HOW TO DRAW: Outsider Art - Is It Really Art

Friday, March 21, 2008

Outsider Art - Is It Really Art

What actually is art? Give me ten people and I'll give you ten different definitions of the word. What it means to you is as unique to you as your fingerprints. But who's to say what qualifies as art, or fine art? What distinguishes the art of Jean Michel Basquiat from Rembrandt van Rijn? Besides the time differences, each artist's art have been met with different types of criticism. Was one art, and the other just crummy art? Who's to say?

What we can say though is there is an unmistakable mainstream art circuit with art dealers and galleries, critics and fine artists with or without their MFA's. Sometimes this crowd can be quite pretentious and judges art in its own way, usually following the natural cycles of fads and trends. What's hip today may be tomorrow's old news. That's just how it is.

But true art and artistry can be found everywhere. Wherever there is creativity there is art. You don't need to hang around in posh upper class galleries and drink expensive wine to be a real artist.

Jean Dubuffet and Art Brut

"Art Brut" in French literally means "rough" or "raw" art. This was translated to "Outsider Art" in English. It was started by the painter and sculptor Jean Dubuffet to describe art that is outside of the official art culture. He knew the value of art which normally doesn't hang on gallery walls but nonetheless should be recognized and not necessarily written off as lesser art.

Dubuffet mainly focused on the art of the mentally ill in insane asylums. One particularly noteworthy example was Adolf Wolfli. As a mental patient diagnosed with psychosis, he was an extremely prolific artist creating epic novels of 45 volumes with over 25,000 pages and 1600 illustrations. With minimal resources he would slowly create work after work with only one pencil and two sheets of paper a week at his disposal. This meant drawing on tiny bits of paper, using small stubs of pencils, and anything he could find or beg off of people to get his work done.

Wolfli's work was often characterized as "schizophrenic art" with obsessive symmetry, ornamental patterns, reduced depth. Every piece of the paper is covered, leaving no white or empty space. Another similar work is by the psychiatric patient Friederich Schroder, who drew the "Swan Doll's Dance of Death." With a perfect mirror symmetry down the middle, the drawing shows a monster with a grotesque smile wearing a crown and holding his arms curving downward with birds' heads for hands, combining animal with man.

Naive and Primitive Artists

Dubuffet was working with the mentally ill artists, while "Outsider Art" outside of France was known to be a much more general term. It included not just the psychotic art, but also naive, self-taught, and primitive art as well. On the American scene in the early to mid twentieth century we had Grandma Moses, the renowned folk artist painting such countryside favorites as "This Old Checkered House in Winter" which was the subject of many paintings, one of which was appraised on "Antiques Roadshow" in 2004 for $60,000. Several of her paintings have appeared on Hallmark holiday cards.

Earlier we have Horace Pippin, born in my local area in West Chester in 1888, who painted "Giving Thanks" and "Domino Players." Even earlier in France, there was Henri Rousseau, with his dream-like representations of jungles and jungle animals.

All of these artists could have been considered Naive painters because they were self-taught and their paintings possessed a child-like quality to them. This doesn't mean all Naive painters had no formal education, but as it relates to Outsider Art it generally does. In modern times there is no stigma attached to this genre of art.

Children's Art

I talked about how children learn art in my article Learning Art. The way we learn as we grow up and experiment with art starts out with an expression close to ancient societies' art. For example, in ancient Egyptian wall paintings you will find people in a row side by side with no overlap. Children would express the same type of thing when they draw people in a crowd next to each other in a row instead of showing any signs of overlap. The way they see it, if someone's arm looks as if it disappears into the back of another person, this makes no visual sense. You wouldn't really see a person's arm actually going inside someone else, so why would one draw it that way.

The same is true for people in buildings. When a child draws a person inside a building, they wouldn't show a face looking out from a window, because this would mean there is simply a floating head in a window sill. If anything their art was more true to reality, than to aesthetics and perspective.

One funny recent story which raises the question of the authority of art dealers is a woman selling her son's scribble paintings as priceless works of modern art. She didn't tell the dealers her son was 6 or 7 years old and the paintings were more or less doodles. Nonetheless the dealers saw the "genius" of them and bought them top dollar.

If anything is to be learned from children and from child-like naive paintings is that art can be appreciated for art's sake. It doesn't have to be perfect and it certainly does not need the approval of avant garde art experts. Art can be found in the small crafts of Christmas Kitsche statues, the scribbles of prisoners and psychiatric patients and even the finger paintings of gorillas. Art should be appreciated for what it is, and what's its attempting to be.

Whether it's good art, bad art, crummy art, children's art, "Outsider Art" is still art.

Dan Kretschmer keeps a daily blog at



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