuous spot in the Western artistic canon long before Jean Dubuffet, a French Painter, started to promote l’art brut – literally “raw art”, historically the concept that ended up being translated in English as “outsider art” – during the forties.

The paradox with “outsider art” is that the label is always used and applied by people who are  “insiders” in the art world, namely famous gallery managers and artists, wealthy collectors or university-trained museum curators. Talking about “outsider art” therefore resembles the way in which medical professionals have developed series of words to describe people with disabilities. The result is labels that define without explaining anything. Saying that an artist is an “outsider” only indicates that their persona does not quite fit what we expect from artists in terms of social and educational background; it does not shed light on their individual works nor on their personal ways of creating.

Talking about “outsider art” therefore resembles the way in which medical professionals have developed series of words to describe people with disabilities. The result is labels that define without explaining anything.

That is why featuring “outsider art” in legitimate institutions might not be that progressive and emancipating after all. True, it certainly debunks the reductive assumption according to which you have to be trained in well-established institutions to become a respected artist. In 2013, the Bonovitzes’ donation to the Philadelphia Museum of Art, composed of works by self-taught artists now famous, such as former slave Bill Traylor (1853 – 1949), Afro-American sculptor William Edmondson (1874 – 1951) and deaf and recluse James Castle (1899 – 1977), was celebrated as the final step of the assimilation of “outsider art” in the Western artistic canon. However, such a “bold” move only replicates the exclusionary process that led to the birth of our artistic canon. Some artists – here all male and working in the United States during the 20th century – are deemed by collectors and institutions worthy of entering museums, while the rest of the artists once called ‘outsiders’ are left out of the realm of recognition.


William-Edmondson Ricco:Maresca gallery

William Edmondson installation at the Ricco/Maresca Gallery.


“Outsider art” has therefore not disappeared. It has just been filtered in order to produce a slightly wider version of our canon. The selected art pieces have received new names – visionary art – non selected works have received others – “maverick art, “naïve art” – or for the ones that are not coming from the Western world, they are still commodified as “folk art”.

Such a light revision of our canon is unlikely to encourage a more diverse approach of art. It does not make us move away from labels. It does not invite us to consider artists as individuals. It just normalises culture once again and reinforces the institutional power of museums and other art institutions, without questioning the relevance of their actions towards people and local communities.

Interestingly, the normalisation of “outsider artists” always comes at a cost and, more often than not, it consists of ignoring one aspect of their multifaceted creativity. The case of Henry Darger (1892 – 1973) is enlightening since his promotion from the world of “mad art” to the “nobler” realm of “visionary art” came with the denial that he was a writer as well as a painter. It is worth noting that it is only because he had undertaken to write an epic lengthily entitled The Story of the Vivian Girls, in What is known as the Realms of the Unreal, of the Glandeco-Angelinnian War Storm, Caused by the Child Slave Rebellion, that Darger produced the paper frescoes he is now famous for. However, his writings are not studied by art historians and hardly spoken of, while the very illustrations of these literary works are celebrated worldwide as proto “pop art”. This might not be the best way to pay tribute to his extraordinary creativity.

Before bringing their art into our museums, we should ensure doing the most basic justice to those we call “outsiders” and embracing the whole of their works instead of posthumously picking among their productions what is the most compatible with our canon.


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