Blog: Bringing outsider art into the mainstream

Published: 20 Aug 2020

Author: Angela Samata
Blog: Bringing outsider art into the mainstream

I thought long and hard about the title of my Fellow’s Report. At an event I attended during my travels, a panellist described outsider art as ‘the art that doesn’t know its name’. For me, this phrase encapsulates the issue and goes to the heart of the debate around the term. It’s not just semantics. It's about exclusion and inclusion, acceptance and the edges of what is commonly described as the mainstream of the art world.

"If we believe that museums and galleries are public spaces in which we communicate and share experiences, then they should hold a mirror up to us all and not just be the preserve of a select few." - Angela Samata, Fellow

The traditional definition of outsider art hinges on whether the artist has had formal art training or not and, to a lesser degree, whether the artist has experienced physical or mental health challenges. Even writing this feels uncomfortable for me. Yes, we are all interested in the lives of artists, but why should the artists’ intimate details, often irrelevant to the artwork, be brought into sharp focus when it comes to outsider artists?

It soon became apparent that this issue was more complex and nuanced than I could have imagined. Artistic agency, curating and the interpretation around this genre all came to the fore very early on during my Fellowship trip. My focus was not solely dedicated to artists and their artwork, it was equally about accessibility and representation, and so I sought the views in Japan of curators, gallerists and venue managers.

One of my key Report recommendations came from a meeting towards the end of my trip to Japan. What I heard during a meeting with a government department sounded so revolutionary that I thought something must have been lost in translation. I discovered that there are a series of support centres across Japan, funded by the government, that offer free advice to outsider artists and those assisting their practice. The support offered covers several areas such as legal advice, how to copyright work, how to organise an exhibition, how to price artwork and how to enter art prizes and competitions. 

Angela (right) with artists and staff at Kobo Syu Atelier in Japan, a government-funded outsider arts support centre

It’s hoped that, through the work of the Japanese support centres, there will be increased visibility of outsider art which will inspire others. After all, you can’t be what you can’t see. There is more to the differentiation between artists who’ve been to art school and those who have not. It is not just the difference between those who have received formal art training and those who have learnt their craft through non-academic means. Art schools are often the places where artworks and networks are seen as equally important. Collectives form and often lifelong supportive relationships develop around common interests. It could be that for those who haven’t attended formal art school, additional support in the UK through social prescribing routes could provide opportunities to develop peer support networks similar to the Japanese model. If my recommendation to offer support to outside artists was accepted and actioned, there are already creative organisations here in the UK where centres similar to those in Japan could be housed.

Since my return, I have been increasingly aware of a new global conversation about outsider art. Current contemporary discourse often includes the use of phrases like ‘self-taught’ or ‘non-academic’ artists, ‘private art-making’ or ‘unintentional artwork’, as opposed to the overarching, often divisive term ‘outsider art’. A greater interpretative focus on the formal qualities of the work, as opposed to the artist’s biographical details, is also becoming apparent.

If we believe that museums and galleries are public spaces in which we communicate and share experiences, then they should hold a mirror up to us all and not just be the preserve of a select few. Yes, the discourse around the definition of outsider art is academically important, but actions speak louder than words.

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