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What is Outsider art?

Adolf Wolfli


Howard Finster


Jean Debuffett


The controversy surrounding the exact definition of Outsider Art and allied fields has been going on ever since awareness of the phenomenon began so here we try to clarify the different aspects. 

The development of the awareness of forms of creative expression that exist outside accepted cultural norms, or the realm of “fine art”, began with the researches of psychiatrists early in the century.

The work of Dr Morganthaler documented his patient Adolf Wolfli, a genius who produced countless thousands of works from a small cell in his Swiss asylum. Dr Hans Prinzhorn collected thousands of works by psychiatric patients and his book “Bildernerei der Geisteskranken” (Artistry of the Mentally Ill), published in 1922 became an influential work amongst Surrealist and other artists of the time.

One artist who was particularly affected by the works Prinzhorn presented was Jean Dubuffet. Together with others, including Andre Breton, he formed the Compagnie de l’Art Brut in 1948 and strove to seek out and collect works of extreme individuality and inventiveness by creators who were not only untrained artists but often had little concept of an art gallery or even any other forms of art other than their own.

Dubuffet’s concept of Art Brut was of works that were in their “raw” state, uncooked by cultural and artistic influences. He built up a vast collection of thousands of works, works which bore no relation to developments in contemporary art and yet were the innovative and powerful expressions of a wide range individuals from a variety of backgrounds.

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Henry Daurger


Although the roots of self-taught arts or Outsider Art stretch back thousands of years, it is worth taking a look at its most recent precursor, Art Brut, to understand its vital articulations. In his 1947 manifesto, the French artist and collector Jean Dubuffet defined the term Art Brut thus: contrary to what happens among intellectuals, has little or no part, so that their authors draw everything (...) from their own background and not from the clichés of classical art or the art of the fashion".

In a landmark 1972 book devoted to Art Brut, Roger Cardinal gave it the name “Outsider Art”, which can be translated in several ways: Marginal, self-taught, undisciplined art, creation outside the networks...” I believe that a primary factor in the critical definition of self-taught creation is that the artist will have to show an expressive impulse which will then be exteriorized in an uncontrolled way defying classical historical and artistic contextualization. 

Dubuffet and Cardinal wrote essentially about European artists finding themselves on the extreme limits of marginality: psychotics, mediums, eccentrics. Which is at the origin of a misconception associating Art Brut and pathologies, while the main characteristic of these marginal artists is quite simply their lack of knowledge in art history or in the trends of the art world.

Over the years, the parameters of Art Brut as conceived by Cardinal have expanded considerably to include a wider variety of artists who share the common denominator of "raw creativity". These artists come from all backgrounds, all cultures, all age groups.

In recent years, Art Brut artists have outnumbered artists initiated into the world of art and recognized as such by the criticism of an "elite" art which nevertheless reflects the human experience with less and less clarity and relevance. Dubuffet's description of official art has never been so apt: “It is the Art that everyone immediately sprinkles with champagne and that lecturers walk from town to town with a ring in their nose. This is the fake Mister Art”

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Intuit defines outsider art as “the work of artists who demonstrate little influence from the mainstream art world and who are, instead, motivated by their unique personal visions.

The easiest way to understand what it means to be an outsider artist is to know how these artists are different from other artists you may have heard of or whose works you’ve seen before. What makes Henry Darger different from or the same as Andy Warhol or Pablo Picasso.

First, outsider artists have no formal training—meaning they did not attend art school or have academic art instruction. Many of these artists are not aware of artwork in museums or art galleries. Their work is created outside of mainstream fine art. Outsider artists simply create for themselves, in order to make sense of their experiences, interests and the world around them. Outsider artists engage with their surroundings on their own terms and do not follow the rules of the art world.

Second, outsider art is created for the self and not necessarily for an audience. When we think of artists, we might picture someone who paints or sculpts with the intention to sell the art. There is no fault in this; in fact, it is how most artists make a living. Many outsider artists, however, do not create with the intention of selling their work. Usually, they do not worry about what other people are going to think of their work.

Third, outsider artists are often motivated to create their work for different reasons than mainstream artists. Outsider artists make art for themselves, recording their life experiences and documenting historical events. Many outsider artists are known as visionary artists. Some create art because they believe they have received a message from God or some other spiritual or intelligence source. These artists have a strong inner vision and feel compelled to create their art. Often, the art is driven by impulse, obsession or religious inspiration.

Fourth, unlike many mainstream artists, outsider artists use non-traditional materials and found objects for their artwork. When visiting a museum, you will see hundreds of paintings on the walls that have been painted on a standard canvas with oil or acrylic paint. However, outsider artists tend to use non-traditional or repurposed materials, particularly when they don’t have access to art supplies. Outsider artists often use materials from their immediate surroundings—like their house, yard and neighborhood. They use objects that have been recycled or things we might throw away. The use of non-traditional or easily available materials is a frequent characteristic of outsider art.

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