Monthly Archives: April 2015

Outside of what?

›‰hThe roots of the terms “art brut” and “outsider art” can be traced back to the writings of Prinzhorn, who studied the creative output of psychiatric patients, and then Dubuffet who believed such art was unadulterated by the socio-cultural environment.
(Painting by August Natterer at right.)

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 what should be included 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. So, in respecting the parameters of art brut, he undermined its fundamental principles and housed it in a tight box.

Dubuffet  added to the problems of taxonomy in setting up a two-tier and elitist distinction between first and second class outsiders. Some works have been moved back and forth between the art brut and neuve invention collections. The margins of art brut began to blur as soon as the genre was named.

Art brut continued to exist, for the most part recognizing the two categories that Dubuffet defined: art brut and neuve invention. In 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.  Cardinal explains:

Well, it all happened when I produced this book. I wanted to call it ‘Art Brut’, and I had studied the Dubuffet collection, and had a lot of examples from the collection and some that I’d chosen myself, but fitting into the general rubric of Art Brut. And with that, with Dubuffet as the coiner of that particular concept, and his definitions fairly clearly in mind, I showed the publisher what I wanted to do, and I said, ‘Well, you’ve got Art Nouveau, and you’ve got Art Deco, now you’ve got Art Brut and everybody will get on with it.’ But the publisher was very worried about this particular title and wanted something more easy to get on with for the English ear and said, ‘Well, shouldn’t we call it something else?’ And we went through hundreds of titles: ‘The Art of the Artless’, I remember was one of them…

This was where the terminology problems started. 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 of 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.”

At this point, the narrowly-defined and closely-guarded world of art brut was turned upside down. In the years that followed, European scholars loosened the parameters of art brut but Americans took the concept much further. The term “outsider” was taken literally and begged the question: outside of what?

The definition of outsider art unravelled from this point on.

It’s about the process


I am on another writing retreat in the mountains (it’s snowing here!) and I have been silent, not because I am goofing off, but because I have been completely absorbed by the task before me. In other words, I am blissed out.

The sad truth is that I have no idea what I think about something until I write it. I know some well-known writers have expressed this same feeling, but I have lost track of those quotations. Anyway, that’s my reality.

In the process of exploring the topic of what “self-taught” means, I wrote myself to the edge of a cliff. This is not to say that I felt like jumping off a cliff, but that I had nowhere to go from there.  I became so disenchanted with the multitude of definitions of outsider art, and their *reasons (*excuses) for defining it so, that I thought I might have to throw this entire  project in the garbage. Egad. What now?

No matter how we define outsider art, it has grown from Dubuffet’s plea to look at art in a new way, to yet another power-dominated field of art. How can I write about this without it turning into a hysterical rant? This is, after all, an academic exercise, not an opinion piece for a rag newspaper…

But, when all is said and done, and in spite of the headaches it causes me, I absolutely love the art that I encounter in my research. It never fails to punch me in the gut. And I always say to myself, “so this is another way to look at the world…” It leaves me with a sense of awe.  And really, what more could you ask of art?

I have always believed that outsider artists – in the process of creation – are in the midst of a soliloquy, as opposed to a dialogue with others. That soliloquy takes them to a deeper place and a deeper truth. Filmmaker, Werner Herzog, calls this the ecstatic truth. As he says, one can reach a deeper stratum of truth in the arts – a poetic, ecstatic truth, which is mysterious and can only be grasped with effort. One attains it through vision, craft and style. By engaging in the art-making process, sometimes obsessively, I think these artists find their own deep truths. It’s not about the product. It’s about the process.

So, I am signing off tonight with a promise to get down to details in a future blog.


The self-taught artist

I am now writing about one of the most difficult subjects and it’s about self-taught artists. *Self-taught* is such a simple and common word, yet it takes on a whole new meaning in the world of outsider art.

circle-16_42910_lgI tried to create a pictorial representation of how the various labels overlap in the United States: folk art, contemporary folk art, outsider art, art brut, and the work of African-American Southern artists. It gets confusing. I have concluded that the best tactic is to use any one of these terms, say it with confidence, and wait to see if you are challenged.  (Not likely.)

The first thing that comes to mind are the amateur painters who you may see at the park with an easel. They take their endeavors seriously and may actually be quite good at it, but they are not the self-taught group of artists that we talk about in the world of outsider art. These hobbyists are aware of the world of cultural art and may attempt to mimic their favourite styles.

I like the way one writer described the distinction between artists. An artist who is part of the contemporary art scene is called *an artist.* He or she has studied in an art school, is aware of art trends, and may explore  the limits of known art genres. However, a  *[fill in the blank] artist* is outside of that art world. They may be called a self-taught artist, an outsider artist, a folk artist, etc.  I stumbled upon a photo of a interesting painting recently. The local artist called himself a *working class artist* – a term I had not heard before. I tried to contact him to see more of his work, but sadly he has not responded. Very frustrating.

scottieIn the United States, a self-taught artist can be a folk artist, a contemporary folk artist, an outsider artist, a visionary artist, or an African American Southern artist. To complicate matters, the term *outsider artist* has fallen out of use because it is felt to be a derogatory term. Instead, outsider artists are now called self-taught artists. You see what I’m saying, right?  It might be easier to use a tangled ball of string as a pictorial representation instead of overlapping circles. (Outsider artist Scottie Wilson photo above.)

So, here is a warning that a long discussion about self-taught artists is about to begin. I am trekking back to the mountain top tomorrow for another focussed writing session. Stay posted.






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.

I 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.

02_890_668Marwencol 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.