When Can Outsider Art Come In?

2009 January 15
by Donna Thompson Ray
Martin Ramirez spent several years in a psychiatric hospital.

An untitled work by Martin Ramirez (1960-63)

In our 21st century society large segments of our population suffer or have relatives who’ve suffered mental or physical disabilities; possess no greater than a high school diploma; and produce some form of artistic expression on the weekend (music, visual art, crafts, knitting, etc.) as a passionate avocation. Famed outsider artist, Martin Ramirez, spent several years in a psychiatric hospital.

My first visit to the Outsider Art Fair (New York City) — now in its 17th year — provoked some deeply reflective questions on how visual art is categorized.   I saw several examples of artwork with interesting subject-matter, techniques, media, and formats.  Some pieces peaked my interest more than others for all kinds of reasons, however, I wrestled with whether I was making these judgements based on my intuitive connections (or lack thereof) or in reaction to the definitions that loom over Outsider art: self-taught, artist suffers from mental or physical disability, et. al.  Call it guilt or confessional angst but that’s when I started to get frustrated with the categorization of visual art and how these categorization may hurt or help the artist and the audience viewing the work in public settings such as art fairs, museums, campus galleries, community-based institutions, and other worthy spaces of communal insight and education.  

I for one await the day when Outsider art transcends its fixed labels and claims insider status.  Angst be gone.

Last 5 posts by Donna Thompson Ray

1 Comment
2009 January 15
Leah Yale Potter permalink

When I saw a listing for the Outsider Art Fair a couple of weeks back, it seemed worth a weekend commute back to midtown. But then cold and forgetfulness intervened. After reading Donna’s reflections on her recent visit, I’m doubly sorry to have missed it. (For others who also missed the boat, you can see more featured works in a NYT’s slideshow at http://www.nytimes.com/slideshow/2008/01/24/arts/0125-OUTSIDER_index.html)

As a worsening recession looms, cultural pundits continue to insist that what’s bad for the economy is good for creativity: apparently, if employment drops another percentage point, we can soothe our empty stomachs with the next American Renaissance! The questions Donna raises about the invalidity of “outsider” art as a categorization seem even more glaring given the conventional wisdom that art and misery share company. So does it all come down to self-taught vs. academy-trained? In a time of short credit supply and mounting student loan doubt, let’s hope for artists’ sake, the answer is no.

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