The following article was published in N-SPHERE October 2010 issue.


Of all the “–isms” of the 20th century, outsider art – umbrella term quasi–interchangeable with art brut or raw art, marginal art, self–taught, visionary art, mediumistic art, folk art, contemporary folk art, arte naïve, neuve invention – distinguishes itself through its inconsistency and lack of ideological or stylistic framework. Within this article, I will try to outline the major problems posed by such a “volatile” term, which essentially reflects the aesthetic revolution of modernism and postmodernism.


Long viewed as simply pathological, symptomatic and therapeutic, the art of the mentally ill, along with the art of the “primitives” and children’s art, became, for the historical avant–garde of the early 20th century, the object of reassessment and idealization. Radical anti–traditionalists recognized in it their own ends: the expressive force of an immediate, pure, spontaneous artistic act, devoid of convention and traditional values. The affinity between degeneration or the typical process of schizophrenia and the artistic phenomena can easily be illustrated, e.g.: multiple points of views – analytic cubism or even, tracing back, impressionism or Cezanne’s studies on light; no external referentials/self–referential – abstract expressionism; detachment – theatre of the absurd, Duchamp; and so on.

Perhaps as a legacy of the romantic image of the creative genius touched by madness, rethinking the art of the psychotic or mentally ill was due to a growing interest as manifested in such studies: L’art chez les fous (1907 – Marcel Réja/Paul Meunier – psychiatrist) or the more influential Bildnerei der Geisteskranken (1922 – Hans Prinzhorn – psychiatrist and art historian), in parallel with the psychoanalytic approach which sought possible signs of disturbance in artists previously considered sane (Freud’s analyses on Leonardo and Michelangelo – 1910, 1914). A contact with Prinzhorn’s study and a tour of the psychiatric asylums in Switzerland, where he also encountered the works of Adolf Wölffli, prompted Jean Dubuffet to destroy his previous works and gather in a personal collection (1945) “brut”, “uncivilized” productions, including naöve, folk or mentally ill art. Along with André Breton and other friends, he established his own Compagnie de l’art brut and organised the first exhibition in 1949, publishing his important text: L’art brut préféré aux arts culturels. Later on, he would consider the brut character as universally defining modern art and develop his style accordingly.

Coined by Roger Cardinal in 1972 as outsider art, the term acquired autonomy, a plethora of dedicated exhibitions, catalogues, monographs and evolved into a unequivocal pigeon–hole for anything produced outside the art establishment and its institutions, by individuals with none or limited artistic education.

Since it lacks the stylistic criteria, art brut/outsider art challenges the classical art historical method of periodisation or the newer geographical approach*. The term essentially refers not to any formalistic or ideological traits, defining instead the status of the artists. This state not only increases the difficulties of finding a consensus regarding the definition of outsider art, but allows to ask ourselves whether the term, understood literally, can still be validated in a world of anti–elitistic cultural pluralism, where “anything goes”.

In addition, there are a few other senses in which the term may seem ambiguous. Firstly, outsider art was (at least until recently) discussed only through its sustaining role and source of inspiration for modern artists (Rousseau & Picasso; Wölffli or anonymous artists from the Prinzhorn Collection & Klee or Dubuffet), since this type of art responded to the ideals of immediacy, rupture, purity etc. This aspect was linked by Hal Foster (critical art historian) to a “misreading” of the art of mentally ill which informed, however, the avant–garde’s need for transgression or metaphysical. His main idea is that if the avant–garde sought to break a symbolical order and renounce conventions, the source of inspiration for allowing the fostering of these ideals – the art of the mentally ill, expressed intrinsically the desire of those individuals to repair, replace, reinvent a symbolical order, the lost conventions and regain, eventually, the equilibrium of the mentally sane. This may imply that, as a vehicle to provoke and deconstruct art’s established spheres and elites, the art of the mentally ill, though brought to mainstream attention, was actually obscured.

Secondly, its link with the historical avant–garde turned into a backlash when the notion of avant–garde itself was rediscussed in the 50s–60s, with the dawn of the neo–avantgarde movements. See for instance Leslie Fiedler’s verdict that the avant–garde was dead, the works of Leonard Meyer, Angelo Guglielmi and others.

Finally, outsider art, especially in its folk aspect, has always been existing, as vernacular art alongside the official art. Mediumistic art goes back to mid 1800s, inheriting the belief in immaterial entities. Sometimes, the cathartic expression is a natural reaction to one’s suffering.

It is perhaps the modern need of an Other, a stranger to the conventional art world, that generated the outsider art and the new aesthetic and market categories implied.

*but, concerning the historiographical problem, a side question arises: could outsider art be the subject of a study within the broader history of objects and images, as proprosed by George Kubler in the The Shape of Time?

Artwork: August Natterer. 1915. Hexenkopf. Courtesy of the artist

by Roxana Vasile

Full article here.