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Breaking the Cardinal Rule...


In the 1940s and ‘50s Jean Dubuffet collected brilliant works of art produced by the inmates of institutions and asylums and called it Art Brut (Raw Art). Twenty years ago, Roger Cardinal, in collaboration with his publisher, coined the term Outsider Art as the title of his book about Art Brut. Since Dubuffet and Cardinal clearly defined Outsider Art, and their definition is the well-established basis for much subsequent scholarly work, there is little excuse for the sudden abandonment of that definition. Yet some in the art community are indiscriminately awarding a "badge" of Outsider Art to any work that isn’t in the academic mainstream, with an eagerness to cash in on the new marketability of what is in fact a rare commodity.

Admittedly, a contributing factor to people’s ignoring the historical definition of Outsider Art is that "outsider" is a word commonly used in everyday conversation: every individual can be considered either a member of a particular group, or an outsider. If Cardinal had chosen a more esoteric name (like Fauvism or Cubism) to replace Dubuffet’s Art Brut, or had not replaced it at all, we might not be in this dilemma.

The Dubuffet/Cardinal definition stresses that Outsiders are isolated from the influences of culture. They do not work from artistic traditions, nor do they seek critical acclaim or commercial success. Rather, they are driven to set forth their bizarre thoughts and feelings, often exposing and exorcising their personal demons. By illustrating their fantasies, they are providing us with maps of their own strange inner worlds. However, as Cardinal has stated, "to be crazy is in itself no guarantee at all that a person will produce Outsider Art, nor even art. To be in touch with spirits, to be black, to be destitute, to be handicapped, to be plain ornery – these are likewise no qualifications as such. It is depressing to see the flag of Outsider Art being brandished by eager but misguided art therapists, cynical gallery owners, and over-zealous collectors, in an attempt to glamorize work which is in fact weak, derivative, or undistinguished." Neither is there sufficient reason to label even a competent artist as Outsider merely for being self-taught, naïve, obsessive, in art therapy, or working with unusual materials. The concept of Outsider Art is totally antithetical to Folk Art or indeed any art tradition.

It seems the supreme irony that artists and dealers call work Outsider Art, in effect clamoring to be associated with a desolate group of outcasts, in order to cash in on the sudden popularity of Outsider Art. Their rationale may be found in the play on an old title, "Baby It’s Gold Outside."

Bonnie Grossman
AmesNews Vol.5, 1992 – 1993