Do I like it?

Terry Castle on outsider art

His lips with joy they burr at you,
But, Betty! what has he to do
With stirrup, saddle, or with rein?

Wordsworth, ‘The Idiot Boy’

Like most people who live in cities I’ve had occasional street encounters with lunatics – none of them (the encounters) exactly Wordsworthian. There was the man with Tourette’s, whimpering, on the bus in Minneapolis – head and neck appallingly bruised, face abraded and blood-caked, thanks to the compulsive smacks and scratches he seemed unable to cease giving himself every few seconds. There was the wacked-out lady in Toronto who, as a friend and I trudged down snowy Bloor Street, abruptly wiggled out of every flimsy article of clothing she was wearing and lunged at us, nude and flailing and shrieking, in menacing fashion. Less violent, but no less eerie, was a teenage girl with Down’s syndrome who suddenly lolloped up to me on a sidewalk in Tacoma, Washington – I being then a morose and moony college student – and kissed me on the cheek. For weeks I wondered if her gesture was a sign from the cosmos that I was going crazy. Now I’m not sure it meant anything.

Such incidents, disconcerting at the very least, have come to mind often recently in connection with my latest intellectual obsession – the gorgeous, disorienting, sometimes repellent phenomenon known as outsider art. It may be that anything in which one becomes absorbed produces its ready share of ambivalence: that objects of fixation trouble as much as they arouse. Certainly, that would seem to be true in my case. Strange fits of passion have I known – a carload of them – but few that have not involved mixed feelings. Yet even for me, the love-hate feeling that outsider art elicits is peculiarly intense.

I’ve been collecting the stuff, fairly omnivorously, the past five or six years, but always with self-doubt and a certain ethical uneasiness. Go away a little closer, Idiot Boy. I’ve got all the recent books on the subject. But reading books – and there have been droves over the past decade – seems only to deepen the confusion. Witness Create, a glossy catalogue published to coincide with a major show of Outsider Art at the Berkeley Art Museum this spring. However beautifully put together, the book unsettles, not least by its thoroughly hip-bourgeois and neatly packaged aspect. It’s a sort of indie-trendy, iPhone-Android-Compatible, Meeting with Remarkable Lunatics.

First things first. What is outsider art? The name itself turns out to be controversial. The definition proffered by the great god Wiki, at whose altar we now all worship, happens to be quite brilliantly concise and to the point here:

The term ‘outsider art’ was coined by the art critic Roger Cardinal in 1972 as an English synonym for ‘art brut’ (‘raw art’ or ‘rough art’), a label created by the French artist Jean Dubuffet to describe art created outside the boundaries of official culture; Dubuffet focused particularly on art by insane-asylum inmates. While Dubuffet’s term is quite specific, the English term ‘outsider art’ is often applied more broadly, to include certain self-taught or naive-art makers who were never institutionalised. Typically, those labelled as outsider artists have little or no contact with the mainstream art world or art institutions. In many cases, their work is discovered only after their deaths. Often, outsider art illustrates extreme mental states, unconventional ideas, or elaborate fantasy worlds.

Yet the proliferating cross-linguistic nomenclature also suggests the difficulty critics have had making sense of the phenomenon either anthropologically or aesthetically. Thus: art brut, ‘raw art’, ‘naive art’; the art of the ‘self-taught’, the art of the ‘untrained’; art by those outside the mainstream art world; art by the institutionalised; but also, confusingly, art by some of the non-institutionalised – a group one might call the non-institutionalised-but-nonetheless-very-strange. The Wiki authors seem here to be thinking of, among others, Henry Darger, the obsessive, reclusive, quasi-paedophilic Chicago hospital janitor and bona fide outsider-genius, who died in 1973, leaving behind hundreds of extraordinary scrolls of artwork, exquisitely painted and collaged, depicting an apocalyptic conflict, Homeric in scope, between the Vivian Girls (heroic little girls, often shown naked and with tiny penises) and evil male marauders on horseback known as Glandelinians.

To this panoply of possible terms one might add ‘visionary’ or ‘intuitive’ art, ‘art from the margins’, ‘unofficial art’ and so on. Several long-established art-historical labels – folk art, vernacular art, popular art – would likewise seem to have some relevance. And judging by its urban San Francisco incarnation, the one I know best, outsider art has recently developed some fascinating semantic and subcultural connections with what is known locally as ‘alternative’, ‘urban primitive’ or ‘indie’ arts and crafts – the punk-surreal world of Etsy.com (yarn-bombed furniture, Duchampian hats made out of toilet plungers, bubble-wrap mittens and the like). The pre-eminent San Francisco gallery space for outsider art, Creativity Explored, is located in the Mission district, the heart of the city’s edgy skateboard-graffiti-artist-mural scene (Shepard Fairey and André the Giant’s stomping ground), and stands next door to a bustling little zine-selling, freaky-crafts emporium known as Needles and Pens, inevitably staffed by heavily tattooed, formerly middle-class young people with nose rings and huge (surely painful?) metal disks and Bantu bangles lodged in their earlobes.

Despite this cluster of interrelated terms, I have to say that I think Dubuffet, originator of the art brut label, had the conceptual emphasis right: outsider art is best defined as art produced by those, who if not officially classed as ‘insane’ or institutionalised, are in some way mentally or socially estranged from, well … the rest of us. Yes, to speak colloquially, I mean the mad – the nutty, the unhinged, the non compos mentis, the permanently unresponsive, the people known, more politely, as having psychological ‘deficits’. A definition that excludes the element of mental alienation fails to get at something central in the phenomenon.

Thus the term ‘folk art’ has never seemed in my mind a particularly accurate translation of outsider art for the simple reason that the objects conventionally described and marketed as folk art have generally been produced by apparently rational beings fully integrated into their (usually settled and rural) communities. However imaginatively fashioned, such artefacts usually served some homely practical function; indeed, the stereotypical folk art object, one might argue, is always made with some useful purpose in view.

At least in my own mind, the term ‘folk art’ conveys an idea of polish, clarity and finished smoothness – a kind of neatness and respectability – aesthetically foreign to the sometimes violent derelictions of the outsider mode. Many so-called folk art objects, having been heavily restored and repackaged – cleaned up, framed or remounted – become sanitised in the process: made twee and dull and precious-seeming. They lack for the most part those unnerving intimations of entropy and menace and disaster – of failed psychic hygiene, metaphysical anxiety and disquieting fanaticism – present in so many outsider artefacts.

Other labels displease for related reasons. When applied to outsider figures like Henry Darger, descriptors such as ‘self-taught’ or ‘untrained’ seem at once too fast and loose and more than a little euphemistic and sentimental. Fast and loose because they risk opening up the potential ‘canon’ of outsider art, somewhat comically, to artistically unschooled violon d’Ingres types like D.H. Lawrence, Arnold Schoenberg, Winston Churchill and Prince Charles – talented amateur painters, possibly, but not exactly what you would call marginal or psychically alienated figures. Euphemistic, in turn, because once again the sheer intransigence of outsider art – its blankness, nihilism, incommunicativeness, what you might call its autism, the refusal or inability of the artist to follow normative social and psychological codes – is soft-pedalled. What makes Darger, as a creative consciousness, different from Lawrence, Schoenberg and the like is precisely what challenges understanding.

Where do I get such tendentious opinions? No doubt in part from some early curiosity about ‘madness’ – what it was, and how it showed itself (if indeed it did) in works of art. My present preoccupation with outsider art looks now to me to have been inevitable: the coming to fruition of a somewhat morbid childhood interest in visual strangeness and its producers. A very early preoccupation of mine I recall (I was five or six) were the hallucinatory paintings of Hieronymus Bosch, reproductions of which I’d come across, along with Picasso’s disquieting Minotaurs, in a paperback history of European art my mother owned. The Garden of Earthly Delights I never tired of, crazy-looking though it was. The weird punishments visited on the sinners in Hell were riveting enough, but even freakier, possibly, were the pleasures to be found in Bosch’s world – the surreal salamander-bliss depicted in the eponymous Garden and beyond. Strangest of all: the fact that outlandish things were happening – all over the painting – but that nobody, even in hell, looked to be particularly tormented. Indeed, some of the little naked human figures seemed to display a near comical sangfroid, even as they were pecked by giant birds, hatched out of eggs, had huge flowers inserted in their bottoms, or, in the case of one of my favourites, sported a monstrous blueberry instead of a head. What sort of person could have dreamed this up?

My interest in such bizarrerie only intensified over the years. Thanks to an artistic mother I’d grown up with a precocious liking for post-impressionism, modern art and especially surrealism: Klee, Calder, Bacon and Salvador Dalí were all icons in this junior-varsity phase. But I remember being mesmerised, too, by a short documentary I saw in high school about art made by schizophrenics. (This would have been in the late 1960s, the heyday of R.D. Laing’s radical anti-psychiatry movement.) Most gripping were the magnificently demented illustrations of Louis Wain (1860-1939), a hugely popular British artist who after a successful international career as an illustrator and cartoonist, spent the last ten years of his life in an asylum near St Albans. Wain specialised in comic illustrations of cats, and scores of his cat postcards, cartoons and children’s books can still be found.

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[*] Public interest in outsider art has been somewhat slower to develop in Britain, despite the recognition long given to indigenous ‘naive’ practitioners like Alfred Wallis (1855-1942), painter of ships and seacoasts, and Madge Gill (1884-1961), an ardent spiritualist and visionary who over 40 years produced thousands of obsessive ink drawings, many of them of a young girl thought to be her dead daughter. Gill claimed to have been inspired by a spirit-guide named ‘Myrninerest’. Outsider art has gained more visibility lately, however, thanks in part to the success of Raw Vision, named World’s Best Art Magazine by Unesco in 1998. James Brett’s Museum of Everything, located in Primrose Hill, attracted huge crowds to its three critically acclaimed exhibitions, the last of which featured the splendidly funky outsider art collections of the pop artist Peter Blake.