My mom was a volunteer docent at a contemporary art museum when I was growing up, which meant I was exposed early and often to a lot of interesting art, including at least one exhibit of outsider art that really, really grabbed me. Since then, I’ve been strongly attracted to outsider art, both the strange, rich, detailed reality of it and the image of the mad-genius artist.
Outsider art is a debated term—both its definition and the ethics of using it at all, since there’s something a bit exploitative about liking someone’s work because of their (often, not always, I’d argue) unfortunate life circumstances. I am a bit more than halfway through Lyle Rexer’s book How to Look at Outsider Art, and he takes the term fairly narrowly as art produced by the seriously mentally ill and incarcerated (do we know that Henry Darger was mentally ill?), though he also suggests that what distinguishes outsider art and gives it some of its value is the fact that it is produced from a strong sense of inner necessity (he contrasts this with the insider art of 2005, when the book was published).
He goes on to point out frequent commonalities in the extremely diverse field of outsider art: the experience of the call to create as something from beyond the self (from God, e.g); a timeless quality to the art (free and context-unaware borrowing from all parts of art history, a lack of engagement with history and social reality); flat paintings, paintings that lack traditional perspective; a lack of concern on the part of artists about the quality of their work; repressed but omnipresent sexuality; incorporation of text into imagery; repetition; being made with whatever materials are at hand; and “totalizing vision,” a tendency to create worlds that want to contain all aspects of the artist’s imagination.
I loved the images of art in the book, and I think it’s beautifully laid out.
My biggest nitpick? He makes the confusing claim that William Blake was not an outsider because his myth was “often pedantically coherent” and Blake was apparently an “astute” art critic (I’m far from certain either that Blake’s myth was coherent or that coherence should disqualify one from outsider status, and Rexer himself explains that outsiders are not as isolated as myth would have them be). At the same time he identifies some formally trained insider artists as outsiders. I don’t have the energy to reread his book with the rigor and charity required to assure myself of this…but I am not convinced that he is consistent in his application of the outsider label.
I’m not an outsider a la Rexer, but I am certainly self-taught.
So I ask myself what I can learn from outsider art, and so far it seems to be: weird isn’t bad, technical competence is cool and very helpful indeed in many settings but also—if you care enough and work hard enough—optional (this is about how I feel about English, too), so do your own thing, and JUST KEEP GOING. I, like Rexer’s outsiders, attempt (in Evernost) something like a totalizing vision, and I wish I had their persistence and passion and some of their indifference to the standards of the outside world.