What is Outsider Art?
Although the roots of Outsider Art can be traced back thousands of years, it is most useful to look back to its most recent precursor, art brut (Raw Art) to hear the most vital articulations of its true spirit. In his 1947 manifesto, French artist and curator Jean Dubuffet coined the term art brut as follows: “We understand by this term works produced by persons unscathed by artistic culture, where mimicry plays little or no part (contrary to the activities of intellectuals). These artists derive everything…from their own depths, and not from the conventions of classical or fashionable art.”
In his 1972 book championing art brut, Roger Cardinal called it Outsider Art: “I believe that a paramount factor in the critical definition of the creative Outsider is that he or she should be possessed of an expressive impulse and should then externalize that impulse in an unmonitored way which defies conventional art-historical contextualization.”
Dubuffet and Cardinal were writing primarily about extremely marginalized European artists: psychotics, mediums, and eccentrics. This has caused the common misconception that Outsider Art is essentially pathological, when in fact the central characteristic shared by Outsiders is simply their lack of conditioning by art history or art world trends.
Over the years, the parameters of Outsider Art have expanded dramatically to include art made by a wide variety of art-makers who share this common denominator of raw creativity. Outsiders come from all walks of life, from all cultures, from all age groups.
In recent years, Outsider Artists may have even come to outnumber Insider Artists who have achieved critical validation within the elite art world, and yet who speak with increasingly less clarity and relevance to us about the human experience. Dubuffet’s description of officially recognized art has never been more relevant: “everyone immediately sprinkles it with champagne, and lecturers lead it from town to town with a ring through its nose. This is the false Monsieur Art.”
The genesis of Outsider Art could well be traced to an imagined prehistoric cave wall, to the work of your favorite eccentric visionary (think William Blake), or to the mythic artist-genius dreamed up by Romantic philosophers and poets. Outsider Artists began to emerge as a force to be reckoned with during the early 1920’s, with the publication of two pioneering studies of art made on asylum inmates, conducted by European psychiatrists in search of universal truths about human creativity.
German Expressionists soon fell in love with the schizophrenic artists presented in these books—especially Adolf Wölfli, Karl Brendel and August Naterrer—and adopted them as creative muses by appropriating their imagery. In Paris, the Surrealists looked to the same books for inspiration, and also to Spiritualist Mediums such as Augustin Lesage and Helene Smith who were famous local practitioners of automatic drawing.
It wasn’t until after World War II that Outsider Art was truly recognized as more than simply source material for the modernist avant-garde. The French artist Jean Dubuffet took the Surrealist obsession with Outsiders to a new level by daring to collect and exhibit their work. Not only did he champion the artwork of schizophrenics and local mediums, but he also celebrated art made by eccentric isolates and self-taught laborers. Dubuffet recognized in the work of these divergent groups one unifying trait: a raw quality untouched by academic rules or current trends.
In 1947, Dubuffet staged a ground-breaking, manifesto-driven exhibition in Paris, aptly naming his category art brut (Raw Art). Dubuffet’s Collection de l’Art Brut grew in the subsequent decades, and eventually found a home in Lausanne, Switzerland, in 1976. This unique collection might well have remained in isolation, if not for the publication of a 1972 study of art brut entitled Outsider Art written by the British scholar Roger Cardinal. Cardinal’s book, and his 1979 London exhibition Outsiders, launched Outsider Art as a powerful global force that continues to challenge and redefine the limits of what we call art.
Kate Bradbury, The Artist