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?