Is It Time to Ditch the Term
Is It Time to Ditch the Term 'Outsider Art'?

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Is It Time to Ditch the Term 'Outsider Art'?

I 'hmm' an eyebrow scrunch whenever I hear the term Outsider Art. I’m not alone - not many like this term anymore. It hardly captures the complexity of belonging, determines any true social peripheries around art, or reflects contemporary language on marginalisation in the arts. But it holds on even without fanfare. When it pops up, I flip between discomfort to confusion, thinking: who’s driving the conversation (it’s certainly not the artists)?

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Nick Blinko, Black Ice Cascade, 2000. From The art that dare not speak its name

"It hardly captures the complexity of belonging"

Not even a century ago, French painter and sculptor Jean Dubuffet coined the term ‘Art Brut’ for art created outside cultural and academic institutions. Then came 'Outsider Art' as a quick fix. In the 1970s, art historian Roger Cardinal scrambled for an Anglophone title, as his book publisher didn’t like the French equivalent. Ad hoc, it stuck.

At least it’s honest: the art world values artistic production emerging from education, wealth and social capital, and limits contributions from communities without these privileges. But 'Outsider Art' has always been watery trying to capture its own members. Sometimes, it just references artists that didn’t go to art school. Sometimes, it groups and pigeonholes artists with disability, a criminal record, neurodiversity or mental illness. If so arbitrary, why use it? Today, this label, according to curator Lisa Slominski in her newly published Nonconformers, is more for 'appealing to collectors and audience than an attempt to critically elevate a cohesive stable of artists.'

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Madge Gill, Untitled. From The art that dare not speak its name

Though, it doesn’t guide audiences either. Today, as 'Outsider Art' lingers without positive onward growth, talking about artists from marginalised communities stays rudimentary. When I worked at Arts Project Australia, a gallery and studio backing artists with intellectual disabilities, I’d observe visitors fumble language. Important art people sang praises at openings and, in the same breath, gossiped about disability activists. Young artists offered to volunteer as if for charity work, not professional arts sector experience. Random visitors used infantilising terms as compliments. D-grade celebrities snuck in for photo ops and faked affinities with artists. Very online people shared our socials seconds after we posted but remembered no one’s names if they ever visited. With more solid frameworks, these people might think and speak more critically (or, at least, get called out more). With nothing to give them, we can only judge so much.

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Anthony Mannix, These are for sucking. From The art that dare not speak its name

Organised by Outside In at Sotheby’s 9-27 January, and touring Glasgow and Brighton later this year, Humanity invited artists to write their own captions in an exhibition which featured an array of work from record entries to a national call-out for artists facing barriers to the art world. Perhaps we feel, as a sentiment, artists opting-in to represent themselves in relationship with barriers compared to the usual tug-and-pull of being spoken for in Sara Ulfsparre’s ‘Worry Doll’. Text embroiders the shirt-sculpture hung in the exhibition with: Inside me, there’s a smaller, wrapped in protective yarn I want to unravel it. Just a little, but I can’t find the loose end. So I whisper my worries and my fears to her and tuck her back inside.

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Anthony Mannix picture of a golden goose. From The art that dare not speak its name

"in our hyper-connected world, even those on the ‘margins’ can participate"

Showing simultaneously at Vout-O-Reenees was The art that dare not speak its name: old and new classics of Outsider Art, which exhibited curator Colin Rhodes’ accumulated work by significant ‘Outsider Artists’ from the last half-century or so. The collection reminded me of all the passionate supporters out there, like Rhodes, committed to the economies of this art niche. Drawing a simple boundary - that it’s nice to celebrate artists by showcasing privately-owned pieces - gave the exhibition a warm appeal, even if engaging with contentious language in the title.

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Horace Lindezy, 'Danny Kendall'. From Outside In's Humanity exhibition.

Whereas ‘Art Brut’ and ‘Outsider Art’ once tried to spotlight artists in society’s shadows, today, in our hyper-connected world, even those on the ‘margins’ can participate (for instance, Satellite Arts is an online studio for people living remotely or unable to leave their homes). We’re super online and chatty; artists I know tap into dialogue on neurodiversity and disability identity that moves at lightning speed on TikTok. Do any ‘Outsider Art’ apologists catch onto it? If not, who are they to miss it and stick to the institutional status quo?

In this dissonance it’s easy to read between the lines: there’s not enough effort to hand the mic over. From the board to the front desk, the makeup of organisations associated with the various denominators of 'Outsider Art' don’t overlap with the artists they represent. Our advocacy for marginalised artists stagnates if not prioritising their presence and ideas throughout every level of the arts sector and its institutions.

Patricia shrigley

Patricia Shrigley, Breeders. From Outside In's Humanity exhibition.

"fragmented terms encompassing their identity came through personal choice, not the stakeholders of their work"

While I worked at APA, I’d listen to the Penguins - a group of artists meeting weekly to investigate each other’s art practice within the broader visual arts environment. They’d talk about descriptors, aware of how closely the art world aligned their practice with their disability. Consensus never was reached; fragmented terms encompassing their identity came through personal choice, not the stakeholders of their work. Landing on ‘disabled artist,’ ‘artist with a disability’ or just ‘artist’ depended on the artist presenting their point of view, and the context of their worlds.

Obviously, stiff definitions have less oil than dialogue from inside spaces art emerges from. While supported studios exist to create art, like Arts Project Australia or Action Space in the UK, initiatives to generate artist dialogue are sparse. Though, they are popping up. In 2020, various practitioners launched Art et al. for “for neurodivergent, intellectually, and learning-disabled artists to be seen, heard, and participate” in the contemporary arts. Something is calming about Art et al., too, being an online culture for this discourse; it’s where shifts in contemporary values happen these days, rather than the slow-moving, resistant world of academia and exhibitions. Hopefully, with an increase in experimental frameworks like this, we will see more free-flowing, artist-led conversations.

‘Overdue for a rebrand?’ a friend laughed when I recently mentioned Outsider Art. The artworld can be slow to progress. Fifty years on, 'Outsider Art' coexists as a passé, despised, and defended term. But now is the time for deep listening. To map meaning, artists need autonomy and air time to fluidly define how they’re seen in the art world. No more quick fixes.

By Tahney Fosdike

Cover image: Naoibh McNamee, The Realness. From Outside In's Humanity exhibition.


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