I had a discussion about outsider art with a friend recently. The term is a difficult one to define these days, because it’s evolved into something more and less than it was meant to be when it was coined by art critic Roger Cardinal in 1972. I thought then, and still do, that it was an English translation of art brut (“raw art” or “rough art”). Frenchman Jean Dubuffet used that phrase to describe work created outside official culture focusing on art by asylum inmates. I remember my early impression that the adjective modified the artist rather than the work. Those who produced the art were usually institutionalized and considered psychotic and thus outside society’s mainstream. My impression of outsider art today is that the work is outside the conventional artistic product and/or the artist has not been trained in the accepted tenets of the craft; or perhaps chooses not to practice them. All of that expands the meaning rather than changing or weakening it in any way; I should add, ‘I think’. Clearly this is the opinion of one untrained and extremely unrefined art critic; me.
As I sat thinking over my impression of outsider art long after the discussion with my friend was over, I could feel a stealthy resistance growing. That meant there had probably been some other connotation attached to the idiom, perhaps in a symbiotic relationship, for as long as I’d been aware of the term. I don’t believe anyone who communicates feelings by way of art can truly be outside of anything. Writing, painting, singing or making music, involving oneself in any form of personal expression through any medium, surely categorizes both the work and the practitioner as being inside the human condition. The longing to communicate makes us part of the living universe. Since we’re all of the same stardust, surely that means we’re all inside the same life in the cosmos.
Creating a term like Outsider Art is a semantic or symbolic necessity for the understanding of some, but not others. In an irony of linguistics, it’s funny to think of needing to create a parameter for acceptance when the term itself is about communicating outside the accepted parameters. It reminds me of a recent opinion piece in the NY Times on April 23, 2012 in their online magazine for writing called ‘Draft’. It was titled Talking With Your Fingers, by John McWhorter, and it described the way email and texting have created a necessary evolution for communication just as the written word did thousands of years ago. Neither the formality of a carefully constructed sentence nor the informality of a text message is any ‘better’ than the other. They’re both different and crucial to our human development. They speak to me of time and intention. One is raw, instinctive and fast. The other is carefully wrought and honed over a lengthy period.
And there we are, right back where we started with the conundrum of outsider art. Neither the classical, painstaking version nor the brutal, instinctive adaptation is any more or less valid than the other. Both tell us what the artist wanted to say. What could be more important than that? Unless it’s listening; on the inside.
by Sidney S. Stark