Bright Lights and Dark Corners: Outsiders, Insiders and Other

Book Cover of Art Brut in America: The Incursion of Jean Dubuffet

Most everyone thinks you should be creative if you are neurodivergent, and if you are creative, people also want your creativity to reflect your symptoms (differences/diversity). When I write an essay about schizophrenia, frequently an editor or a reader will suggest I add more about the voices or about the details of delusions or being psychotic. “What did the voices say to you?” someone will ask, or “What did the voices sound like?” “Give more details about the actual delusions.” I know that madness is interesting. People are both fascinated and repulsed by it. So many people want to be voyeurs into the experience of psychosis, but at the same time, there is a significant amount of stigma that keeps those who know the experience firsthand from freely and openly participating in society. Those of us who live with a psychiatric condition (neurodiversity or mental illness) feel the sting of people’s curiosity, fear, and disgust.

We are the “other”, and the “outsider”, and our voices and artwork (therefore, us) have been used to satiate the curiosity of the public in the past and in turn these practices have been, at times, exploitative.

In 2013 The Atlantic ran an article with the headline, The Rise of Self-Taught Artists. The writer of the article claims that “Outsider” artists are now “Insider” artists. The definition of “Outsider Art” used in the piece includes any artist that is self-taught, but this wasn’t the original meaning of the term. Researching “Outsider Art” turns up numerous articles describing the rise of the popular movement and how initially the term referred to patients in asylums or some cases, children. Wikipedia states the following books and artists as the most influential in the creating of the movement: “Der Blaue Reiter” group was the first to show interest in the art of the mentally ill and children. It was originally known as “peasant art.” Two of the leading artists in the group were killed in World War I and that left a hole in the movement until in 1921 Walter Morgenthaler published the book, Ein Geisteskranker als Künstler (A Psychiatric Patient as Artist). The book contained the work of one psychotic patient. During the 1920’s there was increased interest in art from people living in asylums. The book that appears to have shot “Outsider Art” onto a bigger stage in the art world was by Dr. Hans Prinzhorn. His book, Bildnerei der Geisteskranken (Artistry of the Mentally Ill) was a collection of thousands of works from people across Europe staying in institutions. The book, seen by several prominent artists, drew the attention of Jean Dubuffet. Dubuffet used the term “art brut” translated as raw art and started a personal collection of pieces that fit into the category. His collection built almost entirely of artists who experienced psychosis is the Collection de l’art brut. The term “Outsider Art” came from “art brut” and was first used by art critic Roger Cardinal in 1972.

Many “Outsider Artists’” work went on display while they were psychotic or was found and shown after their death. It is impossible that a psychotic person could give their consent regarding their work, and of course, the work that was found and shown from artists that had passed away again lacked the consent of the person who created it. In this way, people have exposed and taken advantage of artists who fit into the original definition of “Outsider Artist.”

The people who fall into the category of neurodivergent need the same rights as other artists when it comes to having control over their creative lives and work. Allowing them to make their choices about how their work will be viewed, displayed, or kept in obscurity should be every artist’s choice. These rights are important; artwork that exposes an artist without their full consent or knowledge is exploitative. I am not opposed to art created while psychotic or the selling or collecting of that artwork. I am opposed to the exploitation of vulnerable people who cannot decide for themselves whether or not to go public with their work.
No one has to look further than music videos to see that images from the world of mental illness are considered on the edge, outside of the mainstream. Bands frequently use the images of straitjackets, pills, and psychiatric wards to appeal to a public that seems to have an insatiable appetite for the romantic or sensational versions of the neurodivergent. There are people behind the reality, though, and it is important not to write their stories for them, or display their images without collaboration or consent.

People with a psychiatric diagnosis have become more outspoken and visible in the last decade, but there is still so much work to do to keep us from being exploited during vulnerable times. The term “Outsider Art,” as it is most frequently used today, often includes anyone who is not professionally trained as an artist or a part of the art establishment. I see the tendency to move toward “Outsider” as equal––as opposed to someone experiencing psychosis––to be a trend in the right direction. In this relatively new meaning, those of us who have created while psychotic are not singled out as separate from other untrained artists we are included in a larger group and movement. We become the same as the others instead of “the other.”