Outsider Art is a refreshing antidote to the “old dead white guy” canon of traditional Fine Art.
The cost of entry isn’t a six-figure student debt load and an art school education. Instead, these artists come from outside of the establishment.
For over a century, art critics have recognized Outsider Art as a legit art form. But where did we get this term?
Today, we’re taking a closer look at the origins and meaning of Outsider Art. Color outside the lines with us and learn a little something along the way.
Let’s jump in!
What Is Outsider Art?
To find the origins of the term Outsider Art, we must take a trip to Europe in the early 20th century. Until 1922, entry into the world of Fine Art required a lifetime of study. Gatekeepers ensured that only the worthy made it to the walls of museums and collectors. But in 1921-22, two psychiatrists changed the game.
Dr. Walter Morgenthaler published his text Ein Geisteskranker als Künstler (A Psychiatric Patient as Artist). Shortly after, Hans Prinzhorn published his collection Bildneriei der Geisteskranken (Artistry of the Mentally Ill). Together, these books presented thousands of examples of art from the mentally ill.
Morgenthaler’s explored the work of mentally ill genius Adolf Wölfli who took up drawing to calm himself. Prinzhorn provided a broader lens to view this art from outside the establishment with thousands of examples.
Jean Dubuffet, a French artist, created a term to classify these works. Art brut, or raw art, is work created in solitude and without input from societal pressure. It represents pure and authentic creative impulses.
Dubuffet’s group Compagnie de l’Art Brut collected work from these raw artists. This collection, Collection de l’Art Brut, is permanently housed in Lausanne, Switzerland.
Getting from Art Brut to Outsider Art requires one more character, American art critic Roger Cardinal. In an attempt to translate the idea of raw art into English, Cardinal coined the term Outsider Art in 1972. The main difference between the two terms is what they include.
Outsider Art includes Art Brut, or pure impulse art, and Neuve Invention, art created with a stronger connection to society. Neuve Invention artists often have some schooling and may even try to make a living from their work.
So, what is Outsider Art? Outsider Art is created by those on the margins of society, neurodivergent, mentally ill, untrained, or socially isolated individuals.
We also include individuals who may have a traditional art education but get pushed aside for other reasons, i.e., motherhood or economic marginalization.
What Is Another Name for Outsider Art?
In academic circles, the term Outsider Art is used interchangeably with Art Brut and Naïve art. Unless we are talking directly about mentally ill or neurodivergent artists, most Outside Artists fall into the Naïve art category. These untrained artists aspire to regular recognition and interact with the mainstream art world.
Another term you’ll likely run into when enjoying Outsider Art is Intuitive Art. Raw Vision Magazine uses this term to refer to art created by untrained artists. They include Visionary art in their glossary to refer to artists inspired by spiritual or religious inspiration. Think R.A. Miller or Prophet Royal Robertson.
What Is the Difference Between Outsider Art and Fine Art?
Outsider Art, by definition, exists outside of the Fine Art canon, but what is Fine Art? Generally, we refer to Fine Art as coming up through an academic or artistic tradition. That means artists have come up through an art school or school of thought; think the “-isms” of Impressionism, Expressionism, Realism, etc. Outsider artists don’t create for money, necessarily.
They need to create work to express some internal inspiration. And they’re not usually part of the academic conversation. In fact, if you took a piece of Fine Art and a piece of Outsider Art and put them side by side, you may be unable to tell the difference.
What Is the Difference Between Folk Art and Outsider Art?
Folk Art is another term that floats around in the Outsider Art conversation. Many folk artists are creating work that could be called Outsider Art, but there are some differences. Folk Art comes from a tradition, usually of crafting or making objects.
It exists as part of the community’s social fabric and supports that community’s values. By contrast, Outsider Art usually expresses an individual opinion or point of view. The work often flies in the face of acceptable forms of expression in society.
Who Are Some Famous Outsider Artists?
Perhaps one of the first recognized Outsider artists, Adolf Wölfli, left behind a massive body of work. Dr. Morgenthaler published Wölfli’s work in his 1921 book as an example of art created by the mentally ill.
After suffering sexual abuse and being orphaned at 10, Wölfli found himself confined to a mental institution. He taught himself to draw and left behind thousands of drawings and writings when he died. His work helped legitimize Outsider artists and bring them into the mainstream.
Madge Gill, another orphan, suffered the trauma of a stillborn child as a young adult. After some time in an institution, she began creating work at 38. Her inspiration? A spirit called “Myrninererst” (my inner rest) inspired her to create thousands of drawings. Although her work was of high quality, she never sold it so as not to upset her inhabiting spirit.
Another visionary artist, Howard Finster, began hallucinating at age 3. The subject of his hallucinations? God. He created 46,000 sculptures in “Paradise Gardens” in Georgia. A preacher by trade, he cited God as his inspiration to make art.
In the 1980s, Athens, Georgia, band R.E.M. featured his work on the cover of their album Reckoning. Finster rocketed to international fame and became one of the faces of the growing Outsider Art movement.
Where Can I See More Outsider Art?
Check out our online gallery to see a lot more Outsider Art from various traditions. Outside Folk Gallery exists to amplify the voices of Outsider artists, including Native American artists, black artists, indigenous artists, and working mothers.
Our gallery exists as a physical installation, an Instagram gallery, and our website. We hope to include pop-up shows and work with small galleries in the future to spread the Outsider Art gospel.
Look Outside the Box for Art
With a rich and complex history, Outsider Art deserves a place at the table. When you patronize artists, we encourage you to step outside the museum. Look for who is creating work in your area and support them! Oh, and share it with us. We love to feature little-known Outsider artists alongside those already established.