Inside Out? The problems with Outsider Art.

Taif Alkundary reflects on the problems of 'Outsider Art' 

Accompanying the zine is a pull-out exhibition showcasing work that is typically categorised under the term ‘outsider art’. It offers an insight into the creative process of individuals who are seen to exist on the margins of conventional society such as prisoners and those who suffer from physical or mental illness. Arguably the precarious economic conditions of recent times have also meant that a new category of outsider art has emerged, that of the unemployed, a group relentlessly smeared by the government and corporate media and thus pushed further away from public acceptability. Unemployed artists work have also therefore been included in our mini-exhibition.

Our chosen title ‘Inside Out?’ reflects our wish to reverse all this, and push these artists to the forefront by showcasing some of their outstanding work. There are three variations, distributed within separate zines.

The past two years has seen a resurgence of interest in work of this nature, with three major expos dedicated to the work of outsider artists opening this year alone. The attention it has accorded is a symptom of the current economic downturn and a resulting surge in activism. At a time when people are demanding new freedoms outsider art appears to be the ideal tool through which to subvert the authoritarian nature of the art establishment. But what are the implications of this? And how can a movement be truly subversive when its very existence is the result of capitalist conventions?

Interest in the work of the marginalized first surfaced in the aftermath of the Second World War. It was seen as subversive because the individuals creating it were as far removed from the capitalist system as possible. The unsophisticated nature of their oeuvre not only signified a fresh start but also presented a way of negating history. Similarly the current revival of interest in Outsider Art is said to be the result of disenchantment with the capitalist conventions that have led to a world-wide economic crisis. Outsider Art offers an alternative to this, we‘re told. It provides a safe haven away from a post-modern world that is rapidly spiralling out of control.

Yet perhaps this philosophy can seem a little lost in a world that is saturated with adverts, smartphones, Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram. Can anything or anyone can be wholly unaffiliated with social norms? Even the creation of the category of ‘outsider art’ is a reaction to events in mainstream culture as opposed to it being an entirely apolitical occurrence.1 What is more, the interest currently accorded to the work of the marginalized is in line with the values of a spectacular culture driven by consumerism. It is part of a drive for novelty and reveals the disposability of modern ideals.

HaY readers you may even wonder whether La Bouche is also guilty of cashing in on the work of ‘outsider’ artists. But rest assured, as a not-for-profit zine we serve only to celebrate the extraordinary and outstanding work of those deemed ‘outsiders’ and to simply comment on the current political and social landscape. It does not present it as an unproblematic term that can be mindlessly consumed, thus the title ‘Inside Out’ also hints at an entanglement of values.

Artworks: Above Left - Untitled, Maria Schlomann, Gateway Artist. Above left - Untitled, Charles Hurr, Gateway Artist.

Two-tier art?

Ultimately, the idea of the existence of a group of individuals who are completely withdrawn from wider society is propelled because it works to nullify resistance. If it is through supporting the work of ‘outsider’ artists that the art world challenges capitalist conventions, then in reality all we are doing is re-affirming the very ideals that we are supposedly contesting.

The assimilation of the work of the marginalized into the mainstream is also a symptom of society’s desire to control and dominate anything that exists outside of regulated culture. By embracing the work of ‘outsiders’, the art establishment is able to create a lower class of mainstream self-taught artists, which in turn allows ‘insider’ artists to continue to exist as an upper class.2 Furthermore, since the term is not self-appointed, power is taken away from the outsider artists, which allows those on the ‘inside’ to determine what their work constitutes and who is fit to create it.

Having said this, the question that comes to mind here is why the term ‘outsider art’ is even necessary, why is not possible for the work of self-taught artists to exist without being categorized.

The answer is that this territorial means of addressing art is deemed obligatory because it reaffirms the notion of an ‘art world’, and as such endorses the colonial strategy of ‘divide and conquer’. It permits the western art industry to demonstrate its cultural superiority by presenting the supposedly illogical and unsophisticated work of those who operate outside of its confines. It also acts as a means through which western society can demonstrate that it is civilised and open minded enough to showcase work which represents values that diverge from its own.3

In this light of all this criticism, you maybe questioning why we have created our exhibition around the term ‘outsider.’ In my opinion, however, this clash of ideology only works to make our central argument more poignant by revealing the extent to which territorial terminology is embedded in our day to day communication.

There are three different variations of the pull- out, distributed within separate zines. We hope you love the art as much as us! To request just the pull-outs without the zine please email us.

Mega Thanks:
Images and biographical information courtesy of Gateway Arts, a Vinfen service., Little City Centre for the Arts - and Not Shut Up Magazine - All Rights Reserved to the above organisations.


1 Maclagan, David. Outsider Art, Reaktion Books LTD, 2009, P.35

2 Kuspit, Donald. ‘The Appropriation of Marginal Art in the 1980s’ in American Art, 1/2: 5(Winter-Spring 1991):


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