Twenty-five years ago, self-taught and outsider art were categories that seemed to be the specific concerns of a small group of collectors and academics. Since then, however, pioneering exhibitions and considerable media coverage and scholarship have established the concept of “crossover” between these “marginal” branches of the visual arts and so-called mainstream modern and contemporary art. This process is encouraging in terms of how it has transformed the public’s perception and appreciation of self-taught artists’ creations.
The definition of what it means to be an “outsider” is changing and becoming broader. This is both good and unfortunate. It’s now popular to be known as an “outsider”; the romantic figure of the iconoclast is sexy and smart. However, “outsider art”, as I’ve always defined it, is essentially a politically correct variation of Dubuffet’s “art of the insane”, meaning that it’s produced by people working so far outside of society as we know it, that they often need to be in the company of caregivers.
On the other hand, “self-taught” is a label that applies more broadly to art that is produced outside of the familiar art-historical narrative — art that is not of the academy. Nowadays, even though it might be harder for artists to be isolated from today’s cultural climate, I believe there will always be gifted artists who are born with unique minds. Whether it’s due to Asperger’s or to finding one’s self elsewhere on the autism spectrum, such people can legitimately be called outsiders and will always be out there to be discovered. Thanks to the “crossover” trend, more and more dealers and collectors are expanding their focus from traditional modern and contemporary art to include outsider and self-taught art, too, I feel optimistic about the future.
It has always been my argument that the only criterion by which to judge anything is its quality; there’s no real difference in quality between works by Matisse, Gerhard Richter, Henry Darger or Martín Ramírez. Works by these artists can be hung next to one another and provoke very interesting visual conversations.
Caption: Frank Maresca - photo:Ted Degener