U is for Outsider Art

| May 4, 2014

“Outsider Art” is a somewhat condescending term for art that is produced outside of the established networks of the art world. In America, the term “outsider” denotes artists that shouldn’t be considered “serious”, but the cute novelty of their work is enough to make us, the insiders (the critical establishment?) take note.

Look at Basquiat – an artist who ‘surprised’ the art world with his work, as if to say “wow, that’s so great that a poor black man who didn’t go to an established school can make interesting art, who knew?”

Art Brut is a term used from the mid-1940s to designate a type of art outside the fine art tradition. The commonest English-language equivalent for art brut is ‘Outsider art’. In North America, the same phenomenon tends to attract the label ‘Grass-roots art’. (MoMA.org)

The term ‘Outsider Art’ was introduced as the title of Roger Cardinal’s book in 1972 and was originally intended to act as an exact English equivalent to Dubuffet’s term, although from the outset it encompassed not only Art Brut but also works in the Neuve Invention category Over the years it has been used increasingly loosely and can often now refer to any artist who is untrained or with disabilities or suffering social exclusion, whatever the nature of their work.

Over Spring Break I went to Québec, where they have an incredible anthropological museum, the Musée de la Civilisation. I was absolutely fascinated by an exhibit on Art Populaire de Québec (Folk Art of Québec). The exhibit was titled Esprits Libres (“Free Spirits”). The exhibit was primarily sculptures by… eccentric local artists. There was indeed a freedom to their work, a playfulness, an innocence, perhaps a naïveté. But naïve to what, exactly?  Conventional art world norms?

What is the difference in these aesthetic notions of outsider vs insider vs folk vs establishment?

Take a look at the array of works in the exhibit.

We were moved to purchase a work by the artist most prominently featured in the exhibit – Bruno Champagne. We found his work for sale in a local antique dealer. We miiight have a little bit of buyer’s remorse, but it is a pretty cool work.