Self-Taught & Outsider Art

"Outsider Art" at a Crossroads

By Jane Kallir [published in Raw Vision, 2003

Since 1972, when Roger Cardinal selected the title Outsider Art for his groundbreaking book on art brut, the English term has taken on a life all its own. More popular than anyone could have imagined thirty years ago, outsider art as a field has also become increasingly conflicted. “Term warfare” is the tongue-in-cheek phrase used to refer to the endless quibbling that afflicts the genre, not just with regard to terminology but, more seriously, regarding definitions. As outsider art grows more successful commercially, the question of who qualifies for membership in the club is no longer merely academic. And while many fear that the pressures of the marketplace will compromise the essential purity of the art, the marketplace ultimately cares less about purity than it does about quality. For better or for worse, the field of outsider art is evolving, and it is likely to be a very different place five years hence it has been up till now.


Outsider art has attracted a particularly broad following in the United States, largely because it tallies with that nation’s egalitarian ideals and appeals to Americans’ view of themselves as maverick individualists. Americans have been no more successful in coming up with a universally accepted definition of outsider art than Jean Dubuffet was in defining art brut, but they have so far managed to avoid the factionalism that has been common in Europe. American outsider art is far broader in its purview than art brut, including a range of works that in Europe would generally be classified as “naïve” or “folk” art. Indeed, while this loosely circumscribed category of art has won numerous American fans, the term “outsider art” itself has been criticized for being too Eurocentric and judgmental. After all, in an ostensibly democratic country, there should be no outsiders, and critics have pointed out that some so-called outsiders (especially African Americans) were in fact very much part of their own communities, albeit ostracized by white society. That is why American scholars often revert to the more neutral, if also not entirely adequate, term “self-taught.”*


American outsider art, by whatever name, is a more free-form category than European art brut in part because America never had a central theoretical mastermind comparable to Dubuffet. Although American artists played a role in the discovery of outsider art, collectors and dealers were far more instrumental in establishing the genre. Early collections, such as those formed by Herbert Waide Hemphill, Jr., and his friend Michael Hall in the 1960s and ‘70s, were in some respects normative. Simply in their choice of objects, these collectors created a field where none had existed before. Naturally, as more collectors and dealers entered the arena, the choices changed and the parameters of the field expanded accordingly. Each collector or dealer defined the subject as he or she saw fit. Since the material in question was art that had somehow eluded mainstream arbiters of taste, outsider art attracted devotees who preferred to make up their own minds, rather than seeking an official imprimatur for their selections. While outsider art is today developing the academic apparatus deemed necessary to any major field of study, the genre still remains off the regular agendas of most mainstream American museums. Even a specialized institution such as New York’s American Museum of Folk Art (which has been showing outsider art sporadically since the late 1960s, when Hemphill briefly served as curator) only fully embraced the field when it established the Contemporary Center.


The Outsider Art Fair, which takes place in New York each January, may be considered paradigmatic of the ad-hoc way in which the field developed in the U.S. In the beginning, the Outsider Fair was an eclectic free-for-all. Although many complained about the uneven quality of the exhibits, a flea-market sensibility was intrinsic to the American approach. Pioneering collectors such as Hemphill and Hall had honed their eyes at flea markets, and part of the fun lay in discovering treasure amidst the dross. Also intrinsic to the flea-market orientation was an element of bargain hunting. Outsider art became popular in part because it was accessible, both intellectually and economically. One did not need to worry about “greatness” or investment value when making purchases at $500 a pop. If the artist’s work should happen to appreciate in value, so much the better. Many collectors are also gamblers at heart.


As was perhaps inevitable, outsider art eventually spawned its core group of insiders, and the Outsider Art Fair has become not only their annual meeting place, but a flash point for hot-button issues. Although these outsider/insiders have never been able to agree on a definition for their beloved field, or even on which artists (beyond an obvious handful) belong in the pantheon of greats, they are passionate in their belief that outsider art deserves the same degree of esteem reserved for mainstream art, and that the greatest outsiders, whoever they may be, can easily hold their own in an academic context. Many have worried that the prevalence of inferior material at the Outsider Fair is tarnishing the genre as a whole. In a field noted for its democratic egalitarianism, some insiders are not willing to place their trust in the judgments of the public or of time. Instead, these insiders want to impose absolute standards on work that has heretofore been defined by its very failure to secure any sort of official imprimatur.


In their ongoing efforts to clean up the field, America’s outsider/insiders are confronting an essential paradox of outsider art. For, despite its inherent egalitarianism, the whole notion of outsider art depends for its very existence on an us-versus-them mentality. The search for art created beyond the reach of academic officialdom began with the discovery of Henri Rousseau by Picasso’s circle in early twentieth-century France. At that time, simple lack of art-school training was usually sufficient to isolate an artist from the perceived mainstream. However, with the ever more pervasive incursions of the mass media, it has become increasingly difficult to find artists who are not imbued with mainstream influences. Assessing an artist’s “purity” by calibrating his or her distance from what Dubuffet called “received culture” is a kind of game played by many devotees of outsider art, and it can easily turn ugly. Not only the art, but the artists themselves are routinely judged according to their degree of isolation from society at large, with the result that biography figures prominently in the validation and marketing of the work.


Outsider art is not a game that the artists themselves are allowed to play. An artist is anointed an “outsider” by members of the mainstream who have determined that he or she, for whatever reasons of mental incapacity or biographical circumstance, is incapable of fully comprehending or adhering to mainstream traditions. Show too much savvy about the entire process, and you are out of the running. Yet it is hard for even the most innocent artist to be unaware of the publicity heaped on outsider art over the course of the past few decades. Can one blame these artists for launching their own web sites and printing up business cards that proudly proclaim “John Doe—Outsider Artist”? If genuine outsider art depends on distance from the mainstream, the mainstream’s embrace may easily suffocate it. Only when the mainstream’s attention is engaged elsewhere can any sort of truly isolate art flourish. That is why prior surges of interest in self-taught artists, such as the booms that occurred in the U.S. between the two World Wars or in Haiti and Yugoslavia in the 1950s and ‘60s, fizzled shortly after they peaked.


The attempt to purge the field of “inappropriate” artists has had a noticeable impact on the contents of the Outsider Art Fair over the course of the last years. Several years ago, two prominent dealers withdrew from the fair in protest against its lack of standards, and in response the fair’s organizers appointed an advisory committee to help vet future participants. Since that time, a number of artists have been excluded on the premise that they do not qualify as outsiders—despite the fact that no one really knows just what an outsider is. The 2003 Outsider Fair showed the cumulative effect of these adjustments. Most visitors would probably agree that the overall level of quality was higher than in the past, though many also complained of a certain sameness among the exhibits. Toning down the flea-market aspect of the fair naturally reduced the number of low-budget offerings for neophytes, and tended to rob the event of some of its prior exuberance. Collectors trolling the aisles in search of inexpensive “discoveries” were also frustrated by the fact that, as the field has matured, really exciting new artists have become increasingly scarce. At the same time, rising prices for the generally acknowledged masters have placed them well beyond the range of the casual buyer.


The current state of the outsider art market provides an indication of where the genre as a whole is heading. Dealers and auctioneers place their hope in the “crossover collector,” an idealized creature (rather like Herman Melville’s great white whale) who collects both contemporary and outsider art. While such collectors do exist--especially for artists like Bill Traylor and Henry Darger, who have long been cultivated within the mainstream art world—they remain relatively rare. This explains the rather uneven results achieved by the sale of Robert Greenberg’s outsider art collection at Christie’s on the Monday following the 2003 Outsider Art Fair. Auctions require a multitude of competitive bidders to be truly successful, but the salesroom that day was packed with the same bevy of outsider/insiders who had been hobnobbing for the past week down at the Puck Building. The growth of the market is further limited by the fact that the insiders at this stage have relatively complete collections, often formed at a time when prices were far lower than they are now. These collectors are likely to make new acquisitions, whether at auction or elsewhere, only if the work is question is extraordinary or fills a specific gap in their holdings.


Market-oriented partisans of outsider art argue that great pieces can still be had at a fraction of the cost of comparable works of mainstream art, and they are right. Nevertheless, the mainstream art world as a whole has yet to awaken to this fact. The crossover collector is a very different sort of animal from the mavericks who helped establish the outsider art field. The elements that give outsider art popular appeal—its origins in the flea market or rural backyards, the sometimes sordid biographies—hold little interest for mainstream collectors. On the other hand, the imprimatur of officialdom does matter to this group, and if outsider art garners a higher profile in the academic and museum community, its mainstream appeal is likely to grow.


However, the absorption of outsider art into the mainstream presents its own set of paradoxes. On a purely visual basis, it can be difficult to distinguish outsider art from the work of trained contemporary artists, who sometimes draw on similar ethnic or popular sources. Multiculturalism was an important factor in validating American outsider art, but as more and more disparate traditions are admitted to the academic pantheon, it becomes harder to maintain the us-versus-them dichotomy on which outsider art depends. And it can be argued that this is a good thing: that there should be no single mainstream tradition, no reason to separate outsiders from everyone else. At the same time, one wonders whether we or the artists would really be better off if outsider art as a distinct category were to disappear. Separatist institutions such as the American Museum of Folk Art are, like the Studio Museum in Harlem and the National Museum of Women in the Arts in Washington, necessary because they focus attention on branches of art that have always gotten short shrift in mainstream museums.


Ultimately, judgments of quality and of value go hand in hand and evolve gradually. The outsider/insiders who carp about the quality of offerings at the Outsider Fair are trying to hasten this process, and (as is only human) to influence it according to their own tastes and agendas. Over the long term, however, the process cannot be rushed. Collectors, dealers, curators and scholars may repeatedly weigh in with their opinions, but no one person or group of people can control the final outcome. In this sense at least, the future of outsider art will remain true to its democratic roots. We may never come up with an adequate definition of outsider art (or a name on which everyone can agree), but the eventual roster of greats will be determined by cumulative public sentiment and the passage of time.


It is sobering to observe that, of thirty artists in Sidney Janis’s landmark 1942 book They Taught Themselves, only five (Morris Hirshfield, John Kane, Grandma Moses, Joseph Pickett and Horace Pippin) achieved any degree of lasting renown. There must be several hundred different artists at the Outsider Art Fair, even in its more recent, pared-down incarnation. As the outsider art field establishes its hierarchy of artists and of values, the top tier will pull farther apart from the rest. Second-tier outsider art will probably continue to thrive in regional events or as a rural tourist attraction, but if New York’s Outsider Fair eschews such material, it may one day simply run out of art and energy. Here, too, the field of outsider art reveals its paradoxical nature. For just as the American market created an open-ended, accessible field, the economic realities of upper-echelon collecting are now carrying the best work beyond the reach of the average buyer. The growing involvement of academics and curators, however well intentioned, also inevitably introduces to outsider art an element of elitism that was once antithetical to the field. Whether one considers the imposition of qualitative standards and academic structure a necessary confirmation of the genre’s artistic significance or a violation of its moral integrity depends on one’s personal point of view. Regardless, the winnowing of the outsider field is a concomitant of its maturation and will most likely continue apace.