Labeling artists and concretely defining art movements has long been a challenge. Criteria often includes inspiration, influence, training, and proximity but there is plenty of room for gray area and interpretation. Priscilla Frank’s article, “What is the meaning of outsider art?”, highlights why those in the “outsider artist” category are even more challenging to designate than the typical art movement. This is in part because, as Frank states the “classification hinges more on the artist than the art”. “Outsider art” is a descriptor of artists who have never had formal art training. Additionally, there is typically a strong presence of the artists’ innermost world in the art.
The particular challenge in this label is that outsider artists have a reputation, ranging from subtle to direct, as suffering from some sort of mental or psychological disability. That paired with the artists’ lack of formal training gives this designation a negative connotation. This points to a greater problem in how we collectively decide who is “crazy” and who is an “outsider”. The stigma of having mental health issues puts those “outsiders” in a different category at the bottom of the art hierarchy.
What is a “normal” expression of pain in art?
Suffering and pain is a part of the human experience. But when this pain is expressed as anxiety, depression, and psychosis, there is more confusion around what is normal and what is “illness”, what is crazy and what is not. We have all felt the impact of stress, we have all had dark periods, and we have all disconnected from reality to a certain extent. There are guides, theories, and much debate around where pathology begins and ends but the answer is likely more gray area than that.
Artists have been expressing pain and inner struggles through their work since the dawn of time. As an art therapist, this is central to how art is useful for their personal growth. One of the most extreme and infamous examples of this is Vincent VanGogh, whose tension and turmoil feels present in his work. Similarly to outsider artists, VanGogh’s stories about his personal struggles live on today well over a century later. He also did not receive formal training or really engage in the art world until mid-way through his career. Even though the internal experience tends to shine through most artists’ work, how “outsider artists” demonstrate that somehow ends up put in a different category.
How might a lack of training influence art?
Every artists’ process looks different and everyone’s comfort zone with experimentation varies. Yet, when an artist has to learn how to use materials on his or her own there is more of a need of exploration and experimentation in order to gain mastery. Furthermore, sometimes the experience being trained in the use of art materials, not to mention the arduous “crit” process, teaches artists to leave some emotional space between them and their artwork. My Master’s studies in art therapy made me a far better artist than my undergrad fine art degree because it helped me be more free and emotionally connected to my work.
One also must question the impact of success and intention (“I’m going to be an artist!”) on artwork. On the extreme end of the art world spectrum, it is well documented that many successful, established artists don’t even lay hands on their pieces but instead have employee artists working under them as the ones to physically construct their pieces.
It’s a Mixed Bag
It is incredibly exciting and heartening to see pieces and artists who are designated as “outsider” in art shows, in the media, and in museums. I consistently feel moved and provoked by the work and I believe strongly in the use of art as a medium for expression of one’s internal world. Yet discomfort always creeps in regarding how we label and speak about outsider artists. Priscilla Frank lists many descriptors of this movement: “naive” has an air of condescension and even some of the other more positive words, such as “pure” and “visionary” can border on fetishizing. Whatever the connotation, many descriptors continue to reinforce this feeling of “other”, that these artists are different or even handicapped in some way.
What to do remains grey area- is there a place in the “mainstream art world” for these artists? Would they even want to participate? Perhaps the most important thing is that if we are going to include the artists’ life and training so much in how we consider them, we need to make more space to hear from the artists themselves.