Outsider art refers to the visionary work of contemporary artists who, despite a lack of formal training, develop individual, idiosyncratic artistic styles that are celebrated by the mainstream art world. Folk art refers to objects usually made for utilitarian purposes that also have aesthetic appeal. The production of Folk art is typically based in certain community values and traditions, which may be transmitted informally or imparted through highly structured workshops and apprenticeships. Both Outsider and Folk artists often incorporate found objects and nontraditional materials in their work, and they may use similar media and techniques. They frequently use innovative and improvisational processes of art-making, resulting in an imaginative visual language. Outsider art ranges from painting to ceramics to sculpture in wood or metal. Woodcarving, weaving, quilting, painting, basket-making, and earthenware are common practices among Folk artists. Much Outsider and Folk art focuses on subjects related to religion, the mystical world of animals, pop culture, and icons of history.
British art historian Roger Cardinal coined the term “Outsider art” in 1972 as the English counterpart to French artist Jean Dubuffet’s term “art brut.” Dubuffet coined “art brut” (“raw art”) in the late 1940s to describe the art made by patients in mental asylums and by various self-taught art makers whom he perceived as impervious to (or outside of) cultural influence. “Primitive” is another term that you may encounter in the context of Outsider art, Folk art, and art brut. This fraught word has been used since at least the 19th century, when European colonialism forced cultural encounters that subsequently resulted in both the formation of the discipline of anthropology as well as the circulation of non-Western art in international markets and eventually in avant-garde circles. Especially in the first half of the 20th century, “primitive” was widely used in Western discourse to describe a wide array of non-Western cultures, assigning them such mythic characteristics as being permanently located in the past, untainted by Western civilization, closer to nature, and more purely expressive, authentically individual, and creative. Because the term “primitive” is an ideological construction that can only exist in relation to its opposite, “civilized,” it has been used to refer to not only non-Western cultures, but also phenomena within Western cultures like Outsider art. For instance, in 1938, when the Museum of Modern Art unveiled a group show of French and North American Outsider artists, the curators titled the show “Masters of Popular Painting: Modern Primitives of Europe and America.”
Today, many academics and museum personnel prefer to talk about “self-taught” art, which arguably has the least negative valence of all the available terms. Yet the term “self-taught” is far from ideal, because it overestimates the degree to which artists who do not go to art school learn in a vacuum as opposed to learning from peers, religious communities, or pop cultural influences, and it underestimates the degree to which many artists who are not considered to be self-taught would describe themselves as such. The term “Outsider” may have some pejorative connotations, but it is transparent about how this category of art is constructed in a relational way. The category of Outsider art is filled with artists whom the art establishment both perceives as being outside of the mainstream yet relevant enough to mainstream developments in art that they should be included in museum collections.
- What media or materials do you see? How did the artist use the materials in the artwork? What techniques of making can you identify? What effects do the materials and techniques create?
- What imagery or motifs can you identify? Did the artist employ a realistic or abstract visual language, or something in between? Did the artist incorporate written text? What do the imagery, style, and words (if present) communicate to you? What do you think these elements communicate to the community where the artist is from?
- What do you think is the subject matter of the artwork? Does the imagery appear to tell a story? If so, what do you think the story is?
- What do you think is the significance of the imagery, words, materials, and techniques that the artist used? Why do you think this?
- What do you think the imagery, materials, or form could tell you about the individual who created the work or the culture in which the maker lived?
- Do you think that the artist was referring to a specific sense of tradition of art-making, or does the artistic style appear to be unique and idiosyncratic? Does the work seem to have been made for a particular community or for a private and personal reason? What makes you think this?
- What, if anything, do you think makes this artist and this work of art an “Outsider” or “Folk” artist? What do you think about the terms “Outsider” and “Folk” art/artist?
Works in the Nasher’s Collection
Carlano, Annie, ed. Vernacular Visionaries: International Outsider Art. New Haven: Yale University Press, 2003.
Hall, Michael D., and Eugene W. Metcalf, Jr., eds. The Artist Outsider: Creativity and the Boundaries of Culture. Washington, D.C.: Smithsonian Institution Press, 1994.
Maizels, John. Raw Creation: Outsider Art and Beyond. London: Phaidon, 2001.
Peiry, Lucienne. Art Brut: The Origins of Outsider Art. Translated by James Frank. London: Thames & Hudson, 2006.
Percy, Ann with Cara Zimmerman, eds. “Great and Mighty Things”: Outsider Art from the Jill and Sheldon Bonovitz Collection. Philadelphia, P.A.: Philadelphia Museum of Art, 2013.
Rexer, Lyle. How to Look at Outsider Art. New York: H.N. Abrams, 2005.
Rexer, Lyle, Frank Maresca, and Roger Ricco. American Self-Taught: Paintings and Drawings by Outsider Artists. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1993.
Rhodes, Colin. Outsider Art: Spontaneous Alternatives. New York: Thames & Hudson, 2000.
Russell, Charles. Groundwaters: A Century of Art by Self-Taught and Outsider Artists. New York: Prestel, 2011.
Stillinger, Elizabeth. A Kind of Archeology: Collecting Folk Art in America, 1876-1976. Amherst, M.A.: University of Massachusetts Press, 2011.
Thévoz, Michel. Art Brut. London: Skira, 1995.
Tuchman, Maurice, and Carol S. Eliel. Parallel Visions: Modern Artists and Outsider Art. Princeton: Los Angeles County Museum of Art and Princeton University Press, 1992.
Zolberg, Vera L., and Joni Maya Cherbo, eds. Outsider Art: Contesting Boundaries in Contemporary Culture. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1997.