Discussing Outsider Art

Do the divisions that define Outsider Art matter, and are they relevant as society and practices change?

On Thursday 26 June, Marc Steene (Executive Director of Pallant House Gallery and Founder of Outside In) took part in a discussion on Outsider Art and the term’s relevance in the present day at Dulwich Picture Gallery. Also on the panel were Jenny Edwards, Chief Executive of the Mental Health Foundation; Simon Powell, Co-Director of Creative Future; and Jo Van Den Bosch from SLaM. Here, Marc explains his thoughts on the subject.

Alfred Wallis, Brigantine sailing past green fields [Courtesy of www.kettlesyard.co.uk]

Alfred Wallis, Brigantine sailing past green fields [Image: Kettles Yard]

As could reasonably be surmised, a conversation around the term Outsider Art and its relevance to current thinking in the arts and wider cultural and scientific world would be bound to throw up as many questions as answers. It is strange that a term used originally to define a type of art, and an English comparative to Art Brut, has now grown on the one hand to encompass all creativity produced by people in health settings, community programmes and art therapy, whilst on the other hand still being seen as a term to describe a distinctive style of obsessive/compulsive art.

No other art label quite carries such political charge as Outsider Art, with Simon Powell saying: ‘It is time to reclaim the term, make it our own,’ seeking to define the label in relation to the artists both he and Outside In work with as a statement of current exclusion to the art world. Jenny Edwards suggested that we should arrive at a new term to describe the artists and art work and there was some support for this from the audience. Jo Van Den Bosch spoke eloquently about the rewards of art therapy for the people she works with, but is art therapy Outsider Art? This question was not really engaged with, but I feel it to be profoundly important.

Alfred Wallis, Newlyn [Image: The Laughing Garrateer]

Alfred Wallis, Newlyn [Image: The Laughing Garrateer]

There is no doubt as to the power of labels, but I can’t help but think that this is not where the discussion should be. We need to side step the label, as Pallant House Gallery has done in its approach to working with audiences through its Community Programme. The Gallery has purposefully sought to avoid labels in its work, instead finding ways to enable people’s long term engagement as individuals. Perhaps we should be seeking to change the art world to make it more accessible and widen its aesthetic boundaries, rather than get stuck in seeking to define a group of artists?  The need is to have more voices heard so that the opportunities and understanding of cultural diversity are in the wider cultural dialogue.

It was clear from the questions from the audience that there was much confusion as to the definition of the term and it left me thinking about the theme of an earlier discussion; is there any sense in which Alfred Wallis could be described as an Outsider Artist? He exhibited widely, sold a lot of work, much of which is in important galleries and collections. Surely there can hardly be a more ‘insider artist’? His work is now featured in the British Folk Art exhibition at Tate Britain as ‘Folk Art’ (alongside one of the most dismissive wall texts ever written, shame on you curators!) I have seen it described as naïve, self-taught, primitive, etc. No wonder people are confused, to me it is just art and, in Wallis’s case, I love it…

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  1. sara rivers

    we live in a culture that likes to categories and define and this is true in art. people like to look and see and try and place the artists in a category but in reality the boundaries between art are always shifting in the modern world. many artists that paint or draw or create do not think about how their art will be classified as Alfred Wallis did not , but if art is an experience that is appreciated and made visible to a wider audience then there is a need for places and spaces to see the work, engage with it and find meaning. It is largely funders, curators and critics that want to categories, define what is or where the work can be placed and it is the commoditfying of art that makes it either inside or outside the mainstream not the work per se.

  2. Brian Gibson

    The advent of social media has thrown the whole Outsider/Insider debate wide open, or at least the market wide open . It has also made it more possible to create an Outside style and that seems to be quite a fashionable thing right now. The result is that everybody wants to claim themselves as some kind of Outsider Artist nowadays Ironically this in turn tends to obscure the work of those who continue to operate within what might be seen as the more traditional terms of Outsider art and people who either choose not to be part of the market place (either on line or via galleries) or who do not present a constant flow of creative output( ie their creative output encounters interruptions) or whose work does not have a particular signature . I would also add that I know few talented painters who have had mental health issues in the past and one thing that they dont want is to viewed as an artist who could be classified under the Outsider Mental Health tag.

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