Seeking a Definition of Outsider Art at the Outsider Art Fair

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What, exactly, is outsider art? The label evokes a jumble of adjectives, from amateur to self-taught, shoddy to innovative, mad to genius, naive to prophetic. With this question in mind, we attended the 20th annual Outsider Art Fair in New York City over the weekend. Browsing through the over 30 booths, we asked curators, scholars, and the artists themselves what the term “outsider art” means to them, as well as the advantages and disadvantages of having one’s work labeled as such. As expected, the answers varied. View what those in the field had to say, along with some of the Fair’s highlights, after the jump.

Art by Purvis Young. Photo by Aaron Colussi.

“It’s a pejorative term and it’s terrible because it reduces the price of very good artists. The self-taught artists that I deal with are honest people. I’ve been a collector for many, many years, and I know the difference between contrived art and non-contrived art. I love the fact that these people don’t have any boundaries, that they haven’t been taught what the end of the envelope is. They’ve got something in their mind, and they have to create it. You don’t go to school to learn how to do this. You either have it or you don’t, and that’s what turns me on.” — George Viener, Owner of Outsider Folk Art Gallery

Art by Tom Duncan. Photo by Aaron Colussi.

Art by Fort Guerin. Photo by Aaron Colussi.

“To me, it’s a collecting history. It doesn’t cohere as a movement. It can’t, and it never did. We’re talking about isolates, here. We’re not talking about people aware of art history. Van Gogh is not an outsider to me because he knew about Impressionism and responded to it. I don’t care how bat-shit he was.” — Christina McCollum, Art Historian

Art by Swoon and KT Tierney. Photo by Aaron Colussi.

“I think outsider art is a pretty tenuous term, and it means a lot of different things to different people. For me, it means not part of the regular art world. But it’s also been ruined by the fact that this is such an insider thing. Sometimes it’s on the verge of exploitation. Once a piece crosses the threshold into being recognized by the art world as art, it becomes a different thing. It’s become very confusing in the last two decades.” — KT Tierney, Artist

Art by Ricky Hagedorn. Photo by Aaron Colussi.

“Outsider art is work that’s made outside of the traditional communication lines. I work a lot with autistic artists, and their artwork is a pressure valve because there is no filter. That work excites me because it possesses magic.” — Margaret Bodell, Gallerist at Umbrella Arts

Art by William Britt. Photo by Aaron Colussi.

“Outsider art is untrained work. It’s unconventional. It’s more interesting to me than the contemporary stuff because nobody’s playing by the rules. The advantage of being labeled an outsider is that people can feel like they discovered you, while the disadvantage is that you don’t have the blue-blood background to get you in the easy route.” — Jason D’Aquino, Artist

Art by Gregory Blackstock. Photo by Aaron Colussi.

“The strictest definition of outsider art is art outside the norm — so, imprisoned, institutionalized, mentally or physically incapacitated, or compromised in some way. The disadvantage is that everyone gets caught-up in the semantics, and the work gets backhanded compliments. Also, sadly, a lot of people that don’t understand it consider it ironic or purposely naive or something conceptual that it’s not. So sometimes it’s misunderstood. The advantage is that when people do realize what it is they see the sincerity and the genuine quality of it. Sometimes it’s less daunting than the contemporary art world because it has that emotional pull.” — Karen Light, Director of Garde Rail Gallery

Photo of James Brett by Aaron Colussi.

“Outsider art does not exist. There is no such thing as an outsider because outsiders are necessarily defined by insiders, and we’re not arrogant enough to call anybody an outsider cause we’re inside, are we? And as for art, well art doesn’t exist — we made it up hundreds of years ago to separate the high and the low, to dispossess people without a voice of that voice. What you see in this space are those voices coming out, unedited. It’s the same as Occupy Wall Street. It’s brilliant because it’s direct and honest, and generally it’s not thinking as much about a market. These are works of astonishing privacy, and that’s what makes them terrific. But, truthfully, there is no such thing as outsider art. As soon as people realize that and get rid of that terminology, and just understand everything as ‘making,’ then we’ll all be a lot better for it.” — James Brett, Founder of The Museum of Everything

Art by John Whipple. Photo by Aaron Colussi.

“I think it’s the most abused term at this point. Outsider art is the art of people who are trying to describe to us their inner worlds. It comes from the European ‘art brut,’ which is ‘raw art.’ I think that’s the best definition that there is. It was just anglicized when it came here into ‘outsider.’ They didn’t think ‘art brut’ would fly with American audiences. But I prefer not to categorize. If the viewer doesn’t see it in the work, I don’t think it matters what you call it.” — Bonnie Grossman, Director of The Ames Gallery

Art by James Harold Jennings. Photo by Aaron Colussi.

“I feel the term runs the gamut from folk artist to the contemporary artist with autism, to the studio programs to people who are self-taught. I think the boundaries of outsider art are expanding and changing overtime. Outsider artists often struggle with the ability to make their work and have their work seen by a larger audience. However, right now the Outsider Art movement is bigger than ever.” — Pamala Rogers, Director of Pure Vision Arts

Art by Chris Platt. Photo by Aaron Colussi.

“I like outside art because I feel I’m a part of it. I like making art because it relaxes me. It comes to me naturally. I ain’t had no schooling.” — Chris Platt, Artist