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Outsider Art

Outsider Art has become a catch-all phrase for art done by people outside the mainstream. It was coined by art critic Roger Cardinal in 1972 as an English synonym for Art Brut. Art Brut literally means "Raw Art". (The term Outsider was originally associated with Albert Camus's novel The Outsider, which is the diary of a deeply alienated man.)

Outsider Art is defined by the situation of the artist who makes it. The main characteristics of an Outsider Artist are that they are typically self-taught; they have little or no contact with the mainstream art world; they are frequently on the margins of society. Often these outsiders are believed to suffer from mental illness.

Table of contents
1 Art of the Insane
2 Jean Dubuffet
3 Context
4 Vocabulary
5 Artists
6 External links
7 Printed works

Art of the Insane

Interest in the art of insane asylum inmates had begun to grow in the 1920s. In 1921 Walter Morgenthaler published his book on the Adolf Wölfi a psychotic mental patient in his care. Wölfi had spontaneously taken up drawing, and this activity seemed to calm him. His most outstanding work is an illustrated epic of 45 volumes in which he narrates his own imaginary life story. With 25000 pages, 1600 illustrations, and 1500 collages it is a monumental work. He also produced a large number of smaller works, some which were sold or given as gifts. His work is on display at the Waldau Museum, Bern. A defining moment was the publication of Bildernerei der Geisteskranken (Artistry of the mentally ill) in 1922, by Dr Hans Prinzhorn.

Jean Dubuffet

French artist Jean Dubuffet was particularly struck by Bildernerei 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 Andre 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 Laussanne.

Dubuffet characterised 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 professions. After a certain familiarity with these flourishings of an exalted feverishness, live so fully and so intensely by their authors, we cannot avoid the feeling that in relation to these works, cultural art in it's entirety appears to be the game of a futile society, a fallacious parade." - Jean Dubuffet. Place á l'incivisme = Make way for Incivism. Art and Text no.27 (Dec. 1987 - Feb 1988). p.36

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.


Outsider art, or at least the art world's reaction to it, can be seen as part of a larger milieu of rejection of established values. The early part of the 20th Century gave rise to the Fauves and to cubism, and later to the Dada movement in art, all of which, to some extent, involved a violent movement away from the past. Marcel Duchamp in particular began to abandon "painterly" technique and to include chance operations in his works, and to choose "ready made" works. His most famous ready made is 'Fountain' (1917) which was simply a mass-produced urinal, submitted for the Society of Independent Artists under the pseudonym R. Mutt in order to "goad those responsible for hanging and placing the art objects" (Mink, J. Marcel Duchamp 1887-1968 : art as anti-art. Taschen, 1995). Art had become 'anti-art' in that Duchamp's art attack the very idea of what art is. It was also a time of revolution in Sciences with the publication of Einstein's theories on relativity and the beginnings of Quantum Theory. Two World Wars also left a brutal scar on the psyche of Europe, which continues to have it's effects.

More than any other person Dubuffet is responsible for public interest in Outsider Art. His championing the art of the insane and others at the margins of society occurred in this milieu of changing values and cultural mores.


Definitions of these terms vary, and there seems to be a lot of cross over and grey areas between them. Raw Vision Magazine's website suggests 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". As mentioned before Outsider Art is defined by the circumstances of the artist rather than by any particular feature of the art itself.

Similar terms include:

Raw art. Raw because 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 Used to describe artists who although marginal have some interaction with mainstream culture, they may be doing art part-time for instance. 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 societies mainstream. Essentially the same as Neue Invention, refers to artists on the margins of the art world. 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. Another grey area. Described as untrained artists who aspire to "normal artistic status", i.e. they have a much more conscious interaction with the mainstream art world. 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, and The Palais Ideal by Ferdinand Cheval.


External links

Printed works