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My niece recently gave me a book by Jeanette Winterson, called “Why be Happy When You Could be Normal?” I wonder what she meant by giving it to me???

But I digress.  This blog is about outsider art.

02_890_668I happened to see a film called Marwencol last night. I had seen it before, but it was good timing to bump into it again. Mark Hogencamp was badly beaten up some years ago by five men leaving a bar. It left him in a coma and severely brain damaged; his mother said it was like watching her son grow up again – taking his first steps and learning how to do everything for the second time. Mark said he had every memory kicked out of his head. He doesn’t remember anything prior to the attack. He only has a photograph album that shows his childhood, his wedding, his friends, his life.

Obviously, Mark was traumatized by the incident and has since avoided contact with the outside world. Instead, he built his own fantasy town, called Marwencol, in his back yard.


Marwencol is a 1/6 scale town where events from World War II take place. It is populated by soldiers (himself included) and some women who do heroic acts and have relationships with the soldiers.

The Nazis appear from time to time and are inevitably beaten and killed. His real-life friends appear as doll-characters in the town, and he takes great comfort from having them participate in his adventures. When Mark sets up a scenario in Marwencol, he photographs the scene. Over the years he has collected boxes of his own photographs.


As often happens in the world of outsider art, Mark and Marwencol were “discovered” quite by accident. He was pulling a mini-jeep, filled with his action figures, along the road, something he did every afternoon. A neighbour, who happened to be a professional photographer, eventually asked Mark what he was doing.  He learned about Marwencol and felt compelled to document Mark’s incredible world and bring the photographs to the attention of the public. He explained how the photographs were beautifully staged and shot; he marvelled that an “amateur” could create such remarkable work. The film ends with Mark’s exhibit in a New York gallery. To tell you any more would spoil the film should you happen to see it.

Mark is candid about his loneliness and his wish for a wife. He puts people he knows in Marwencol so he can control the story and how they will behave. He prefers to be in Marwencol – life is predictable and safe there.

marwencol2The photographer-neighbour explained why he was so captivated by Mark’s photographs. In particular, he noted there was no sense of irony, like you might see in a contemporary art piece. It struck him that Mark’s photographs were “authentic” and served no purpose other than to help Mark fight “Mark’s war.” He poses a poignant question: what if your therapy became art?

It has been a difficult exercise for me to unravel the myths of outsider art, so much so that I had begun to question the premise for my entire thesis. Was there really something “different” about outsider art? Is it just something we have labelled for our own purposes?

Watching Marwencol brought me back to where I started. Outsider art is different. The creators do not set out to be artists, but instead create worlds for their own personal and particular reasons. I have blogged about other artists who did this:  Morton Bartlett, Henry Darger, and Renaldo Kuhler. (See earlier blogs.) They are remarkable individuals who have found their own creative way to navigate a painful and disillusioning world. Kudos to them.



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.