Outsider art is seen as the preserve of the mentally-affected, the ostracised, the outcast. Does this affect the way we view it?
A few years ago, Jarvis Cocker presented a series of television programmes about “outsider art”. He travelled around a bit – mainly to France. He practised his very basic, and attractively-accented, French (it’s worth watching just for this). He interviewed eccentrics. He defined his terms. He did his best, in other words.
It turned out that Jarvis’s best was a pretty good best. The programmes were both entertaining and informative. Jarvis explored ground not seen before by an audience raised on 90s Britpop, eager to follow their leader’s every strange foray. But did the shows change the way the public views outsider art, or indeed art in general? Probably not. This question, of course, is a little unfair. Public perception of the visual arts, despite its raised profile and juggernaut exhibitions, is never particularly high, when compared with the other creative arts.
However, even within the field of fine art, there remains confusion as to what outsider art is. People have vague ideas about ostracised eccentrics producing work that will never see the inside of a gallery, or art produced by those with mental health issues. Both these vague notions contain kernels of authenticity. But they are not the whole story, not by an extremely long, peculiarly curved piece of chalk.
The term “outsider art” was coined by Roger Cardinal in 1972. He saw it as a sort of British equivalent of “art brut”, a French concept describing art created outside the mainstream, outside the boundaries of what was considered culture. The original concept had been created by Jean Dubuffet to concentrate mainly on art created by those incarcerated for mental health reasons. Nowadays, the British term is used much more broadly. In other words, you don’t have to be institutionalised to be called an outsider artist. But it helps if you have little or no contact with the art world or any art institutions. It also helps if you are marginalised in some other way.
Recently, there has been a tendency to include materials and creators in the arts and crafts fields, alongside sculptors and painters. More often than not, however, outsider artists are viewed as somehow mentally or socially disaffected.
This might seem to be a rather rigid and self-limiting approach. In my view, it is. To view all outsider artists as estranged from the rest of society in some way is only a partial viewpoint. And it is an approach that threatens to obscure the rest of the picture. For a start, it demeans the art. Any work produced, when looked at this way, will be framed in terms of alienation and mental health. Context may be important, but in this case it can be all-consuming. Arguably, a wider definition is needed.
For instance, although the artist AG Rizzoli (1896-1981) certainly lived a somewhat “disaffected” life (living with his mother until she died and allegedly dying a virgin), to concentrate on this – and to view his art through this kind of slightly discoloured filter – could impoverish the appreciation of his achievements. His intricately detailed drawings of imaginary buildings were all symbolic representations. Each building represented a person – all of whom lived within shouting distance of his home. They have a posterised, antique quality, all rendered in an eerie, early twentieth-century style.
Similarly, Louis Wain’s (1860-1939) expressionistic portraits of cats are viewable as impressive, innovative image-making, without the knowledge of their maker’s incarceration in an asylum near St Albans. Wain’s later paintings show an electrification effect that has echoes in the “radiant babies” of 1980s New York artist Keith Haring.
Certainly, knowing these artists’ biographical details adds flavour to any appreciation of their work. But does it also detract, somehow, from it too? In addition, can an artist really be considered an “outsider” if he or she is not detached from society in some way?
Over the last century, outsider art has garnered more and more attention. Exhibitions have been staged and organisations set up. The Outsider Art Fair is now a regular event in New York. And the website Raw Vision has become the go-to portal for all matters pertaining to outsider art. Starting as a magazine, the organisation has always had as its central aim a desire to “bring outsider art to a wide public”. This, of course, brings forth a host of further questions, not least of which being what happens to the art of the outsider if it becomes mainstream? If today’s art consumers are partaking of eccentric art made by disaffected oddballs, what do we then call that art? And what do we call the artist? Clearly, the answer is that both the artist and their work, once elevated to normalised success, become the same as any other mainstream and their work. One person’s crank is another’s eccentric genius, given the right circumstances.