Outsider Art: beyond the label

By Marc Steene on April 27, 2018

Director of Outside In, Marc Steene explores the term ‘Outsider Art’ in relation to disability in the month that sees the European Outsider Art Conference come to Chichester, UK. Outside In is a charity that provides a platform for artists that face barriers to the art world, whether due to disability, health, social circumstance or isolation. From 4-6 May the organisation hosts the annual European Outsider Art Conference.

Three artists work closely on painting in a small studio
Image courtesy of Blue Circus – Autism Foundation in Finland

Outside In offer a means for artists to engage with the art world, providing them with opportunities to exhibit their work, undertake commissions and residencies and further their professional development through our Step Up training programme.

The French artist Jean Dubuffet coined the term Art Brut and the English art historian Roger Cardinal created the anglicised Outsider Art equivalent as the umbrella term for art produced by artists from the margins of society. Some of our artists self-define as Outsider artists, or outsiders. Outsider and Outsider Art have two possible meanings in this context. One can be seen as an artist’s position in relation to the art world, on the periphery and not able to fit in and conform to the art establishment’s requirements. The second defines a type of art work, commonly created by self-taught artists, that is produced outside of what might be described as normal practice, and which has its history in the early collections of art work produced by patients in asylums such as the Prinzhorn Collection in Heidelberg.

A search of labels to describe non-traditional art can throw up a confusing and contrasting list including: Accidental Art, Art Brut, Disability Art, Marginalised Art, Maverick Art, Naive Art, Outsider Art, Patient Art, Primitive Art, Secret Art, Self-Taught Art, Visionary Art, alongside many more. Outsider Art is not an art movement or category that equates to others, like Expressionism or Impressionism, in which work and artists are categorised as to their conformity to a style or concept. Instead, Outsider Art is a collectivising of difference. If we sidestep the art historical model when talking about art, we enter a world of individuals who create for any number of reasons. The only way to address this issue is to be led by the artists themselves. As a charity, we have chosen not to label artists or their work; instead, we enable artists to describe themselves and their work on their own terms so they can move away from a system of labels to self-definition.

Unlike Outsider Art, which is generally a term used to describe artists by others (curators, historians), Disability Arts can be seen as a movement of artists whose work is knowingly about their experience of being disabled, where the artist is referring to their personal experience in a conscious and deliberate way. An issue that I feel arises with the concept of Disability Arts is when a disabled artist who makes art is not able to or doesn’t want to work in this way, I feel this is especially relevant to learning disabled artists or artists that work in a more intuitive way.

A piece of old-looking paper with incomprehensible letters
Barry Anthony Finan and Rosanne Robertsonwill present their collaborative project SCRRIPPT at the conference. Image courtesy of Venture Arts.

I first became aware of the term Outsider Art as an art student when I visited the seminal Outsiders exhibition at the Hayward Gallery in 1979, curated by Victor Musgrave and Roger Cardinal. Following the completion of my training at the Slade School of Fine Art, I began working as a volunteer at a day centre and had the good fortune to meet and discover the talents of a group of learning-disabled artists. My experience of seeing the Outsiders exhibition enabled me to see how talented these artists were and, inspired by their work, I organised an exhibition at a local library. On returning to collect their work to frame, I was informed by the staff that the work was no longer available as it had been pulped to make papier-mâché for the artists to model. I still remember my shock and outrage. The staff were blind to the value and talents of the artists they were working with; their art-making was seen as a mere containment activity, which led to this routine act of creative abuse. This experience has informed my professional practice ever since, and led to the formation of Outside In.

I am the Vice President and Outside In is a member of the European Outsider Art Association (EOA), so, given our stance on labelling, a fair question would be why? We currently work with a wide number of arts organisations that label and define artists in any number of ways, both within the UK and Europe; some focus on offenders, others on people with autism, others on those with mental health issues or on naïve artists. We welcome these collaborations, as we see Outside In’s role as bridging the divide in the current arts landscape, and offering a means to interface with the mainstream art world, bringing opportunity and open debate. We do seek to challenge assumptions and feel that the only way to do this is to engage in dialogue. There are over 60 organisations in the EOA, all with their own thoughts and values, some of whom will be equally cautious in their approach to labelling their artists or work, but which will all come together to share best practice and work together to shift attitudes.

We have chosen to focus this year’s EOA conference on the ‘Artist’s Voice,’ primarily to reflect the ethos of Outside In, bringing this debate to the fore and encouraging discussion. Previous EOA conferences at member venues across Europe have covered a range of topics, including environments, curating, photography, collections, etc. This is the first one to be solely focussed on artists. Each nation has its own history and approach to working with artists. There is a lot to learn from our colleagues in Europe and, despite the pending Brexit, we will always be close allies. Personally, I welcome the wider support and understanding that the EOA brings, working together as an association to bring change.

I hope that this year’s conference will stimulate debate, that all the artists’ voices will be heard and that there will be a lasting legacy of change and comradery amongst like-minded individuals and organisations.

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