First published: Winter 2011
It is now 30 years since Lorna Selfe published her study Nadia: a case of extraordinary drawing ability in an autistic child. The book aroused great excitement at the time, and rightly appealed to a far wider audience than just clinical psychologists.
Nadia’s work, produced when she was three and a half, leapt off the page and had an expressivity remarkable for any child, let alone one with severe developmental deficits. Since then interest in and debate about ‘autistic savants’ has avalanched.
Many of the issues involved are similar to ones relating to the creativity to be found in outsider art, and the ways in which we receive it, and this is what is explored here.
A key ingredient in both the literature on clinical conditions such as schizophrenia or autism, and that on outsider art, is the fantasy of being offered a window into an otherwise inaccessible ‘inner world’...
But what distinguishes the refusal to communicate from the inability to do so, and what difference does this make to how we receive it? This is an accentuation of our normal interest in the relation between an art work and the mental state of its creator.
It can often be dismissed as the ‘intentional fallacy’; but the statements of intent that some artists have provided us with have to be taken with a pinch of salt, and we cannot escape the fact that we are also dealing with our image of whatever ‘inner world’ may lie behind the work.
This is thrown into striking relief when the artist offers us no such supporting material, as in the example of Judith Scott’s ‘fibre art’, created by someone with no speech.