Monthly Archives: March 2015

Defining outsider art: the social issues



A discussion of outsider art must (to me) include social issues. When the term “outsider art” was introduced in 1972, it was intended to be synonymous with art brut, but many took the term literally. They asked: outside of what? Many thought it meant outside the world of commercial art (i.e., outside the canon of art history), while others said it meant outside of society (i.e., it was created by marginalized artists). This triggered an ongoing – and still unresolved debate – about who is “in” and who is “out”.

(It’s interesting that in the United States, “outsider artist” was felt to be a pejorative label and was recently replaced by the term, “self-taught”. That’s an entire chapter in itself. More on this later.)

In the past, outsider art (art brut) focussed on artists who suffered from a mental illness (see previous blogs). When I visited Galerie Art Cru in Berlin several years ago, I had the opportunity to learn about the German perspective on outsider art. Like many cities in Europe and North America, Berlin has ateliers (art studios) for people with mental disabilities. Although I did not have the opportunity to visit one, I think they operate like Creative Growth art center in San Francisco. (It provides art studio space to adults with developmental, mental and physical disabilities.)

hoferGalerie Art Cru exhibits the work of artists connected with these kinds of studios. (One of their artists is Joseph Hofer, whose artwork is pictured at right.) I explained that not all outsider artists in the United States suffer from a mental disability. I was thinking of reclusive and eccentric artists like Henry Darger. The gallery staff was shocked. If this were so, they questioned, how could a collector or gallerist ever determine who was a real outsider artist and where would you find artwork to exhibit? I had no answer to that. We clearly did not have a meeting of minds.

There has been an international move towards social inclusion, a topic that comes up frequently in Europe, particularly France and Germany. In fact, the EU has led the movement, striving to raise the standard of living and strengthen communities by providing opportunities for all European citizens. As I understood it, social inclusion in every facet of life, was the mantra of all Berliners. Hence, the desire to include those with mental disabilities in the art world. So now, in Europe generally, the category of outsider artists includes those with mental health issues (like schizophrenia), and also those who have mental or intellectual disabilities, like autism, developmental delays, or Down Syndrome.

This development puzzles me and led to an exploration of the issue of social inclusion and exclusion. Social inclusion is a laudable objective and should not be scorned. But for me, the issue of social inclusion/exclusion is inextricably linked to power.  How can one include people and groups into structured systems that have systematically excluded them in the first place? One author calls this the dance of the dialectic.

Shouldn’t we be challenging the hierarchies that create this dialectic instead of bringing (allowing?) people into “our” social group? Without reflecting on our acts of social inclusion are we, unwittingly, participating in the use and abuse of power? It’s still the ones who have power who decide who is allowed into the art world and who remains barred!

As for Joseph Hofer,  a German artist  with a significant intellectual disability, I would collect his work regardless of knowing his biography. So it’s not that I think it’s the “wrong” decision to re-define outsider art, but I struggle to understand the reasons behind the decisions. Are the decisions based on evolving views of art or are we simply responding to the imperative of social inclusion?






Martin Ramirez postage stamps

stampsHowdy. I’m back (almost). Drove into the big city today to get new glasses. I hate to break the news to you, but glasses are getting bigger again. My computer will be ready tomorrow; it seems it was down with a virus. So much for the writing retreat. For the amount I’ve had to pay for all these fixes, I could have flown to Paris and sat, drinking absinthe on the Left Bank, will all the other writers.  Ah well.

The biggest news in the outsider art world (if you haven’t heard) is that the US Postal Service is going to issue 5 stamps honouring one of the *BIGGEST* American outsider artists, Martin Ramirez!

Like many outsider artists, Ramirez had a sad, sad life. He travelled to the USA from Mexico in 1925 and worked as a miner and railroad worker. He was diagnosed with schizophrenia in the 1930s and was institutionalized in a psychatric hospital in California until his death in 1963. Thirty + years in a psychiateric hospital…  Need we say more?

You cannot have picked up a book on outsider art without seeing a Ramirez drawing. They are often for sale at Outsider Art fairs at more than (probably) you or I could afford. His images often include a caballero (cowboy) on horseback, in a scene of tunnels. Much speculation on the significance of the caballero (obvious image from his life in Mexico)  and the tunnels. They are typically smallish aboutt 18 inches x 24 inches, although he produced some 20 ft scrolls. The stamp images are shown above.

Like every other outsider artist, Ramirez’s work only became celebrated after his death. The American Folk Art Museum held a retrospective of his work in 2007. It bothers me that the greatest outsider artists are celebrated only after their deaths. (More to say about that later. None of it respectful.)

Here’s to Mr. Ramirez.  Long live the cabellero.

The expanding boundaries of outsider art






Dubuffet’s original art brut collection was ultimately housed in the Collection de L’Art Brut in Lausanne, Switzerland and remains there today. As Dubuffet’s collection grew, it became clear to him that some artwork did not quite “fit” into the narrowly defined category of art brut. Although the work was powerful and inventive, the artists’ contact with society and their awareness of their own work precluded their inclusion in the art brut category .

These artworks were moved to the Annex Collection, and re-named neuve invention. Dubuffet described these as “works which, though not characterized by the same radical distancing of mind as art brut, are never the less sufficiently independent of the fine-art system to constitute a challenge to the cultural institutions.

It is said that Dubuffet created a paradox he hoped to avoid. In deciding who was “in” the art brut collection he had to exclude artists whom he admired. Without intending to do so, he created a new orthodoxy of inclusion. Beginning with a subversive attitude towards art, he ended up establishing a new set of rigid criteria. Thus, in respecting the parameters of art brut, he undermined its fundamental principles and housed it in a tight box. He set up a two-tier and elitist distinction between first and second class outsiders.

Here’s where things started going sideways:

bookIn 1972, Roger Cardinal, a professor at the University of Kent, set out to write about art brut. His publisher insisted on a catchier title, and so Outsider Art went to press. Although the term “outsider art” was not used in the text of the book, Cardinal intended it to be synonymous with art brut, and from the outset it encompassed the categories of both art brut and neuve invention.

Cardinal defined outsider art (and art brut) as “strictly un-tutored and exists outside the normal concept of art. Not hooked up to galleries and certain expectations. It should be more or less inwards-turning and imaginative – self-contained as it were.” Although it was not Cardinal’s intention, the narrowly-defined and closely-guarded world of art brut was turned upside down. Consequently, in recent years, outsider art is an umbrella term used to describe art brut and many other artistic styles, particularly in North America. It often refers to “any artist who is untrained or with disabilities or suffering social exclusion, whatever the nature of their work”.  Here is a list of new terminology that is now used in describing outsider art (or similar artwork):

  • self-taught
  • naïve art
  • visionary
  • Folk art and contemporary folk art
  • Marginal art
  • Art singulier (French marginal artists)


So, here we are, seven decades after Dubuffet exposed the self-serving biases of the established art world. We may have accepted the “otherness” of non-traditional art, but cannot agree whether it should be lumped into one category or distinguished by markers that reference stylistic features or the characteristics of its maker. It is called “term warfare.”

In an effort to define outsider art, some have suggested the term “art brut” should refer only to Dubuffet’s original collection in Lausanne. (I have been advised, however, that the term “art brut” is still frequently used in France.) Others, like Cardinal, have proposed a spectrum of “outsiderness” that references the position of the artist along a spectrum of psychological experience. In the USA, the term outsider art has been declared prejudicial, suggesting the artist is on the outer limits of society. Instead, the preferred term “self-taught”. Others refer to stylistic indicators. Another group points to class issues and marginalization as defining factors.

All struggle with the problems inherent in a collection of art that runs parallel to established art history and shares few common characteristics within the category itself. Cardinal himself warns that applying a set of outdated rules may result in one of two outcomes: either setting up an elitist distinction between classes of outsider artists or having the category crumble completely under the strain. He calls for a looser definition, even though it may decrease our ability to discriminate among creators and their creations.

question markWhy does all this matter? Terminology is important because it is more than a mere descriptor; it carries a set of criteria used for classifying the artwork. Is it outsider art or not? When I began researching outsider art in Canada, I discovered there is no history or established criteria to rely on in this country. For me to introduce outsider art to Canadians, I had to understand how others in the art world defined outsider art. That has not been an easy task.    

The myth of the mad genius


Day 2 and all is well. I woke up to discover that some creature had been on my deck during the night. I am hoping it was not of the carnivorous species. Thankfully, no sign of bear scat.

I had to take a short break this morning to organize all the magnetic words on the fridge. They are now arranged according to basic grammatical categories: nouns, verbs, adjectives, etc.  It may have taken the all the fun out puzzling through a random collection of words, but think how much faster it will be to create poetry while waiting for the kettle to boil!

(And, yes, I do realize how annoying it can be to live with me.)

Thanks to all of you who are sending me  your good wishes every day. Much appreciated.

Here is a summary on today’s work on the myth of the mad genius. Please consider these blogs only as sketches of topics in my thesis – like drawings on the back of an envelope…

So what of the assertion that madness fosters artistic genius?

Although usually associated with the Age of Romanticism, madness has been connected with visionary power from the time of the ancient Greeks. Plato, for example, introduced the concept of “divine madness”, but in a very different context. Such madness was a creative inspiration delivered by the gods, more like a “muse” than a mental disorder. It is argued that Aristotle’s description of melancholia was modified to fit the “mad” stereotype by depressed writers who sought to verify that their suffering was proof of their superiority.

creativity at a priceIn  the 20th Century, studies have explored the connection between mental illness and creative genius. While some research purports to confirm the connection, others dismiss any significant relationship. One vocal critic describes the dramatic presentation of mad geniuses in the media, as the “insanity hoax” presenting information as fact, not theory. She challenges the research as unscientific and anecdotal at best, and self-serving at worst:

Such misunderstandings help perpetuate the mad genius idea, but the romance, the schadenfreude, the comfort, and the alibi of it are all too enjoyable to let anything shatter the myth, including science. And because this madness sells, the media will continue to hammer its connection to creativity… And the bottom line is that society may well be stuck with the idea forever, regardless of what any researchers do, or don’t do.

(Note: the image above is from one of many sites that reference the questionable research.)

There is danger in accepting the myth of the mad genius. First, we view the artist through a warped, generic lens and reduce the creative output to a product of mental illness. Second, the myth becomes a cultural truism; we are so charmed with the idea that we fail to question whether it is based in science or wishful thinking.

van goghVan Gogh is the poster boy for the mad genius. Everyone knows the story of him cutting off his ear (and the self-portrait of his bandaged head). Yet all we choose to remember about him are his unique and magnificent paintings, his mood swings, and his ultimate suicide as proof of his mental illness. What we do not acknowledge are his poverty, loneliness, artistic failure, epilepsy, absinthe poisoning, and tertiary syphilis (with symptoms that mimic the mood swings and psychosis of bipolar disorder). His life circumstances alone would surely lead to grief and despair. Why must we make a posthumous diagnosis of bipolar disorder to appreciate his artwork?

Mental illness is now the “must have” accessory, especially for celebrities who disclose their diagnoses of mental illness in every weekly magazine. Bi-polar disorder is the “new black.” The public has been taught that mental illness is a pre-requisite or by-product of creativity, making that celebrity unique and the condition fashionable. Children have been reported to fake mental illnesses to emulate these celebrities.

bipolarWhy is this happening?  It has been said that media coverage underscores the danger that accompanies creative talent, thus softening the jealousy that inevitably arises from their success. It has also been suggested that “wannabes” intentionally cultivate a wild pose to appear more brilliant than they really are, and to get a pass on the mundane responsibilities of life. As they say, any publicity is good publicity. Does all this disclosure result in stigmatization of mental illness or does it trivialize the very real difficulties of those who suffer from such illnesses?

There is an acrimonious and public debate about a potential link between genius and mental illness. At best, the opponents say the research is unempirical; there is usually no control group and there is no universal definition or measurement of either variable (genius or mental illness). At worst, they say it is provides only self-serving “proof” that one researcher’s bi-polar disorder elevates her to the status of genius. In the end, the critics say, the mad genius myth is far too alluring to give up—it is old and glamorous and shimmers with a pseudoscientific patina.

Acceptance and promotion of the mad genius myth is prevalent in the world of outsider art today, so much so that collection criteria reference that belief. The foundation of many European collections is based on the work of artists with mental health issues (e.g., The Gugging Psychiatric Clinic in Austria). Does our response to and assessment of the art change simply because the artist is “mad”?

I struggle with the desire of some, in the world of outsider art, to scrutinize the artist’s biography for proof of authenticity – a diagnosed mental illness – before granting the work special status. The “aura” of mental illness can trump any other identifying characteristics that define an outsider artist. For example, it is generally accepted that an outsider artist must be self-taught. However, a professional artist who succumbs to a mental illness can qualify as an outsider artist. What does this mean? Does the artist forget or relinquish all his or her professional skills? Does the artist gain special abilities and insight by reason only of that illness? Can outsider art be appreciated only by viewers who also have a mental illness?  Of course not.

zanelliWhether or not one accepts the veracity of the myth, it is accepted as “a given” among many in the outsider art community. I became acutely aware of this point of view at a conference of the European Outsider Art Association in 2013. The Association operates as an umbrella organization for cultural workers devoted to the promotion of marginalized art in Europe. It supports individuals, organizations, or projects that make a significant contribution to reducing the stigma of mental illness, including initiatives that emphasize the dignity of sufferers in a passionate, creative, and innovative way. It appears, however, that artists’ rights are not at the forefront of some undertakings.

The connection between mental illness and creativity was the focus of two conference presentations. A Swiss team set out to collect, document, preserve and exhibit the artwork of psychiatric patients. They had approached psychiatric hospitals in Switzerland, asking to see the artwork in files of psychiatric patients. In their view, “the world had a right to see the artwork”. They reported that some institutions had consented to their request, while others had “unjustly” refused. The team did not recognize the ethical (and legal) issues regarding their research. (I was publicly criticized for articulating the confidentiality obligations of the institutions as well as the privacy and ownership rights of the creators.)

Another discussion focussed on the content of the information cards that are displayed with the artwork. It was decided that an artist’s psychiatric diagnosis would be included only if it was necessary to understand the work. There was no discussion about the accuracy of the diagnosis, the sensitive nature of such information, whether the artist had consented, or why such information would be necessary in the first place, unless it were used as an aid to diagnosis. There seemed to be no discomfort about making posthumous diagnoses or breaching patient confidentiality. Nor was there appreciation for the fact that an artist who lives in a psychiatric institution may not have the mental capacity to consent to such disclosure. This discussion raised only concerns and questions for me. As a lay person, why should I distinguish between the artwork of a paranoid schizophrenic and a person with bipolar disorder?

Unless it involves us directly, what is our motivation in labelling someone – a stranger – with a mental illness? Are we complicit to enhance our own status as “normal”? Many argue that mental illness is a cultural and social construct:

To be ‘crazy’ is a social concept; we use social relationships and definitions in order to distinguish mental disturbances. You can say that a man is peculiar, that he behaves in an unexpected way and has funny ideas, and if he happens to live in a little town in France or Switzerland you would say, ‘He is an original fellow, one of the most original inhabitants of that little place’; but if you bring that man into the midst of Harley Street, well, he is plumb crazy (Jung, 1961).

And, as Foucault said, trying to divide madness from reason is itself a form of madness.