French artist Jean Dubuffet delivered an anti-cultural manifesto in the 1940s. He fought against the status quo in the art world and argued against the traditions of art history, where art is studied in the context of its historical development and where art standards are the result of cultural conditioning and the opinions of art critics. To illustrate his thesis, Dubuffet went on to create an art collection, which he called art brut (raw or uncooked art), from artists he believed were not influenced by culture or social norms.
Dubuffet idealized the innocence of art brut artists – those far removed from the mainstream art world who made art in unconventional ways, simply because they were compelled to create. Artists who had little access to cultural convention, like patients in psychiatric institutions, mediums and clairvoyants, and isolated provincials became his icons of pure creativity. They did not ask to be understood, nor did they hope to be part of the art world. Rather, Dubuffet gave a name to a type of art whose makers were unaware of being artists, oblivious to anything other than their own obsession with making art.
In 1972 Roger Cardinal, a British scholar, wrote a book about art brut, calling it outsider art. Many new definitions of outsider art subsequently evolved, particularly in the United States, and there has been little agreement on the definition of outsider art or the terminology coined to describe it.
There are some differences between outsider art in Europe and the United States. Outsider art in Europe is closely aligned with Dubuffet’s original concept of the genre, while the United States incorporates its long tradition of folk art. It is challenging to define outsider art in the Canadian context. First, the genre is rarely discussed in this country and, second, there is a distinct difference of opinion between Quebec (with its French roots), and the western provinces (with emphasises social justice issues).
The definition of outsider art, and even the name itself, is highly controversial. The subject is so complex, that I made it the subject of my master’s thesis (Outsider Art – Forty Years Out). I felt it was an important first step in understanding outsider art in Canada; it would be impossible to propose a meaningful definition of outsider art in this country without taking time to reflect on the nuances of the genre in the international arena.