Inside Out: Reflections on Outsider Art
There is an Outside spread Without & an outside spread Within
Beyond the Outline of Identity both ways, which meet in One:
An orbed Void of doubt, despair, hunger & thirst & sorrow.
William Blake, Jerusalem (1818). 18:2 – 4
It is the fear of being cast out. That is the worst thing I can imagine.
Gabriel Mitchell, interview, December 2010.
The more the category of the “outsider artist” becomes a hot topic for curators and a prized commodity for collectors, the less coherent it becomes. The category is beset by two incommensurate definitions, the first concerning training, the second involving social status and psychiatric labels. To qualify as an outsider artist, one should be either untrained or mentally ill, preferably both. But what exactly counts as training these days? Art school? A diploma or a transcript of courses taken? Experience as the studio assistant to a recognized artist? With the decline of medium specific skills, one might be better off with a degree in business management and some experience as a roofer and potter.1 And it is notable that no such question about training or skills comes up when one is considering outsider writers as opposed to visual artists. No one asks whether a writer like John Wieners took poetry classes.2 His outsiderness was established by the nature of his writing and his personal behavior. Could it be that the commodity status of the visual arts has had the effect of making outsider art into a valuable brand name?3
As for mental illness, a condition that may render one isolated, eccentric, and suffering from poverty, the definitions are far from clear. The only thing that is certain is the stigma that comes with the diagnostic label, which becomes an outline of one’s identity as “a schizophrenic,” “a manic depressive,” or simply a difficult person.
There is a third category that is perhaps the only one that is truly decisive. One must be an artist, which is to say one must make works of art, and they should be outstanding by some criterion or other. Whether the products of innate talent and self-taught skill, a remarkably fertile imagination, or an obsessively compulsive exploration of a visionary world, it is by their works (and often, a goodly portion of luck) that the outsider artists are known. The only question, then, is what are the criteria that make some outsider artists worthy of exhibition and preservation? Why do so few achieve recognition, while the vast majority of both outsider and insider artists languish in relative neglect?
I come to these questions as an outsider to the large and growing field of outsider art, but an insider to the fields known “visual culture” and “iconology,” academic fields that have grown up on the margins of more established disciplines such as art history and cinema studies. I also come to them from personal experience with two artists who fulfill, albeit imperfectly, the criteria of “outsiderness.” One is William Blake, arguably the first and most famous outsider artist in the Western canon. Blake was denounced as a mad eccentric in his own time, and his poetry and painting were widely dismissed by the British art establishment of his own day. If not for a few devoted artists and collectors, his work could have easily disappeared. Instead, it survived, and by the 1960s had become a popular culture phenomenon and an inspiration to poets, musicians, and visual artists. Of course, Blake doesn’t fit the outsider model in one respect: he was far from untrained. He apprenticed as a journeyman engraver, and made his living in that trade. But it was precisely his identity as a tradesman, a copyist of others’ work, that (along with his unfashionably primitive style) contributed to his exclusion from the world of polite art during the Georgian era.
The other outsider artist who shapes my thinking is my own son, Gabriel Mitchell, a poet, painter, sculptor, and filmmaker who suffered from schizophrenia for twenty years and died by suicide at age 38. In his twenty years of struggle with mental illness, Gabriel wrote numerous screenplays, explored visionary geometry, created a website (Philmworx.com).4 Gabriel made me an insider into his world of outsiderness, and ultimately into a collaborator with his ambitious project for an encyclopedic nine-hour film surveying images of madness across cultures and the entire panorama of human history. My job was to be the image researcher for his film, compiling an archive or “atlas of madness” that would stretch from the crazy gods and goddesses of the world’s religions, to the interiors of cinematic asylums from The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari to Shutter Island.
No one aspires to be an outsider artist. Many aspire to little more than being left alone to pursue their work. William Blake and Gabriel Mitchell both aspired to insiderness, fame, and fortune. Blake proposed to create murals hundreds of feet high to bring British art up to the standard of the great Italian cathedrals. Gabriel’s ambition for an encyclopedic Histoire de la Folie, was modelled on Godard’s Histoire du Cinema and the writings of Foucault, Deleuze, and R. D. Laing on madness. When videotaping interviews with mental health professionals and the homeless, he insisted on using the framing proportions of cinemascope with a view to their eventual screening at the Academy Awards. His script for the film The Politics of Dreams is structured around a debate between a hugely successful Hollywood director who makes predictably formulaic genre films, and a paranoid outsider who regards himself as a persecuted auteur, and a follower of Orson Welles. Blake’s grand ambitions were blighted by an uncomprehending public and his own struggles with melancholia and a dark “Spectre” that haunted his creative process. Gabriel struggled with the stigmatizing label of schizophrenia, and with a shattered love affair that led him into a delusional obsession with the movie star Cameron Diaz—“the god I pray to.”
As I contemplate the world of outsider artists in the vast array of collections and catalogs now available, an amazing array of work emerges. The historic Prinzhorn Collection, Dubuffet’s art brut, the Art & Marge Museum in Brussels, and a growing number of exhibitions make it clear that outsider art has now “made it” into the art world. Whether this benefits the artists themselves is still up for debate. Certainly it has provided new frontiers for collectors and curators, and increasingly tendentious arguments about the criteria for inclusion (of all things) in the category of outsider. My temptation is to reduce all the fuss about categories to a simple Venn diagram with three intersecting circles: artists, outsiders, and the mentally ill. Many outsiders are not mentally ill or artists; many artists are neither outsiders nor mentally ill. Most mentally ill people are neither artists or outsiders. What interests me most then is the small region where the three circles intersect to include those artists who are both outsiders and mentally ill, and who by luck, talent, or obsessive persistence, have made it into the inside of the art world. No doubt other categories could and have been applied: marginal, disabled, victimized, stigmatized, amateur, and folk artists have all been proposed at various times.
But the key category is the most nebulous of all, and that is the question of quality. The outsider artists who have made it into the inside have one thing in common: someone has brought them there. They have been recognized and appreciated by someone else, whether Henry Darger’s landlord, Blake’s patron Thomas Butts, Adolf Wölfli’s doctor, or Gabriel’s friend, sculptor Antony Gormley. After Gabe’s death, Gormley offered to realize Gabriel’s idea for a sculpture entitled Infinite Cube, a 3 by 3 by 3 foot mirrored glass cube with an internal matrix of 1,000 omnidirectional LED lights suspended in a copper wire matrix.[v]
This is probably the closest that Gabriel’s work will come to insider status. Like many outsiders, he worked alone with limited means, the demands of a day job, and the stresses of mental illness. Any fame he will enjoy will be posthumous. But his particular case opens to view many of the common struggles and themes of the outsider artist. Like many outsiders, he felt keenly the loss of a world, and compensated for it with cosmological ambitions, universal theories, and encyclopedic projects of world-making. Like many others, he was a bricoleur, moving across media from calligraphy to painting to sculpture to music and cinema. Like a few recent others, aided by the invention of video and the computer, he was moving beyond the traditional materials and media into cinematic and digital forms. Most essential, he was in the grip of a vision and a powerful commitment to bring it into the world leaving an archive as both a legacy and a continuing project for those who loved him, cared for him, and believed in him.
- I am thinking here of my colleague Theaster Gates, who went from being a little known staff member at the University of Chicago to a major figure in the contemporary art world in a few short years. Gates’s career suggests that one of the favorite models for the contemporary artistic career is precisely the movement from the margins to the center, the outside to the inside. The current exhibition at the Met of Thornton Dial and other outsiders (mainly based on ethnicity) is being received as a breakthrough in the art world.
- Wieners was committed to a psychiatric hospital in 1960, and wrote his Asylum Poems in 1969. Nevertheless, he had a significant career, and worked with some of the leading poets of the day.
- An instructive case is Henry Darger, the canonical outsider artist by any measure. Darger’s large scale work provides galleries with an quickly consumable spectacle, but it is highly unlikely that anyone is going devote years to reading through the 15,000 pages of turgid, unreadable prose that accompanies it. His books, like the scorched metal tomes of Anselm Kiefer, are mainly visual objects, to be seen as a kind of sculpture
- Many of his works are archived there, including Desolation Row (2007), Philosomentary (2005-2008). Desolation Row Revisited (2009), Crazy Talk (2010-2011), Grid Theory (2011), and Bill Ayers: Thoughts and Memories (2012).
- This work is now part of the collection of the University of Chicago’s Smart Museum of Art; a second version with one meter dimensions is part of Gormley’s personal collection, and is currently on display at Kettle’s Yard at Cambridge University.
W. J. T. MITCHELL is Gaylord Donnelley Distinguished Service Professor in English and Art History, University of Chicago.