Reactor

What Does “Outsider Artist” Even Mean?

by Jillian Steinhauer on September 12, 2012

Martín Ramírez, "Untitled (Three VW Vans)"

Martín Ramírez, “Untitled (Three VW Vans)” (c. 1948–1963), crayon and pencil on pieced paper, 22 7/8 x 30 in. (image via American Folk Art Museum)

Last week my fellow Hyperallergic editor Kyle Chayka wrote a post about video artist Wendy Vainity, who makes bizarre, creepy, and sometimes funny 3D animations. Chayka began by posing a question:

Does Wendy Vainity actually know what she’s doing?

I found this lead-in curious, as it’s not clear what the alternative would be: that Vainity doesn’t know what she’s doing? That she somehow made her videos and posted them on YouTube without being fully conscious? I’m not sure. Chayka draws out his point later in the post. He writes:

Are the videos outsider art, or the work of a knowing artist making amazingly weird work on purpose? Wendy Vainity might be the Henry Darger of the web, an artist working outside of the mainstream but creating something so strangely compelling that you just can’t look away.

For some reason, I became oddly frustrated with the distinction drawn in that first question, of whether Vainity is an outsider artist or just a knowingly — and the subtext here is “self-consciously” — strange one. I’ve long loved so-called “outsider art,” and I’ve never had much trouble with the label, but last week it suddenly offended my sensibilities. I felt like Chayka was giving Vainity short shrift by questioning her awareness.

I’m sure that wasn’t actually what Chayka meant to do, but the whole episode got me thinking about the line we draw between outsider art and — well, just plain art, which has never been deemed in need of a permanent descriptor.

What makes someone an outsider artist? Is it a question of simply being outside the art world establishment? Is it a matter of influences: someone who has studied art history and consciously absorbs the work of other artists versus someone who makes his or her art in a vacuum? Or is it, as Chayka implies in his post on Vainity, about intentions and distance — whether the creator is purposely diverging from the mainstream or just translating his or her weird vision of the world into art?

When you break them down, none of these definitions really work. If you follow the first, you end up with vast numbers of outsider artists and a fluid category that artists can pretty easily leave behind. The second seems a bit more feasible, but also sort of false: while some artists may not follow the developments of the art world, it’s hard to find anyone truly working in a cultural vacuum these days — especially someone who uses the internet, or at least YouTube, like Vainity. As gallerist Frank Maresca, co-owner of Ricco Maresca Gallery, put it when discussing the work of self-taught artist William Hawkins an interview with New York Social Diary:

We consider William Hawkins to be a self-taught artist … [he] was operating outside of the art-historical continuum. He was not influenced by any other artist. But it doesn’t mean that he wasn’t influenced by popular culture.

I struggle with the third distinction the most. If someone makes a work of captivatingly weird art, if the final product is great, does it matter whether the gesture was self-conscious or in earnest? How much does — and should — the artist’s intentions affect how we receive his or her work? I don’t know.

Henry Darger, "Untitled (Battle Scene during Lightning Storm, Naked Children with Rifles)"

Henry Darger, “Untitled (Battle Scene during Lightning Storm, Naked Children with Rifles)” (mid-20th century), watercolor, pencil, and carbon tracing on pieced paper; double-sided, 24 x 74 3/4 in (image via American Folk Art Museum)

In a blog post from 2007, dealer Edward Winkleman discusses the issue of intent and his changing perceptions of outsider art:

Being the stubborn loggerhead I am, I can’t get myself unstuck from an assumption about the importance of intent in art. Especially intent with regard to communicating.

Taken to its logical extremes in our debate, however, this assumption has led me to conclude that the work of Henry Darger, for example, is not “Art” because (or so it’s been reported) he had no intention of ever showing it to anyone, meaning it was not created with the intent of communicating anything with anyone, and that then made it something other than “Art.”

Now I can look at Darger’s work and feel my jaw involuntarily drop. I can marvel at the vision. I can delight at the composition and especially the color. But because I know (or think I know) these works were the result of a masturbatory effort, they don’t meet my own definition of fine art, which goes beyond just intent to communicate to include what bnon called, in the thread on child prodigies yesterday, the act of “submerging [one]self in art history as well as surveying the contemporary field and carving out a niche.”

Winkleman goes on to bring in some sources that complicate his notions of what capital-A art can be, but he seems to maintain the importance of intent to communicate — which in turn seems problematic to me, because I don’t quite get why it holds so much weight. If someone wrote poetry and kept it locked in a drawer, never showing it to anyone, we’d still consider it poetry. Does art require communication, or is the act of translation enough?

What’s more, a figure like Forrest Bess complicates these divisions. Bess both made artworks that were direct renderings of his intensely personal visions and engaged with the broader art world, exhibiting his paintings and corresponding with dealers. He was an outsider but also a quasi-insider — maybe an outsider who wanted to be an insider. Where does that leave him?

In his aforementioned interview, Maresca offers his own interesting take on the outsider artist definition: he says it only applies to people who can’t function independently:

I don’t particularly like the term ["outsider art"], I’ve never really liked the term … Mostly everyone that I know when you mention a person who is an outsider, they don’t think of someone who is operating so far outside of society (as we know it) … [that] they need to be with caregivers — that is [my] definition of outsider art — in the same way that the artist Dubuffet defined it essentially as the art of the insane.

In a way, even though this definition may seem extreme, it strikes me as for more logical than any of the others. It draws a clear line; it could be that I’m attracted to that tidiness.

There are some people, New York Times art critic Roberta Smith among them, who have argued for a while that the label itself is moot. Smith opened her review of a 2007 exhibition of work by Mexican artist Martín Ramírez with these lines:

The American Folk Art Museum’s transporting exhibition of the scroll-like drawings of the Mexican artist Martín Ramírez (1895-1963) should render null and void the insider-outsider distinction.

Although my gut still clings to “outsider art” in a romantic way, I think ultimately my brain aligns with hers here. We increasingly use the term as shorthand for a certain visual style, so in that sense it may still have some value, but otherwise I’m not sure what it does beyond relegating these creators to special art ghetto. That doesn’t mean we shouldn’t wonder and ask about their intentions — that information always gives us a better, fuller picture of their work. But did Wendy Vainity know what she was doing when she made her videos? Of course.

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  • JosephYoung

    I was looking through a website of well known ‘outsider’ artists recently and it struck me that the large majority of these artists literally work(ed) outside, building large scale outdoor installations. leaves out darger and some other biggies, but still it was striking (and funny) to realize that one of the best definitions is the literal one.

    • http://twitter.com/jilnotjill Jillian Steinhauer

      Ha, yes, you’re right! There are a lot of those—Simon Rodia & the Watts Towers, Howard Finster’s Paradise Gardens… I hadn’t made the literal connection before.

  • http://www.chrismillerwebsite.wordpress.com/ ChristopherM

    Nice article Jillian. I’ve never understood the extent to which a straight answer to ‘intent’ is such a major hang-up with art, and I don’t personally like the Outsider Art label either. It’s all silly. I once worked with a gallerist who was unwilling to put my work under the ‘Self-Taught’ heading of their website, just because it didn’t have that self-taught ‘look’. At the time, I was unaware that I was doing it wrong. It didn’t bother me, but that doesn’t make it less totally mental. I think Taught Artists sounds nice. Labels for all, no hogging.

    Funny … I just re-read “The Metamorphosis” by Kafka over the past week … it’s occurring to me that I really don’t know precisely what his stated intent was with that story, either. Did he ever state one? Did he write it that way on purpose? I honestly don’t know, maybe he did or didn’t – I’ve never looked into it. I honestly couldn’t care less what his definitively stated intent was – I can tell I like it and I have my reasons for that. I’m not even sure I’d believe Kafka anyway. Why would he want to ruin it? NO POSTEMPTIVE SPOILERS, PLEASE

    • http://twitter.com/jilnotjill Jillian Steinhauer

      Taught artists somehow leads me to taut artists…not sure what THAT means. But yes: “I honestly couldn’t care less what his definitively stated intent was.” And even when creators do tell us, and we ostensibly know, I’m not convinced we really do. They could speak in artspeak, which is useless, or they could very well be lying, because that’s sometimes what smart, strange, creative people do. Or they might just not know themselves. Intent is a tricky thing to pin down, and I think one far too elusive to hang a definition on.

      • http://www.chrismillerwebsite.wordpress.com/ ChristopherM

        Ha! Good stuff. mmmm… “taut artists” … maybe I’ll google that when I’m not at work

  • http://www.kazzmedia.com kazzmedia

    Art will always be a self-diagnosed condition.

  • http://www.facebook.com/christine.mannix Chris Mannix

    I knew William Hawkins, the artist in the Frank Maresca interview mentioned above, and while he was not working in the art history continuum, he was very much intentional in creating his work. He knew the effect he wanted a painting to have and experimented to get it. I saw paintings shift and morph over weeks and months so he could get it exactly the way he imagined it. He even made pencil studies sometimes.

  • http://www.facebook.com/joshua.cheek.58 Joshua Cheek

    “Outsider Art” is one of those contentious and
    borderline offensive marketing rubrics (like “World Music”) that no one really seems
    to like but everyone seems to know what to expect when they hear.

    What is truly surprising is that some
    critics/curators have inserted themselves into the creative process in an attempt
    to divine the artists’ intentionality. This is truly surprising considering
    that “Outsider Art” traditionally embraced the artistic productions of the
    mentally ill, obsessive compulsives, mediums, as well as folk artists and self-taught
    creators.

    The
    whole concept of “outsider” implies the existence of boundaries and margins. Therefore,
    it follows who sets the margins, what are the boundaries? Jillian rightly
    questions Winkleman’s assertions about Art with a capital-A; what is the
    logical conclusion of such a line of argument? Likewise, Roberta Smith’s comments
    on the Ramirez retrospective highlights another factor contributing to the
    inadequacy of categorizing “Outsider Art,” namely that of official recognition
    by the Art establishment and the marketplace. Ultimately, all of these taxonomic
    strategies, while fun to debate, must ultimately confront the realities (and
    reductionism) of the marketplace: to create and fulfill the desires and expectations
    of the consumer/viewer/audience. And just as with the equally inadequate
    category of “World Music” (which has essentially come to mean anything that doesn’t
    have English-language lyrics…), “Outsider Art” is still a useful if imprecise
    bin card for categorizing an extraordinarily broad spectrum of creativity.

  • http://stevenchandlerartistgeorgiaredmud.blogspot.com/ Steven Chandler Artist

    Good write-up, more should be written about this over-used, misnomered label-and that’s all it is now, a label, a “tag”. I’ve had to deal with this label for years, never used it, but seeing it attached to my art via dealers/auctions/etc makes me cringe everytime. I like to see how people use the label, it is sort of a barometer for me to tell how much they really know about art.I have seen a few “dealers” credibility shot down after taking on some “Outsider” hiding a degree in graphic design. It is a joke term now. Basically, If you call yourself an Outsider Artist, you’re not Outsider Artist-that’s it in a nutshell. I am in the Dubuffet/Roger Cardinal camp on this one. Cardinal actually coined the term. Outsider Art for what it was originally defined is no more though. It is now simply a label used by any artist who wants to seem “edgy”…..I hate the word. Just type in “Outsider Art” on Ebay and you’ll see what I mean. Ebay you say? Yeah, it’s the Paris street corner of 21st Century art-anything and everything is there and whatever label sticks (or what you can fit in the Header) goes and best of all-it’s cheap.
    CHEAP!
    You people out there really want to know what “Outsider Art” means now? Easy, It’s a category on Ebay.

    • http://www.chrismillerwebsite.wordpress.com/ ChristopherM

      Dealers’ cred, label wars, secret art degrees, hungry shifty eyes, Ebay … all this needs is a femme fatale, a few cartons of cigarettes, and a title. I like “CHEAP”, but maybe it’s not saxophone-y enough, I don’t know.

    • http://twitter.com/jilnotjill Jillian Steinhauer

      Oh my god, I looked on eBay. “ZOMBIE HIPSTER Hoke Outsider Abstract RAW Art Brut Original Signed Painting” GAH.

      • http://stevenchandlerartistgeorgiaredmud.blogspot.com/ Steven Chandler Artist

        I know!!!! Don’t these people realize the ONLY Zombie Art that matters is Zombie Andy Warhol!?!?!
        I mean see for yourself, go to Ebay and type in

        “Zombie Andy Warhol Rare Important Art-Friday The 13th-Pop Folk Youtube History!”
        If it’s not Zombie Andy, it’s just a paint by number vomit factory!

  • http://www.facebook.com/michael.brennan.5201 Michael Brennan

    “Outsider” implies an authenticity that “Contemporary” can no longer provide

    • http://twitter.com/jilnotjill Jillian Steinhauer

      But the question is: is “outsider” even authentic anymore? I know it implies that, but I’m not convinced. I also find its connotations condescending—it’s a continuation of this romantic notion we carry around of the uneducated genius toiling away in solitude and obscurity.

      • http://www.facebook.com/michael.brennan.5201 Michael Brennan

        Not sure if it was ever truly authentic. Howard Finster, for one, made work on a conveyor belt with teams of assistants not unlike Warhol

  • karen

    Thank you for writing this! Exactly my reaction to the original piece on Vainity. Another wrinkle in the outsider puzzle is, if someone has seen the effects of art on popular culture, or has seen the art themselves, and made work in response – but could never write a piece of criticism elucidating that response, or even describe it to a friend – does that make the art any less responsive? Must all responses be expressible linguistically? Why make art at all then? And if a writer has made an analysis, is there anything qualitatively different about the effect of that analysis on other readers when the artist has no clue you’ve even written it? Gosh, sometimes I wonder if people are just forgetting to go back and read “Death of the Author” every once in a while…

    • http://www.chrismillerwebsite.wordpress.com/ ChristopherM

      ^Nice. No doubt there are lengthy discussions that can circle around the how and why this formal practice of supplementary requirements from artists for art interpretation/linguistic explanation took hold so firmly (institutions help out, no doubt), all as interesting as anything I’ve heard or read I’m sure. It’s certainly not the only way to approach it … but either way, it has a real convenient effect of keeping the cultural control (the insanely BIG money + economics, artist participation/access, historical master narrative, all that fun stuff) concentrated to more privileged classes.
      Sure, there are token exceptions … but having living, breathing wrong-kind-of-weird/poor/inarticulate people at chic art openings or university lectures or whatever could be risky, awkward, and embarrassing. They are so hard to vet. No credentials! Maybe that’s not it, though.

      Of course, it could just be that so many people don’t understand (or otherwise know how to try to) what artists are doing … including people within the Art World. Or it could be other things (a tradition not enough people are being critical of, as one example?), or a combination of things too. Who knows.

      • http://twitter.com/jilnotjill Jillian Steinhauer

        Karen, you make a really good point, and my inclination is to say that it’s probably some combination of the factors that Christopher is talking about—keeping cultural control and also the lack of understanding. I think it’s also possible that all of the concern about giving artists/creators a voice, which is obviously important, may have led us to swing too far the other way, where we not only privilege that voice (expressed in a language we assume everyone can understand, and so words and not the art itself) but require artists to have it. And some just don’t (which is OK!). I’ve had plenty of experiences where hearing an artist explain his or her work has done absolutely nothing to deepen my appreciation for it.

  • on3ye

    I think Outsider art is made by people compelled to express graphically deeply held personal ideas, visions, beliefs, compulsions, & etc.. Self trained by repeatedly trying for perfect expression, their ‘organization’ and compulsion distances them from the main spectrum of human experience.

    • http://twitter.com/jilnotjill Jillian Steinhauer

      I think you just gave us a definition of all artists, not just outsider artists: “people compelled to express graphically deeply held personal ideas, visions, beliefs, compulsions…”

    • http://www.chrismillerwebsite.wordpress.com/ ChristopherM

      Thanks for your comment, on3ye — I’m sure many people likely share that perspective, or something close to it.
      But what happens when and/or if some of those qualifiers (“deeply held”, “self-trained”, “main spectrum of human experience”, all of the implied intent + artist’s biographical content in there, etc) are either unavailable, suspect, or totally unverifiable? What is the default category then? Regular artist, or ‘To Be Determined’? How much does it matter, ultimately?

      I can’t help but notice how some of those terms + phrases sound as if they are really only justifications for a certain romantic label of outsiders (which, like ‘race’, seems to shift in definition with the changing times – as Steven Chandler’s comment above points out) … sorry if I’m projecting there. Or that there could be an assumption out there that there simply MUST be a division between these ‘outsiders’ and these ‘insiders’ (lest the art world, you know, collapse into complete anarchic historic disorder or madness or subjectivity … a condition which surely must not be allowed, that would be crazy and outsider-y in itself … and most certainly hasn’t already happened long ago, possibly forever ago).

      Plus, a few of those phrases could seem to describe all artists — or certainly a tremendous buttload of them, self-trained or trained by other professionals alike. Especially “compulsion” and “repeatedly trying for perfect expression” … even if ultimate perfection is somewhere between improbable and impossible, and only leads to the following effort, project, or problem. I personally favor ‘impossible’ – but I honestly don’t give a lot of thought to some sort of genuine ideal of perfection. Especially in a field as subjective as art (it sure ain’t math or science, exactly). I’m satisfied enough with concepts like “that kicks ass”, “I love it”, “eh, sorta, but not quite right somehow”, “I don’t know”, “I’m not sure yet”, “meh”, or “that sucks”. Or sometimes, it’s a confounding/maddening/delirious – and occasionally, exciting – combination of those.

      I’m not sure what you have in mind with the ” ‘organization’ ” thing … I give credit even to trained artists to be capable of coming up with strange, novel, mystical, confusing, and creative methods of organization. Even if I don’t personally get it or feel it sometimes. Maybe one day I will, I figure. Or I just don’t like it and think it fails. Either way, it keeps me coming back for more.

      • on3ye

        With Outsider art the compulsion may be in charge, somewhat like an addict or even autism. Organization involves cognition. Most artists create while maintaining an artistic community including interacting with institutions that specialize in artistic expression and utilizing strategies to exhibit or further a career. ‘Outsider’ seems all process without studied connection to resources used by the historic art community. Outsider art is estranged by this ‘distance’ so the name seems descriptive.

        • http://www.chrismillerwebsite.wordpress.com/ ChristopherM

          Have you ever really known – I mean really really known, inside and out, for really real – one of these “outsiders” you are describing? All process and zero cognition? Or are you projecting that, perhaps? Books about them and museum wall text don’t count. You might simply just think that the art you have in mind is a mess too, no big deal.

          I only ask those questions because of how much your use for the outsider label, based on your comments, appears to rest on personal biography (which sound like assumptions there) and the mechanics of the internal process itself. It feels like you are trying to describe the artist by way of the art, which can be deceptive to take too literally or faithfully. Art is art, it’s what they do. What really happens there is an incredibly internal thing, by the way … many artists of all shapes and sizes and colors and training styles themselves can’t even fully explain it adequately, which could be partly why they make the art. I think Jillian mentioned that above, but I agree with that.

          I don’t understand the relevance of your third sentence at all in this context, but that is probably just my taste. None of that matters to me in the least when it comes to checking out some art or deciding what it is, I guess. Actually, that fourth sentence in your comment is super problematic for me too. It seems we just fundamentally disagree on this whole thing. Bummer!
          Actually, maybe the very last sentence in your comment is agreeable to me, depending on the interpretation. Yaay!

          • on3ye

            Mainstream artists have an ongoing thought process, an inner ‘conversation’ which evaluates and organizes the relationship of their work to the art world. Outsiders create with the same depth, but without ‘art world’ interactions. Their concentration, exploration, and inner conversation is with personal compulsion.

            Neither they nor the viewer decide if an artist is Outsider, the process of the artist is the determining factor.

            Much of what is written here applies to all artists but a meaningful discussion of Outsider art must be more precise. There is no use writing unless we have vocabulary to describe distinctions. Defining art can be based on what an artist is doing and where the art resides within the historical creative landscape. That overlap occurs should not discourage attempts at definition.

            My personal taste and biography really doesn’t matter. But since you ask, I am a trained portraitist who has exhibited in the “Community Voices” gallery at the American Visionary Art Museum http://www.avam.org

            According to AVAM: “Visionary art as defined for the purposes of the American Visionary Art Museum refers to art produced by self-taught individuals, usually without formal training, whose works arise from an innate personal vision that revels foremost in the creative act itself.”

            While exhibiting at AVAM I met many Outsider artists, another has been a close friend for 40 years.

          • http://www.chrismillerwebsite.wordpress.com/ ChristopherM

            @on3ye:disqus

            When you say “art world”, I get the feeling you mean the one commonly studied and establishment-approved. Probably — but I can’t say for sure — by the standards of Western ‘experts’ and assorted scholars, even with the requisite nods to the ‘authoritative canons’ of non-Western cultural creative products, reached through oh-so-rational academic debate and consensus (which, of course, is historically famous for keeping precisely in step and up-to-the-minute with having its finger on the pulse of the world and the real lives of artists and nonartists alike being lived outside of its doors …. MOST especially in the field of art, no doubt). Yes, plenty of artists … maybe even most on a global scale, by far … don’t play their art that way exactly.

            Of course, some artists have always just bypassed a preoccupation with having conversations that are exclusive dialogues/interactions with Art World ghosts (and even living practitioners) and jump straight into an attempted dialogue/interaction with the Regular Old World or even just with themselves … some of those artists, strangely enough, could even be mainstream or ‘insiders’ or self- and/or professionally-trained or way on the outside too. Who knows? As far as that goes, I try to be ready for anything.

            No doubt there are tremendous (and subtle) differences between some art and other art … I’m not disputing THAT at all. Just thought I’d reiterate that.

            Oh yeah — and the suggestion that it isn’t people that decide if an artist is an ‘Outsider’ is bunk, the same as it is for any insider/outsider distinction. The ‘process’ itself isn’t sentient. It’s inside people. People choose the deciding factors, via process. We have to take responsibility for taxonomical divisions like this, I’m sorry … whether they are valid or not, or descriptive or not. I’m usually fine with plenty of it, no big woop. But I’m aware that it isn’t some sort of genuine divination. it doesn’t magically do itself for us, and it has even been known to change and shift from time to time — even up to being straight-up wrong. Particularly in the matter of art – which is unavoidably subjective – it is important that we don’t pretend that it is all a matter of lofty objectivity.

            I’m glad to hear that you’ve had contact with some of these artists you describe. Be careful about accepting and defining as huge and loaded a category as Outsider Art — as hot and marketable as it is/isn’t/was/whatever (uggh) — based off of a handful of gallery chats though. Or even a close 40 year friendship. Hey, I have people that I’ve been close with and dearly love for decades … that doesn’t mean i don’t omit things or even blow sweet smoke up their asses once in awhile. And there are some things I don’t know how to explicitly share anyway. It’s complicated, right?

            Anyway – go ahead and use whatever labels and categories you find helpful and appropriate for yourself (not that you need my permission, naturally!) … and best of luck to you and your colleagues in the pursuit of all this artistic taxonomy. It’s best to be careful and thoughtful about it, like it sounds like you were saying. I’ll admit, I do find it an interesting subject sometimes (obviously). I’ve even used some of it as a helpful shorthand myself. It can be a useful guide — especially for one’s marketing, shelving, finding, and filing needs.

            I just don’t always agree with it, and I think I’ll just never put as much faith and credit in it as actual legal tender as it sounds like you would like to be able to. It’s not really real to me. And sometimes when a category is so loaded that it corrupts its own content, I find it utterly useless and counterproductive.

            But sincerely, thanks for responding to me and having this dialogue, on3ye … I appreciate it. Good stuff!

  • http://twitter.com/jilnotjill Jillian Steinhauer

    I haven’t, but now I will. Thanks!

  • http://www.facebook.com/devinkk Devin Kenny

    When you cling to outsider art as a category you also cling to the idea of fine art and the art establishment, because they need each other to exist. I mean, the fine art establishment doesn’t need outsider art to exist, but ‘outsider art’ as a category allows it to enter into a market. So Henry Darger is an artist, but the work itself isn’t neccesarily art, though it can be read through that lens, just as graffiti isn’t art but can be read through the lens of art as well. They’re different practices, different disciplines, with different intentions, just because it has some kind of visual experiential component and can be sold or blogged about (another kind of sales) doesn’t make it all equivalent.

  • http://www.facebook.com/devinkk Devin Kenny

    Art is not a compliment, it’s a category for a kind of cultural production

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