This article was originally published on September 26, 2007. We are reviving it as part of the Best of the Storque series. Enjoy!
When it comes to the art world, everyone always seems to be looking for the next big thing. If it isn’t an artist, it’s a concept, a style or a shtick. However, if there is one genre that exists solely to contradict the idea of trendiness, it is the often misunderstood, always intriguing, idea of outsider art.
As far as modes of artwork are concerned, “outsider art” (otherwise known as art brut, visionary, contemporary folk, naïve or intuitive art) has become a phenomenon that forces us to rethink the relationship between mainstream society and who is culturally “accepted” as an artist. Michel Thevoz, curator of the Collection de l’Art Brut in Lausanne, defines outsider art as “works produced by people who, for various reasons, have not been culturally indoctrinated or socially conditioned. They are all kinds of dwellers on the fringes of society. Working outside the fine art ‘system’ (schools, galleries, museums and so on), these people have produced, from the depths of their own personalities and for themselves and no one else, works of outstanding originality in concept, subject and techniques. They are works which owe nothing to tradition or fashion.”
Artists typically grouped under the outsider art umbrella are those who exist outside the confines of conventional society, with little to no contact with “high art”: prison inmates, the mentally ill, religious zealots, and the developmentally challenged. These intricate, often compulsive works are typically characterized by a certain “raw” quality: colorful images, recurring idiosyncratic patterns and a childish naïveté usually not present in the works of a “trained” artist.
These works were first documented in 1922 by Dr. Hans Prinzhorn, who collected thousands of works by psychiatric patients (including the incredible Adolf Wolfli) to publish Bildernerei der Geisteskranken (Artistry of the Mentally Ill). According to outsider art journal Raw Vision, struggling French artist Jean Dubuffet was so inspired by the these works that he formed the Compagnie de l’Art Brut in 1948, an organization that “strove to seek out and collect works of extreme individuality and inventiveness by creators who were not only untrained artists but often had little concept of an art gallery or even any other forms of art other than their own.”
Outsider art has since come into the public eye via institutions such as the American Folk Art Museum in New York and the American Visionary Art Museum in Baltimore, showcasing the works of many disenfranchised individuals whose work had long been overlooked, often until after their death. (A prime example being brilliant visionary artist Henry Darger, recently profiled in In the Realms of the Unreal, a documentary of his life and work. An example is shown below.)
However, the idea of outsider art has changed in recent years. Artists that once lived and worked in the relative obscurity of basements and institutions are being brought to light and encouraged to produce via art programs built to foster their work during their lifetimes, such as the Creative Growth facility and National Institute of Art & Disabilities program based in California, as well as Project Onward and Inklude (who have an Etsy store, Inklude.etsy.com) in Chicago.
As a casual art student, I’ve been interested in the eclectic nature of outsider art for a while. When I first read about Art Enables, an arts-and-enterprise program for adults with developmental and/or mental disabilities based in Washington, DC., I decided that I had to visit and see the work that people were producing in the present. The inspiring facility functions as a studio and gallery space to those who are enthusiastic about working toward becoming professional artists. These individuals, affected by an array of disabilities ranging from autism to Down’s syndrome to schizophrenia, are encouraged to work in the studio a few days a week to produce work, which is then marketed and featured on the Art Enables website and in their gallery for purchase.
This set-up allows the artists-in-residence to work in the entrepreneurial spirit while cultivating an income from their work during their lifetime. “Artists with disabilities have the same drive, the same ability to create, and the same desire to sell their artwork and earn an income from it as any other artist would. This program was founded on that model – to provide that marketing element so that people could earn money from their artwork, as opposed to just doing it for a recreational activity,” said Jill Scheibler, marketing associate at Art Enables.
Art Enables’ humble beginnings commenced five years ago. As executive director Joyce Muis-Lowery explains, “The program was originally designed as a vocational training program. The arts would be used as an employment training vehicle and people would be prepared for a move off into mainstream employment. [However], no one wanted to leave. They wanted to continue to create art as a permanent part of their lives. We shifted the focus and ultimately redefined ourselves as offering the opportunity for adults with developmental and/or mental disabilities to work toward becoming professional artists.”
Artists tend be referred to the program by other DC area programs, family members or simply by exhibiting the interest and motivation necessary to pursuing their love of art. As Scheibler states, “All of the artists in our program were already creating and working, and they came to us because they wanted a place to commit to their art and create an income from it.”
To the casual observer, the next question that comes to mind is how the Art Enables artists can be considered truly “outsider” if they’re working within the framework of a facility, producing work to market during their lifetime. Scheibler asserts that “[Art Enables] uses the rough heading of ‘outsider,’ with the caveat that, because people are working in this sort of setting, it doesn’t really fit the definition of outsider art. Traditionally outsider art is defined as working in private, without coming in contact with traditional art modes.”
Director Muis-Lowery was quick to add that “‘Outsider,’ in our case, is probably a more consistently accurate descriptor of the artists themselves than the art. Everyone in the program is in major ways cut off from the mainstream…Also, [it’s important to add that] we don’t teach. We facilitate. The role of staff is to be sure people have access to and are using the correct materials correctly, to help them when they get stuck, to make suggestions or push them out of their comfort zones, but above all, not to intervene in or encroach on the individual way of expressing themselves in images which they brought into the program…What is a constant source of delight and amazement to me is that not a single one of them ever tries to imitate someone else. They are just so wonderfully driven from the inside to make the art the way they make it.”
So just what is it that makes outsider art so interesting, so mysterious, so intriguing to collectors? For many, it’s the back story to the artwork — the fact that each of the artists exists in a unique world seemingly distant from the experiences of the typical audience. As Scheibler explained, “There’s a fascination with sordid stories and artists that are very compulsive…From the gallerists’ perspective, they want that intrigue, that romantic idea applied to artists like Van Gogh with inner demons and cutting off his ears. I think the public is entranced by that. However, there’s a trade-off there: if someone like Van Vogh had been medicated, his art would’ve been much more mainstream, but the quality of his life would have increased.”
Muis-Lowery added that the appeal of outsider art for the contemporary collector is “the biographical element: that so much of [the artwork] is borne of fundamental social, economic or educational deprivation or psychosis. [And] the fact of a lot of it is being legitimately [produced] from the heart rather than the brain.”
Ultimately, outsider art has become increasingly trendy in recent years, for a variety of reasons: the inexpensive nature of the pieces, the excitement and rarity of finding a treasure trove of self-taught work, and the “relatable” quality of the work. Art Enables artists Charles Meissner’s aerial views in watercolor and Paul Lewis’s odes to pop culture icons such as “The Munsters” are big sellers.
As Muis-Lowery put it, “Gallerists are in hot pursuit of new outsider artists because the first ‘discovered’ generation is dead or dying and their well is drying up. I personally think that one is unlikely to find a lot of ‘old school’ outsider artists today in developed countries for the simple reason that we no longer isolate people the way we used to. We have stopped hiding them in the woodshed or the asylums or leaving them to fend for themselves on the farm while everyone else goes off to the fields to work. In that sense we’ve come a long way.”
As of yet, few of the approximately thirty artists that work at Art Enables are self-sufficient. However, many are well on their way, as all of the artists make at least one sale each month, with some making sales of up to $1000 in a single month. There is even talk of certain artists being picked up by galleries. As Muis-Lowery put it, “Everyone makes money, but it isn’t a lot of money — although for about half of them, it’s their only earned income. The point is that they’re making money from their abilities and not by putting in time someplace, or by doing work that is created for people with disabilities of whom little is expected. We expect a lot. This is not a hobby. This is their job and they are wonderfully focused on doing it well.”
Academic Journals and Written Resources
“Folk Art Notebook” article
Outsider Art Links
John Maizels, founder of outsider art journal Raw Vision, on raw/outsider art
“On Outsider Art and the Margins of the Mainstream”