The first mention of outsider work was the idea of Dadaist Jean Buffet. He called it Art Brut. He was inspired by the work of the mentally ill and children’s art. And he wanted to use a term that was of his own making.
Art Brut was first called Outsider Art by Roger Cardinal in his 1972 book of the same name.
Others say the word “outsider” came from Albert Camus’ book “The Outsider” which when translated into English became “The Stranger.” The main character is a man who is uncaring. He seems to be unaffected by anything…the death of his mother, a lost love relationship, and remains unaffected when he is brought to trial for a murder that happened in a stoic way, not out of passion or hatred. (In fact he seems to be quite emotionless.) He has created the greatest sin against man. He lost his soul.
I don’t believe outsider artists have lost their souls. In fact, I would suggest that they are the one’s who have fully embraced their souls. That is one reason why their work strikes a deeply resonate emotional chord.
Although Camus’ work is exceptional, it is a misnomer for outsider art.
Some critics believe outsider art is free of all pop culture influences. But is there such a thing? One artist I know has shunned teevee for years, still she reads magazines. Newspapers, the Internet, billboards…how could one escape such influences? Even in mental institutions patients are fed a daily stream of teevee. We are all part of this world and even though some of us may choose to escape via a back to the country move or finding a way to need very little of what the world has to offer, there is no escape. As all artists know there is only one way to survive a hellish nightmare. It is to escape mentally. While one’s body may take up space on a city block or a farm pasture, and one may have to work a factory line or be a school janitor to survive, the mind can be a million miles away. That is where the outsider truly lives.
Another aspect of the use of the term “outsider’ contends that the artist does not show their work or have any gallery (insider) affiliation. Personally I have no problem with an artist being recognized. They don’t need to die for me to respect their work. On the contrary, I feel they should be given consideration while alive. The only snag I have in an outsider being recognized is that a gallery can taint an artist’s work. I would hope that the gallery owner could be kind and allow the artist to work whether a piece sells or not. Asking for ten red house paintings because one sold is a no-no. Probably the best way to protect the artist soul is to find them later in their life when they have already amassed a body of work and sell that. Don’t mess with the muse.
Many galleries and ebay, the huge Internet auction site, run the outsider work under the umbrella term folk art. Folk art to me is a relatively easy style to discern. It is the work of untaught artists and comes in predictable media…hand-carved canes, caricatured snake and alligator paintings, stuffed dolls, bottle-cap art, and the like.
Grandma Moses' many-people town paintings is a prime example of folk art.
Much of this work is Southern, although not all. One caveat for the collector: there is a popular genre of folk art that is executed by decorative artists. It is taught throughout the country and is done using patterns. It is pure copy craft, uninspired, and has no collect value whatsoever.
One trait in common in all of folk art is that it is never confrontational. It’s easy to take and easy to display without making a statement that may offend. What takes Howard Finster's Bible Belt rants out of folk and into outsider is the in-your-face aspect. He says whatever he wants to say.
Northern outsider art seems to come from a different fountain. The imagery is more egocentric…consider the pencil portraits of Lee Godie or the wife photographs by Eugene von Bruenchenhein. It is an interior world we see in these works that is fascinating, almost claustrophobic.
Another offshoot is jail or prison art. Paintings of Gacy’s Clowns come to mind. And I know a person that collects hand-carved locks. Also woven gum wrappers and matchstick art is prevalent. This is the work of a person in prison or one who has done time. Certainly a con has lived outside the law, but I don’t think that makes them an outsider artist. Once a person is incarcerated they live by a strict set of rules, they have lost all freedom. Plus, since felons are no longer allowed to make profit off their injustices, they can no longer sell while in prison. Do we honor horrific behavior by collecting the work of a criminal? This is a subject up for much discussion, which I won’t deal with in an in-depth manner here.
I should mention Tramp art. This is best defined by the exquisite hand-carved boxes that were done by hoboes, travelers, who sold the boxes for money to live. Some prisoners have also taken up woodcarving.
At many outsider art shows I see the work of Haitian and Mexican craftspeople. I would not classify these works as “outsider.” Primarily they are crafts that have been done in the individual countries for years. Haitian metal suns and Mexican tin-can Jesus pieces are wonderful Ethnic Peasant Art, just as Bahamian basketwork is.
Many critics say that outsider work is derived from a brain steeped in madness. Well that qualifier would may nearly every artist an outsider. Van Gogh chopped his ear. Gaugain gave up on his family, fled to the islands, and did painting upon painting of naked pubescent girls he had sex with. The rather recently discovered art of Chicagoan Henry Darger deal with little girls too, in a different way. Darger worked as a janitor for most of his life and never revealed his work to anyone. It was for himself, a way to work through issues stuck in his brain. Now he wasn’t insane. He held a job outside an institution. He did what he needed to do to survive.
There was a discussion a few years back on the ebay outsider art-listing site where a man stated he had been in a car accident, which concluded in a concussion. He was unable to concentrate on a half-hour teevee show, read a newspaper, or even
He said the sensation was that of feeling like he would topple over at any moment. So at the suggestion of a friend he began to paint. Throwing away all proscribed ideas of painting (he didn’t remember them anyway) he painted whatever, however, not giving any thought to if it was “right” or not. His work was (and is) raw, occasionally brutal, quite visionary, and connected to the soul.
Other artists and even some galleries that were selling on the site at the time took this man to task saying that an accident doesn’t create an outsider artist. I believe that is exactly what can happen. When a person becomes an empty vessel, due to an accident, mental illness, or some other catastrophe, the soul comes forward to help the person survive.
I was lucky enough to view Adolf Wolfie’s highly-patterned work at Intuit in Chicago last year. It was phenomenal to see it in person. He was one of the first artists I knew of as an outsider. Outsider work is also called raw, visionary, naive, and donk art.
I would like to put forth a new term “Alienation Art.” In terms of what I like to collect, I prefer work done in isolation, work that is true to the soul of the individual. Outsider artists that belong to societies or work in a group are less interesting, since groupthink tends to taint the work of a single person. One of my early influences was the work of The Hairy Who; still I see some cross-pollination of ideas even there.
I am also not interested in outsider work that is heavily influenced by the work of major artists. Doing your own version of Picasso or Klee doesn’t interest me.
I am very interested in what I call the Accidental Artists. These are people that create art but would never call it art. It is the side of an aging barn covered with catfish heads from “a catfish as big as a man” as found in a passage of “Huckleberry Finn.” It is concrete people, hundreds of them, in an area of the country where no one will visit to see them.
Which leads to another area I like to collect…the All-Consuming Artist. This is a person, an individual who is going to make art whether or not anyone notices. They are on a mission to save themselves and that is in itself an on-going work.
As with all art, train your eye, and collect what you like. Live with it. Let it inform your life.
“Personally, I believe very much in the values of savagery, I mean; instinct, passion, mood, violence, madness.” ____Jean Dubuffet, 1951
Subcategories of outsider art:
Goth-Gothic art tied to the Goth Movement, people who wear black, like piercings, go toward the “darkside.”
Piggies-Piggiebacks, Do-overs, new illuminated work done over an insipid painting found at a garage sale or Goodwill
Yard Art-mosaics, bottle trees, concrete figures, etc.
OOAK Barbie-the icon of dolls is burnt, destroyed, altered.
Pop outsider- flat shapes, think Warhol, can become too cute.
Robot Art-defining the alienation of society due to the rise in new technology, the Internet, usually comes from a disenchanted corporate worker.