Nine Current Issues in the Field of “Outsider Art”

Some interesting thoughts about the current status of the “Outsider Art” movement.
Lecture by Jane Kallir (College Art Association, February 2007)
Link to the text here

1. The first issue that comes to mind is the fact that our so-called field doesn’t have a wholly satisfactory name. Experts and aficionados alike agree that none of terms used to designate this type of art—“outsider,” “self-taught” and “folk” being the most common—is entirely accurate or adequate. This problem is more than semantic. Naming and defining are inextricably linked, and the lack of a broadly accepted definition has led to heated arguments about which artists do or do not belong in the field.

2. There is, furthermore, some doubt as to whether this is a field at all. The artists in question are said to create beyond the reach of mainstream culture. As such, they are defined not by what they are, but by what they are not. Intrinsically, they have nothing in common that could provide a common framework for studying them. Is this, then, a field?

3. What we call the art world comprises a number of players: artists, critics, art historians, dealers, curators, and collectors. The interactions among those players create the dialogue that moves the art world forward. The outsider field is the only genre of modern or contemporary art in which the artists are, by definition, excluded from participating in that dialogue. Again one must ask, what then makes this a field?

4. We can frame this question another way: what, exactly, distinguishes these artists from the mainstream? Among the claims that have been made on behalf of outsiders are the contentions that they are “purer,” more original and more “authentic” than their trained colleagues; and that they are untouched by “received” culture and its attendant commercialism.

But is this true? It’s almost impossible to gauge the purity of an artist’s intentions, and the perceived need to calibrate an artist’s remove from received culture has led to a distasteful emphasis on lurid biographies. Additionally, no artist is truly removed from all cultural influence, and as more formerly low-culture influences (comics, illustration, television, and so on) are admitted into the high art canon, the gap that once separated outsiders’ influences from the mainstream has all but vanished.

5. Nor does remoteness from received culture necessarily guarantee creativity. We can all think of examples of self-taught artists who seem to paint the same picture, over and over and over again. No artist, once embraced by the art world, is immune from the temptations of commercialism, and self-taught artists may actually be more vulnerable to outside pressures than trained ones. On the other hand, commercial reward & public recognition can function as positive incentives, for both trained and untrained artists. All people crave respect and appreciation. It’s cruel to suggest that any artist is better off for being scorned and ignored.

6. Inevitably, we find that there is a tug-of-war between quality and authenticity. A work can be “authentic” in the sense that it was created by a genuinely marginal artist, but that doesn’t mean it’s any good. The abundance of second-rate “outsider” art has historically prevented even the best work from being fully accepted by the mainstream.

7. And how do we judge quality? The doctrine of purity traditionally held that the true outsider’s creation should be spontaneous and seemingly effortless. For a long time, this canard kept scholars from studying these artists’ working methods and development. But we now know that many of the best self-taught artists consciously struggled for mastery of their chosen medium, systemically taught themselves, and did change and develop.

It’s my belief that, if we are going to treat outsider art as equal to any other kind of art, we should judge it by the same standards. Great art entails an ongoing, never satisfied quest and a constant struggle with materials & form; an artist who doesn’t evolve withers. We judge art in part by the skill with which form and content meld. How well does the artist’s mastery of his or her medium express his or her underlying vision? The depth and originality of that vision are what distinguish the great from the merely competent.

8. However, there are those who believe that outsider art should not be held to the same standards as mainstream art, because true outsider art is fundamentally different.

Again here we touch upon the thorny issue of intentionality, which as previously noted, is almost impossible to assess. Some champions of outsider art nevertheless contend that its makers can be distinguished by the fact that they did not intend to make art. But can you make art without intending to? Without on some level, consciously or not, engaging with issues of composition, color, line and the sundry other nuances that distinguish a compelling image from an incoherent mess? At some basic level, either a work is art, or it’s something else: an artifact of mental illness, an object of anthropological but not aesthetic significance.

If we concede that at least some so-called outsiders create works that do qualify as art, then these artists aren’t really all that different from any other kind of artist; it’s just their relationship to the mechanisms of mainstream culture that differs.

9. The outsider art field as such was originally a product of the modernist obsession with “the other.” Untrained artists were plucked from obscurity and heralded by the modernist mainstream because those artists confirmed the mainstream’s aesthetic agenda, thereby anointing that agenda with the aura of the outsiders’ ostensible “purity.” At the same time, because untrained artists weren’t allowed to participate in the mainstream art-world dialogue, their position remained subordinate and inferior. Trained artists poached from their work, but outsiders were never admitted as full equals to the modernist canon.

Today we live in a postmodern era. Globalization and multiculturalism have introduced a multitude of equally valid cultural strands into the formerly Eurocentric realm of “high” art. Within this context, outsider art can potentially take its place as an equal at the cultural table. It can be studied on its own terms—that is to say, in terms of the idiosyncratic motives, methods and contexts that characterize each individual artist. But as this happens, the field as it was formerly constituted is pulled apart in two ways: The artists become further differentiated, and therefore less easily massed in a common category. At the same time, the boundaries that once separated the untrained artist from the mainstream become increasingly irrelevant. This poses a major conundrum: for if the boundaries between “our” artists and the mainstream truly disappear, might not the so-called “field” disappear as well? Could we be destroyed by our own success?


Galerie St. Etienne

The Galerie St. Etienne is the oldest gallery in the United States specializing in Expressionism and Self-Taught Art. Its predecessor, the Neue Galerie, was founded in Vienna in 1923 by the late Otto Kallir and was a principal exponent of German and Austrian modernism during the period between the two world wars. Having opened with the first posthumous Egon Schiele retrospective, the Neue Galerie was also the exclusive Austrian representative of such major artists as Alfred Kubin and Oskar Kokoschka. In 1930, Kallir rescued from oblivion the legacy of Richard Gerstl, today ranked with Schiele and Kokoschka as one of Austria’s major Expressionists. Also in 1930, Kallir published the first catalogue raisonné of Schiele’s paintings. Kallir functioned as a publisher of limited edition prints, working with such artists as Max Beckmann, Johannes Itten, Oskar Kokoschka and Alfred Kubin–all of whom he knew well. In addition, Kallir, like many early pioneers of modernism, was extremely interested in the work of untrained artists. He would greatly expand upon this interest after the 1938 Nazi invasion forced him to flee Austria.

After emigrating to the United States in 1939 and looking for art that reflected his enthusiasm for his newly adopted homeland, Otto Kallir became interested in American folk art. In 1940, the Galerie St. Etienne gave Anna Mary Robertson (“Grandma”) Moses her first one-woman exhibition. We went on to become her exclusive representative, and Moses became one of the most famous and popular American artists of the immediate postwar era. More recently, the Galerie St. Etienne has expanded its interest in self-taught art to include Art Brut and “Outsider” material. In addition to the estate of Grandma Moses, we have worked with the estates of Henry Darger and John Kane; we also represent Ilija Bosilj, Michel Nedjar, and the Artists of Gugging.

Oswald Tschirtner

Oswald Tschirtner is among the artists associated with the Gugging group. “Gugging” is the abbreviated way of referring to the Haus der Künstler (House of Artists) established in 1981 by the psychiatrist Leo Navratil at the Lower Austrian Psychiatric Hospital in the hamlet of Gugging, outside Vienna. Many years earlier, Navratil had noticed that the art produced by certain of his patients far transcended the qualitative parameters of traditional art therapy. These artists, selected by Navratil with advice from local museum officials and artists (including the well-known painter Arnulf Rainer), began to publicly exhibit in the 1970s.

Oswald Tschirtner was raised by an aunt and uncle in Vienna and attended seminary from a young age. He intended to become a priest, but was drafted into the German army in 1937, at the age of 16. Tschirtner fought at Stalingrad and subsequently spent time in a prison camp in southern France. After the war, he was stricken by periods of religious fervor and violent episodes, and he was sent to a psychiatric institute in 1947. In 1957, he was sent to the Psychiatric Hospital at Gugging, where he began to draw. Tschirtner’s clean, characteristically ascetic line attracted Dr. Navratil’s attention, and he became one of the first artists chosen to take up residence at Haus der Künstler (Gugging). Encouraged to explore the formal quality of line, Tschirtner produced a body of elegant works that have been exhibited at the Sao Paulo Biennale, the Hayward Gallery, London, Parsons School of Design, New York, and at numerous other venues in Europe and the United States.

Text taken from Galerie St. Etienne.

The Art of Adolf Wölfli

Like Henry Darger, Adolf Wölfli was an artist outside the mainstream of twentieth century art with a prodigious output.  From his early work, 1905-1907, only fifty drawings survive.  The main body of his work created between 1908 and his death in 1930, known as his narrative oeuvre, consists of forty-five large volumes and sixteen school notebooks, with 25,000 pages.  Wolfli lived in a Swiss psychiatric institution for most of his life, after he had attempted to engage in sexual activity with young girls.  He was sent to the Waldau Mental Asylum in 1895 and lived there for the rest of his life.  He was diagnosed with schizophrenia and declared dangerous to society. Although he was agitated for many years, he drew when he was calmer.  In the early years of his drawing, his work was mostly destroyed, but he gradually became more successful and was able to afford art supplies through the sale of commissioned work.  Now there is considerable interest in Wolfli’s art, and this book was published to mark the first solo exhibition of the American Folk Art Museum in New York dedicated to his work.


The romanticization of the art of the mentally ill is problematic for a number of reasons.  Most obviously, it fits in with a certain stereotype of the madperson as a prophet or the “fool” with special insight.  This isn’t necessarily stigmatizing, and indeed, maybe it helps to work against some kinds of stigma, but it at least runs the risk of valorizing the creations of the mentally ill for the reasons that are too quick and which need further examination.  One might raise parallel concerns about the notion of the “tribal primitive” as an example of uncontaminated creative energy, which, even when used in admiring way, seems to feed into some racist images of other cultures.  An even more obviously problematic example that might serve as a parallel to the case of the “mad artist” is the old-fashioned attitude towards women as too pure and innocent to be involved in public life, and therefore needing to be sheltered from making decisions about society or participating in communal decision-making.  Maybe admiration of the “outsider artist” perpetuates the idea that such people are better off separated from the rest of society, so as not to be polluted by modern culture.

There are other troubling questions about how to evaluate the work of outsider artists such as Wolfli.  It is obviously interesting, striking, amazing, and intriguing.  But, precisely because it seems to have been done in complete isolation from the rest of the history of art, the similarities and contrasts one might make to other styles of art are superficial.  Indeed, unless one is able to understand the old German language that Wolfli wrote on many of his drawings, and unless one has access to the huge volume of work that he created, even the personal meanings of most of his work is lost of the viewer.  One is left looking at the shapes and the minute details, and one’s appreciation goes little beyond the thought that it must have taken incredible patience and devotion to create such work, especially in a mental asylum.  And especially since he had a chronic and serious mental illness.

Full text: here

Adolf Wölfli

A Disquieting Feeling of Strangeness

Full article of A Disquieting Feeling of Strangeness

In this brief survey, differing attitudes to the art of the mentally ill have been outlined. The subject raises questions as to how we think about art and madness. First, it illustrates our changing notions as to what is art. Various strands have contributed to these changes—the Romantic movement of the 1800s; the twentieth century’s interest in looking for new modes of artistic expression outwith mainstream western culture; and, more recently, the growing attention paid to so-called marginalized groups, perhaps fuelled by the influence of postmodernism, which has undermined the idea of a fixed and authoritative canon of western art.

Secondly, with regard to our ideas about madness, do we align ourselves with Jaspers, who holds that insanity represents a decisive break from normality, or with certain cognitive psychologists, who maintain that there is a continuum between the sane and the insane? If the former, this adds weight to the claim that the art of the insane is possessed of a unique quality. If the latter, then we may conclude that there is nothing singular about the work of the mad. In fact, when asked if there is anything distinctive about such art, most commentators reply no and yes.

No, in the case of the great majority of the mentally ill, who, it is maintained, produce perfectly unremarkable work. But yes in the case of a small proportion of patient—artists whose creations are regarded as particularly distinctive. Attempts to describe the nature of this distinctive quality have proved elusive. Rhodes has contended that it is misguided to search for defining stylistic characteristics. At the beginning of the last century, Hans Prinzhorn also decided that such a venture was ill-advised, although he did feel there was something different about the work of the mentally ill. In the end, perhaps we can do no more than agree with Prinzhorn that this something lies in ‘a disquieting feeling of strangeness’.

Wanneer de Psychoanalyse de Kunst ontmoet of het ontwerp van ons logo

“Dichters, romanschrijvers, kunstenaars zijn waardevolle bondgenoten in het kennen van de ziel. Ze zijn onze meesters daar ze zich laven aan bronnen die wij, gewone stervelingen, nog niet bereikbaar hebben gemaakt voor de wetenschap.” Freud, 1907

Bij het ontwerpen van de nieuwe website van de Belgische Vereniging, was het onze wens dat zij niet alleen onze visie op de psychoanalyse maar ook de culturele rijkdom van België zou weerspiegelen. Vandaar dat bij het bedenken van een passend logo, onze gedachten gingen naar de idee om een werk van een belangrijk Belgisch kunstenaar te kiezen. Vrij vlug is onze keuze gevallen op het schilderij Vertige, 1908, van Leon Spilliaert. De intense schoonheid van het werk weerklinkt als een diepe echo in ieder van ons.

Van heel nabij raakt de psychoanalyse aan wat de kunst voor de menselijke psyche kan betekenen. Beiden peilen naar de diepte van gevoelens en brengen het universele dichterbij. Omringd door zijn verzameling antieke objecten heeft Freud geleefd “ in een wereld als in een droom”, om zijn eigen woorden te gebruiken, nadat hij de Assyrische en Egyptische verzamelingen van het Louvre had bezocht. We denken uiteraard aan de “Gradiva”, heldin van de novelle van Wilhelm Jensen, opgehangen aan de voet van de divan. Zij stelde voor hem de verpersoonlijking van de overdracht in de psychoanalyse voor, de “genezing door liefde”.

Een kunstwerk, een Belgisch schilder, een vrouw, Vertige drong zich op als een evidentie door de rijkdom van associaties die het schilderij in ons heeft opgewekt.

Bij het begin van de twintigste eeuw is Leon Spilliaert, op enkele jaren na, een tijdgenoot van Freud. In haar boek, Leon Spilliaert, of de schoonheid van de intelligentie van het hart, beschrijft Anne Adriaens-Pannier hem als “de meest eigenzinnige en meest enigmatische kunstenaar van zijn generatie. Door een zich grondig eigen maken van successieve thema’s sluit zijn beeldende taal aan bij de man die hij zelf is: origineel en onafhankelijk.” Zijn onafhankelijke geest vervoegt deze van Freud die op zijn beurt zijn weg heeft uitgetekend zonder zich te laten ontmoedigen door het oordeel van zijn tijdgenoten.

Uit de verschillende thema’s van zijn werk kozen we Vertige, dat in haar beweging zelf, voor ons, het onbewuste oproept. De vrouwenfiguren van Spilliaert schijnen te behoren tot een wereld buiten het alledaagse. Toch resoneren ze in elk van ons door de hevigheid van gevoelens, liefde, medelijden, angst voor de eenzaamheid die hen overweldigen. Sommige van hen evoceren composities van Munch. De vrouw in evenwicht op de trap inVertige ontvouwt tegelijkertijd zwakheid en kracht. Ze vertaalt evenzeer de eenzaamheid als de hoop.

Deze diepmenselijke bewegingen hebben ons geraakt en geleid naar onze keuze voor het ontwerp van ons logo. We houden eraan onze oprechte dank uit te drukken aan mevrouw Irmine en heren Frederik en Johan van Rossum, de kleinkinderen van Leon Spilliaert, die ons de toelating hebben gegeven om ons logo te realiseren op basis van dit schilderij dat ons dierbaar is.

Tekst en afbeeldingen afkomstig van Belgische Vereniging voor Psychoanalyse

Francis Bacon: “Exhilarated Despair”, Sexuality and Violence

When Bacon attained major public recognition at the end of World War II, despair was in fashion. Art critics and editors announced at the time that the modern movement’s struggle happened “between men, betrayed by science, bereft of religion, deserted by the pleasant imaginings of humanism against the blind fate. It was closing time in the gardens of the West and an artist would be judged only by the resonance of his solitude or the quality of his despair.”

Bacon’s early paintings have been seen as reflecting the war itself and in particular the images of concentration camps that emerged as the Allies liberated Europe in the latter part of 1944. Three Figures at the Base of a Crucifixion was one of his works completed in 1944 before the pictures of the camps were released. This painting was supposedly one of the resources for Bacon’s visual articulation of a culture of pessimism, but in fact it formed the context and not the pre-text of his rhetoric of despair. Bacon himself confirmed in an interview that his paintings were concerned with his own kind of psyche, which he described as “exhilarated despair.”

It is natural for people to take Bacon’s personal history into account when looking at his work. Bacon was born in Dublin in 1909 to English parents at the time when Ireland was in the violent process of becoming a state independent from Britain, and during his childhood his family was under threat of attack. This experience is described as crucial to the reception of Bacon’s paintings, linked both to his masochistic homosexuality and to the violence and pessimism attributed to his work. The fact that in the late 1920s Bacon lived briefly in Berlin, a city that accepted his sexuality, might well have provided him courage in asserting his particular form of sexuality, which he made the core of his paintings. We might agree with critics that Bacon seeks to “come immediately onto the nervous system,” to “unlock the valves of feeling and therefore return the onlooker to life more violently,” and that his works are convulsive and physiological.

Text taken from Contemporary Aesthetics.

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