Jack Haslam, Dog in Hat, courtesy Pallant House Gallery
In an exclusive feature for Frame and Reference, Marc Steene, Executive Director of Pallant House Gallery and Founder of Outside In, questions the term ‘Outsider Art’ and discusses its use and its place in museums and art galleries in the 21st century.
“In order for galleries to represent and include their local communities they need to embrace a wider understanding of culture and creativity outside of the current accepted art and cultural methodologies.” Marc Steene
Phil Baird, Sky Sails, courtesy Pallant House Gallery
It was interesting reading Sue Steward’s article on Frame and Reference, as it reminded me of how good it is to see the exposure and growing interest in a wider culture that is currently developing around Outsider Art, whilst prompting me to reconsider the labels we use to describe this area of work.
I have always felt uncomfortable with the phrase Outsider Art. There is something different about this term when compared to other art historical labels. There is an ambiguity about describing something as ‘outside’, as this assumes that there is an ‘inside’. What is Outsider Art outside of; the accepted norms of art history, galleries or society? There is also a moral ambiguity about the collectivising of a group of artists whose only commonality is their mental health, psychosis or setting and not their work.
Manuel Bonifacio, Mermaid, courtesy Pallant House Gallery
This is in marked contrast to other art movements and labels where we often see a retrospective grouping of artists who consciously might have a shared technique; such as the pointillists, or those who were adopting a new approach to looking at and painting the world, such as the impressionists or cubists. I imagine that these artists would not have been seriously offended by the terms associated with their work, though I am sure some would question them. The point to make is that the label associated with these artists is about their work and an assumption of a common concept or way of working; it is not about their otherness, mental health or psychosis.
Art history provides a schematic approach where there is a cosy joining together of artists and movements that defines our understanding of culture and what we think art is. It is a cultural hegemony that leads from the deep past to the present and when thinking about this monopoly of culture, the term outsider does make sense in a wider dialogue about what we define as being of cultural value.
Chaz Waldren, Helmet of Salvation, courtesy Pallant House Gallery
As a society we consciously seek to apply labels to everything, we do not like ambiguity, but as we can see from recent history, labels are incredibly powerful and can be used to maintain a hierarchy in which people are subordinated to lesser positions in our society. We need only to look at the ongoing and important debate around the medical and social model definitions of people with disabilities. Put simply, the social model argument states that it is society that disables people, not their disability. The medical and wider society still seeks to label and define people by their disability, missing the important moral and fundamental issue that we are all people first and foremost no matter what health or other life circumstance we face.
Josie Goddard, Harry Potter 7 Books, courtesy Pallant House Gallery
It could be seen that the term Outsider Art is similar to the medical model definition of people with disabilities. It is a definition not of a shared way of working or thinking, but primarily a definition of a type of person whose work does not fit.
It is enlightening to consider some of the many and varied terms currently in use:
Michelle Roberts, Musicians, courtesy Pallant House Gallery
These labels are important evidence; they are deeply symbolic and expose the art-world’s thinking with regards to the cultural value of artists who do not fit. These labels can hold the work outside of debate, programming or sales. They hold power as they are nearly all lesser positions; outside not inside, naive not sophisticated, primitive not cultured, self-taught not taught, etc.
If we sidestep the art historical model when talking about art, we enter the world of individuals who create for any number of reasons. Artists are often unique in their thinking. They will look and garner influence from anywhere – there are countless examples – but to name a few, there is Picasso, inspired by African masks, Paul Klee, inspired by the work of children and Ben Nicholson by the fisherman Alfred Wallis. If we move away from labels and look at artists as individuals, each with their own story to tell, we may be able to normalise culture and find a way of encouraging galleries and museums to become more relevant to their local communities.
Carlo Keshishian, The Intricacies of Carlo’s Brain, courtesy Pallant House Gallery
In order for galleries to represent and include their local communities they need to embrace a wider understanding of culture and creativity outside of the current accepted art and cultural methodologies. Museums and galleries should be encouraged to reach out to the undiscovered creators and makers in their communities, to embrace their creativity, and to challenge themselves to present and interpret this work in a way that instils it with cultural value whilst allowing for a more human dialogue about creativity and creative purpose. There is a danger that without a democratising of culture, museums and galleries will inevitably end up programming for an informed and diminishing elite whose thinking and values will become increasingly self-serving and removed from the majority of our society.
It is incredibly enlightening to look back at former periods of history and identify the artists who were championed and successful during that period and compare them to who our current age considers to be of worth. Take Sir Edwin Landseer, the creator of the lions at Trafalgar Square who was knighted and was one of the most successful artists of the time; his paintings seem far removed from our current sensibilities, mawkish and sentimental with little to speak to us about. Compare him to Richard Dadd, an artist who spent most of his life locked up in an asylum for committing patricide; an artist whose uniquely strange vision realised a hallucinatory minute world of fairies, of far more interest given our age’s fascination with the subconscious and altered states.
Creativity is innate within us all and manifests itself in many ways. The sadness is that we are all – to a lesser or greater extent – disenfranchised from our creativity through a prevalent reception of an accepted set of values and thinking regarding what art is and who can be called an artist. Visit any school in the land and you will see children provided with conventional materials; taught to mimic the great masters of the past, when in fact they should be discovering their own creativity and their own voice and be given the chance to develop the ultimate confidence in this.
Projects such as Outside In allow for a wider discussion about creativity and creative purpose fundamental to driving a wider discourse about culture and creativity. This is essential if we are to rethink the nature and purpose of museums and galleries so as to transform them into relevant, vibrant organisations for future generations.
For more information on Outside In, visit: www.outsidein.org.uk
READ MORE ON FRAME AND REFERENCE: Inside the Outsiders’ Art World: Sue Steward traces the development of Outsider Art. HERE