June 16, 2019

Questioning "Outsider Art"

“THIS JANUARY, over sixty-five exhibitors participated in the twenty-seventh annual Outsider Art Fair in Chelsea, Manhattan. The artists on view included Maccarone gallery’s Jim Carrey, who, as a celebrity and straight white man, seems outside of very little. Technically, to be an outsider artist is to be self-taught (I guess “Self-Taught Art Fair” doesn’t have the same ring to it), but outsider art encompasses anyone who is outside the art establishment (or society more broadly)—artists with disabilities, folk artists, impoverished artists, and those on the autism spectrum or with developmental disabilities.

While the term “Outsider Art” was first used by an art critic in 1972, the concept has roots in Art Brut. In 1922, the German psychiatrist Hans Prinzhorn published an analysis of art created by psychiatric patients across Europe called Bildnerei der Geisteskranken (or Artistry of the Mentally Ill). It caught the attention of French artist Jean Dubuffet, who believed this kind of art to be a gateway to visualizing the psyche, one that would make an impact on the world at large. Dubuffet collected work made by children, impoverished, and mentally ill artists himself, and he described what he called Art Brut as work made spontaneously and from intense solitude, with disregard for competition or the market. In comparison, Dubuffet wrote, “cultural art,” or high art, “appears to be the game of a futile society, a fallacious parade.” By Dubuffet’s measure, artists can remain “outsiders” despite achieving celebrated status—like Henry Darger, who came to prominence some thirty years after his death, or even the explosively famous Yayoi Kusama, who has lived at the Seiwa Hospital for the Mentally Ill in Tokyo for forty-two years and says that “the only method I have found that relieves my illness is to keep creating art.””

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