Outsider art was a term coined in 1972 by British art historian Roger Cardinal. It was a roughly equivalent but more inclusive coinage for art brut (raw art), a 1940s label by Jean Dubuffet for work by inmates of insane asylums, which the French artist described as “unscathed by artistic culture … and the conventions of classical or fashionable art”.
Today, as well as including artists with disabilities or mental illness, the term is increasingly applied to others on the margins of art and society: the homeless, ethnic minorities, migrants, folk artists, the self-taught. Outsider art is hot – art fairs dedicated to the work of the marginalised draw large crowds and big bucks. The flagship exhibition of Massimiliano Gioni’s 2013 Venice Biennale was entitled The Encyclopedic Palace after the work of self-taught Italian outsider artist Marino Auriti.
But while examples of creativity unscathed by artistic fashion can be exhilarating and inspiring for artists and collectors, it’s a salient feature of most outsider art that the people applying the label are invariably on the inside – gallerists, academics, psychologists and artists who are art-school or university trained.