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.