Disability History Month: What is Outsider art? And who is the Outsider?

(Sculpture by Judith Scott)

Every year UK Disability History Month celebrates disabled culture, activism, and lives. This year the month is November 22nd-December 22nd, with the theme being “Disability & Art”.

To explore this theme, CUSU Disabled Students’ Officer Florence Oulds wrote about “Outsider art” and how a concept that seems to legitimise art that is often created by disabled artists also commodities their exploitation.


Outsider art” was a term coined in the 1970s to describe art created by someone outside of the community and boundaries of contemporary art movements, and who relatedly may not have formal or traditional artistic training, and may invent their own techniques and styles.

Outsider artists are often also disabled people, disenfranchised from or otherwise not engaged by the artistic culture of a society largely designed to exclude them.

The image of the outsider artist is often one of a lone person creating art in psychiatric wards or other forms of care or social ostracisation, seemingly without aim except that of expression, obsession, or occupation. The work of these artists is often fetishised as a “purer” form of art unattached to ideas of artistic success that are linked to capitalistic models or the gallery scene.

The work of hobby painters or crafters who are not professionals is not often classed as “outsider”, the genre relating specifically to the hows and whys of artists’ exclusions, that narrative of exclusion being needed to explain why they are they being generically (or physically, in the case of galleries) collected together.

Outsider art is often the subject of fascination to other artists and critics, it being made outside the circumstances and attitudes of traditional art, thus it seeming “odd”.

An example of how mainstream art may “use” outsider art is the use of work by artist Royal Robertson as the cover for singer/songwriter Sufjan Stevens’ album The Age of Adz. A Rolling Stone writer reviewing the album said that Stevens used Robertson’s visual work as “a springboard for music that evokes a visionary psyche.”

While Stevens no doubt appreciated Robertson’s work as more than just inspiration, this is typical of how outsider art can be used as a “prop” for more traditional work.

(Cover art for The Age of Adz, based on a painting by Robertson)

What we view as “outside” feeds into the definition of an “inside”. However, does the respect of the contemporary art world and the attention of scholars and auctioneers prevent this art from simply being labelled “bad” or “childish”, or perhaps not even being seen at all?

The works of Judith Scott (pictured above) are large sculptures, mostly made by wrapping wool and other materials around each other, forming objects not unlike elastic band balls. While her sculpture does not stand out as completely “other” to the sculpture of her contemporaries, there is an element of her art’s critical interest that relies on it having been created by a disabled woman.

The popular Picasso quote “it took me four years to paint like Raphael, but a lifetime to paint like a child” encapsulates an attitude in contemporary criticism that work that appears to have taken little skill requires that lack to be an artistic choice. The works of Jean-Michel Basquiat and Cy Twombly look like scribbles and doodles, but they are validated by critics who read their styles as “aesthetics” or “forms”; tools for handling topics or ideas or making certain expressions.

How then, do we read the work of someone whose capacity for “skill” differs from that of the majority of popular artists? How do we display the work of an artist who does not care for the life of a piece after its completion? How do we measure skill with a brush if an artist does not have hands to hold one, or their eyes cannot see the marks they are making? 

Likely, we don’t.

As with many other things, art made by disabled people will come with special considerations and special treatment, and while this is not inherently bad (disabled people have legal rights to adjustments and access), it does mean that this art will be held at arm’s length from contemporary scenes and contemporary success.

The idea of this art being good despite disability is also a narrative that feeds into outsider art’s popularity, disabled people as a site of pity and charity being one of the few ways disability is accepted and allowed by a Western society that views not being traditionally “productive” as a crime and a moral flaw.

The very same people who invented the scandal of benefits fraud, the knock on from which have killed thousands of disabled people, will baulk at the notion that a “hidden genius” died in poverty before the world was able to witness their art.

(Painting by Carlo Zinelli)

Any exhibition that places “insider” and “outsider” art alongside each other will always also be partially about this definition, the narrative spectacle of the art seeming crucial to its being displayed.

The art does not then belong to the artist themselves, but to whoever can package and sell it, whoever can display it, and whoever (like Sufjan Stevens) can be inspired by it.

Disabled people’s art is also often literally not their own in situations where their art is found after their own death. One example of this is the work of Henry Darger, who is credited with writing the longest novel in the English language The Story of the Vivian Girls, in What Is Known as the Realms of the Unreal, of the Glandeco-Angelinian War Storm, Caused by the Child Slave Rebellion, a 15,145 page long story about a war between children and angels.

Darger’s narrative has a tinge of tragedy as well as exploitation, as the validation that his art was “good” and “interesting” was never given to him during his lifetime. To the auctioneers of the art world, Darger’s narrative is far more valuable than his work actually being read and enjoyed; his work was split into sections in order to be sold to different buyers, and because of this has never been (and likely never will be) published in full.

Narrative as the “purpose” or “principle” of art is again not uncommon in contemporary art. One of the most famous pieces of contemporary British art, Tracy Emin’s My Bed, receives huge value as a sculpture with it being the site of her bedbound depression, it otherwise being read as “just a bed”.

The tragedy of obscurity or failure is also important for artists like Van Gogh or the poet and painter William Blake. While their work “stands up” to criticism without the addition of their narratives of suffering, mental health issues, and commercial failure during their lives, it does make them more captivating as artist-personalities.

Again, what sets outsider artists apart is that in order for them to be processed and profited from by the art world, there have to be caveats to their success.

Instead of re-evaluating how artists, critics, and viewers consider success and ability, the problems that outsider art raises about the exclusivity of the art world are turned into exhibitions that cost the same price of admission as anyone else’s—there’s even an “Outsider Art Fair

Equality rather than parity is not a justified way of bringing attention to the brilliant work of disabled people if that equality is just an equal opportunity for their exploitation.

(Illustration by Henry Darger)

Considering its myriad problems, is outsider art itself an inherently bad category?

Probably not, but just as with science, medicine, the law etc. we must be very careful with how socially constructed narratives and biases affect our ideas about art and how it is conceptualised, classified, displayed, and valued, and who is really profiting and “succeeding” from its existence in galleries and auction houses.

Art has always been pretty weird, and fascinated by the ways it can get weirder and weirder.

Since the modernisms, post-modernisms, and post-post-modernisms of the mid-20th Century, art has been exploring the ways it can get outside of itself, from Jenny Holzer’s truisms being displayed at sports events to alternative reality games snaking play and narrative in and out of reality and fiction.

While outsider art does fit this theme in the ways it makes us question value and classification, there is a much more significant risk of exploitation for these artists when ideas about their perceived incapability are tied up in the monetary value of their art.


Disability History Month: What is Outsider art? And who is the Outsider?

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