Visual Culture and Religion: Outsider Art

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One of the defining characteristics of the emergent academic field of visual culture studies is its insistence on a methodological principle of complete inclusion. Everything within the realm of visual objects and practices is worthy of considerationespecially imagery traditionally neglected or felt to be outside the purview of "classical," "fine," "canonical," or "high art." Those who are concerned about all that has been ignored and devalued in the domain of image making have a special affinity for the maverick and controversial movement called contemporary folk, grassroots, self-taught, vernacular, or outsider art. Outsider art has no easily definable stylistic tradition or distinct movement in the conventional art history sense but instead refers to a loose grouping of persons, practices, and attitudes distinguished primarily by their peripheral relationship to elite culture and the mainstream art world. This marginality is largely determined by various psychological (e.g., psychosis, mental-physical disability, or visionary experience) and sociological (ethnic-racial, demographic, economic, class, age, or educational) factors. This unruly field is rambunctious, resisting any consistent definition or nomenclature, a situation that has given rise to an almost incessant and, at times, tedious, "term warfare."

The current vogue for the terminology of "outsider art" in the English-speaking world originates from the title of the British scholar Roger Cardinal's 1972 book, which roughly translated the expression Art Brut. Art Brut was first used by the French avant-garde artist and cultural critic Jean Dubuffet (19011985) (Danchin, 2001). For Dubuffet, Art Brut was art that expressed raw creativity and imagery supposedly uncontaminated by bourgeois culturean art perhaps best found within mental wards. Cardinal and others expanded on Dubuffet by using the "outsider" terminology in neoromantic ways that eventually embraced a motley assortment of artists and practices. In addition to psychotic, mediumistic, spiritualist, and children's art, outsider artespecially in North Americacame to include naive, folk, tramp, African American, prison, Hispanic American, vodou, tattoo, yard, and circus artwork done by persons often self-taught in the use of artistic methods and materials. The unfettered creativity, obsessive drive, and apparent primitivity of this kind of art are striking. Equally important, however, are the connections with religious experience and practice as seen by the prominence of nonordinary states of consciousness and different kinds of visionary experience, the use of conventional and unconventional religious imagery, and the drive to construct alternative and often strange paradisial worlds (Beardsley, 1995).

Outsider art may at times draw upon bits and pieces of the history of mainstream art, but rarely is it self-consciously ironic or concerned with the kind of referential "originality" associated with academic art making (Russell, 2001; DeCarlo, 2002). It is an art that has its own ambiguous inner intentions and private passions. In this sense, outsider artists often strive to communicate something deeply personal, hidden, unseen, or repressed about this and other worlds. There is almost always something more than just "art as art" going on. Moreover, this obsessively intense "something more" often takes various stylistic forms and quirky contents that may be most meaningfully called "visionary," "spiritual," "ecstatic," "revelatory," or "religious." The increasing popularity of outsider art in Europe and the United States during the last twenty years or so of the twentieth century appears in fact to be rooted in an almost quasi-religious "quest for authenticity" or "nostalgia for paradise" among a secularized middle-class audience of enthusiasts, collectors, and dealers. Artist and audience in the outsider field often seem similarly driven by unconscious, and sometimes conscious, motivations that are broadly religious and redemptive (Fine, 2004).

History of the Self-Taught and Outsider Field of Art

The diverse history of the self-taught and outsider field is yet to be written (Rhodes, 2000; Hartigan, 1991; Peiry, 2001; Russell, 2001). Aside from some very general associations with shamanistic phenomena, human eccentricity, psychosis, and compulsive image making, the origins of this movement in Western tradition go back to the discovery of primitive culture, art, and religion (in both a tribal and orientalist sense) by the newly conceived human sciences toward the end of the nineteenth century (e.g., psychology and psychiatry, comparative religions, anthropology, folklore studies, and critical-historical disciplines such as art history). The impact and influence of primitivism as both a disturbing and a liberating break with classical traditions established in the Renaissance and the eighteenth century were profound in many different cultural domains at the beginning of the twentieth century. Primitivism was therefore a formative factor in the development of modern art, as seen in the concerns and methods of individual artists, such as Paul Gauguin, Henri Rousseau, Pablo Picasso, and Paul Klee. At the same time, there were clear connections between primitivism and the Dada and surrealist movements (Rhodes, 1994). These associations, as well as the affinity with what would be called outsider art, is seen in surrealism's passionate interest in a primal creativity rooted in the unconscious mind, in occult or "automatic" forms of religious experience and behavior, and in various disruptive and unconventional artistic practices.

The other major influence on the genre of outsider art was the identification of so-called "psychotic art" after the cataclysm of World War I (MacGregor, 1989). Several groundbreaking psychological studies appeared at this time, the most important of which was The Artistry of the Mentally Ill (Bildnerei der Geisteskranken), written in 1922 by the German psychiatrist Hans Prinzhorn (18861933). Prinzhorn focused his attention on the artistic productions of schizophrenics and spent considerable time developing an elaborate expressionist theory of image making that tried to identify a set of basic artistic impulses. Another highly influential German psychotherapeutic study was Walter Morgenthaler's (18821965) A Mentally Ill Person as Artist (Ein Geisteskranker als Künstler), published in 1921. This work concentrated on the brilliantly obsessive drawings by the Swiss mental patient Adolf Wölfli (18821965), now recognized as one of the grand European masters of the outsider tradition of art.

Dubuffet said that he happened to see a copy of Prinzhorn's book and was haunted by the images. This epiphany eventually led to Dubuffet's dramatic declaration of Art Brut in the 1940sa theretofore unrecognized tradition of artistic production in which creativity and image making were theoretically free from the asphyxiating influences of elite culture (Peiry, 2001). Dubuffet's definition of Art Brut was initially associated with the art of the mentally ill as witnessed by Prinzhorn and Morgenthaler, but over the years his understanding of the field wavered between dogmatic rigidity and inclusive flexibilityas, for example, seen in the supplemental category of Neuve Invention (Fresh Invention), intended to include artists less radically cut off from mainstream cultural tradition. The Art Brut traditionand its institutional embodiment in the Collection De L'Art Brut in Lausanne, Switzerlandcontinues as an increasingly conspicuous aspect of the European art scene.

Self-taught or outsider art in the United States gradually came into prominence from the 1970s through the 1990s in association with various artistic movements and eclectic interests. Perhaps the most important of these movements was the changing nature of what was originally called "folk art," rural traditions that were becoming more individualistic, eccentric, and aesthetic in their methods and subject matter. These transformations within the realm of contemporary folk art were already evident in early exhibitions of naive and primitive folk art in the 1940s and 1950s (Janis, 1999) and then even more significantly in the later work of rural craftspeople, such as the Kentucky wood-carver Edgar Tolson (19041984) (Ardery, 1998). Another important trend emerged from the maverick interests and curatorial philosophy of Herbert Hemphill (19001900) at the new Museum of American Folk Art in New York City (Hemphill and Weissman, 1974; Hartigan, 1991). Hemphill boldly stretched the parameters of folk art to include, within the jumbled cultural situation of the last quarter of the twentieth century, all manner of strange and forlorn artistic pro-duction.

In the 1980s several innovative art dealers on the margins of the mainstream New York art world, most notably Phyllis Kind, who was originally based in Chicago, daringly started to exhibit European Art Brut along with various homegrown talent. These exhibits included such artists as the Chicago Imagists; newly discovered psychotic masters, such as Martin Ramirez (18951963) and Henry Darger (18921973); and a number of so-called "contemporary folk artists" from the American South, such as the amazingly prolific, self-taught visionary preacher-painter Howard Finster (19162001). During this same period, there was also an increasing awareness of numerous environmental works by compulsive creators around the world (e.g., Ferdinand Cheval [18791912] in France, Simon Rodia [c. 18791965] in North America, and Nek Chan in India) and, ever since the groundbreaking show in 1982, Black Folk Art at the Corcoran Gallery in Washington, D.C., an increasing recognition of the rich tradition of self-taught African American artists (e.g., Bill Traylor [18541947], Sam Doyle [19051986], Jimmy Lee Sudduth, Thornton Dial, Mose Tolliver, Purvis Young, Charlie Lucas, Gregory Warmack or Mr. Imagination, and Lonnie Holley).

By the early 1990s these movements had awkwardly coalesced into the field called self-taught/vernacular/outsider art. During the late 1990s and after the beginning of the twenty-first century, there has been an increased outpouring of exhibitions, catalogs, articles, and books. These developments were mirrored by a growing number of organizations, journals, and cultural institutionsincluding the emergence of a lively but sporadic secondary market of auctions and trade fairs (Maizels, 2002). Unfortunately most of the published discourse about self-taught and outsider art has been largely within the popular genre of pretty picture books replete with potted anecdotal biographies of the artists. There is still very little serious commentary on self-taught and outsider art, especially from multidisciplinary and cross-cultural perspectives that comparatively and critically analyze the artists and artworks with an eye to artistic quality, cultural embeddedness, and historical significance. The field of self-taught and outsider art also raises many interesting but largely unexplored questions about the nature of intense visionary experience, psychosis, and artistic creativity as related to religious traditions, such as shamanism, mysticism, and other forms of ecstatic cult practice.

Self-Taught and Outsider Art and Religion

Self-taught and outsider art frequently expresses specific religious belief systems by using traditional, eclectic, hybrid, or even wildly strange imagery. Examples from the spectrum of religious iconography and intention are seen in the mostly conventional Protestant evangelical apocalypticism of Myrtice West's paintings, which are based on the Book of Revelation, the idiosyncratic religious allusions in Saint OEM's art (Eddie Owen Martin, 19081986), the pop cultural appropriations in Howard Finster's scrappy "messages" from God and Elvis, and the dark distortions of Roman Catholic themes in Henry Darger's illustrations of cosmic conflict involving "little girls with penises." Outsider art's early association with madness, ecstatic experience, spiritualism, mediumship, conspiratorial occultism, and syncretistic religion also indicates that there are many connections with, to borrow from William James, the "varieties of religious experience"that is, states of extraordinary and visionary consciousness, obsessive practice, and unusual imagery on the margins of mainstream or organized religious traditions. Witness, among many possible examples, the detailed divine cosmology constructed by Wölfli, the "Bible code" imagery seen in Norbert Kox's work, or the architectural spiritualism pervading Achilles Rizzoli's (18961981) meticulous drawings. Another very evocative but controversial, example of these associations is the apparent allusion to various "Africanisms" or fragmented or creolized aspects of traditional African religious forms seen in African American art (Thompson, 1984). Finally, self-taught and outsider art involves specific stylistic features (such as a penchant for compositional horror vacui [the avoidance of empty space], a juxtaposition of image and word, an emphasis on sign as subject, and thematic repetition), the use of cast off or recycled materials, and a tendency to construct monumental assemblages and environmental works that often have religious and visionary significance.

Even more provocative than these associations with conventional and unconventional forms of religion are the suggestions in outsider art of deeper links between religious and aesthetic experience. Most broadly, art and religion deal with imaginative creations that are felt or sensed to surpass (emotionally, spiritually, essentially, or aesthetically) the merely material or rational. The underlying conviction for both is that there is some experienced dimension of meaning, sacredness, power, sublimity, or beauty in or beyond the surface of things. Art and religionand in a heightened way, outsider art and visionary experienceare therefore overlapping interpretive categories that partially name or define certain important aspects of human experience, expression, and practice in both a quotidian and extraordinary sense. To some extent it seems that all religious behavior originally draws on visionary experience and involves aesthetically expressive practices of making invisible spirit or meaning visual and therefore memorable and real in persons, things, and actions. Indeed effective religion is (perhaps) always artistic in its expressive ways and ritual means, whereas the most powerful art (perhaps) always manifests some real ecstatic motivation and performative intensity. One should look then to what is artistic in religious practice and to what is experientially and practically religious in art. Both art and religion involve the basic everyday human drive for order. Both refer to the possibility of feeling "in place" and seeing "something more" within and behind the changing surface of things (something unexpected, something strange, something special, something sacred). And it is this kind of creative "meaning making" that is related to the imaginative "world building" or "making special" aspects of religion and art (Dissanayake, 1992; Morgan, 1998).

Significantly the special synergy of artistic and religious experience and expression seems particularly vivid within the field of self-taught and outsider art. Whereas most people are relatively content to live within the fractured and often depressing worlds given to them, outsider artists, who in their art compulsivelyecstatically construct new self-identities and elaborate artistic environments, are those few brave, tormented, and virtuosic souls who are driven to transgress the confining boundaries of all conventional worlds. Their special romantic, nostalgic, or primitive appeal is that they are primordial creators, inventors, or world makers in a rough and unexpected sense. These marginalized and often psychologically wounded artist-healers can be metaphorically placed in a lineage embracing the Paleolithic shaman, tribal blacksmith, trickster-fool, medieval mystic, Renaissance magus, and romantic artist. All have that conjoined religious and artistic ability to make their visions real and therapeutic for others.


Ardery, Julia S. The Temptation: Edgar Tolson and the Genesis of Twentieth-Century Folk Art. Chapel Hill, N.C., 1998. Provocative sociocultural analysis of the transformation of folk art.

Beardsley, John. Gardens of Revelation: Environments by Visionary Artists. New York, 1995. Insightful and gracefully written study of outsider environments.

Cardinal, Roger. Outsider Art. New York, 1972. Foundational work.

Danchin, Laurent. Jean Dubuffet. Paris, 2001. Helpful overview of Dubuffet's life and work.

DeCarlo, Tessa. "Outsider Biographies vs. Outsider Art." Raw Vision 41 (Winter 2002): 2227. Interesting attempt to distinguish outsider art from mainstream tradition.

Dissanayake, Ellen. Homo Aestheticus: Where Art Comes from and Why. New York, 1992. Pioneering study of the origins of art as related to ritual tradition.

Fine, Gary. Everyday Genius: Self-Taught Art and the Politics of Representation. Chicago, 2004. Important sociological analysis of the outsider art world.

Hemphill, Herbert W., and Julia Weissman. Twentieth-Century American Folk Art and Artists. New York, 1974. Foundational book in the emergence of the outsider field.

Hartigan, Lynda Roscoe. Made with Passion. Washington, D.C., 1991. Good source of information on Herbert Hemphill and his influence.

Janis, Sidney. They Taught Themselves: American Primitive Painters of the 20th Century (1942). New York, 1999. Influential work on American naive artists.

MacGregor, John. The Discovery of the Art of the Insane. Princeton, N.J., 1989. Scholarly history and analysis of the tradition associated with the art of the mentally ill.

Maizels, John, ed. Raw Vision Outsider Art Sourcebook. Radlett, U.K., 2002. Overview of the state of the field by the leading outsider journal.

Morgan, David. Visual Piety, a History and Theory of Popular Religious Images. Berkeley, Calif., 1998. See page xv. Groundbreaking study of religion and art as related to American Protestant tradition.

Peiry, Lucienne. Art Brut: The Origins of Outsider Art. Paris, 2001. Accessible and knowledgeable discussion of the European tradition.

Rhodes, Colin. Primitivism and Modern Art. New York, 1994. Broad survey study of the influence of primitivism.

Rhodes, Colin. Outsider Art: Spontaneous Alternatives. New York, 2000. Excellent introduction to the field with special emphasis on the European tradition.

Russell, Charles, ed. Self-Taught Art: The Culture and Aesthetics of American Vernacular Art. Jackson, Miss., 2001. Collection of important articles on aesthetic theory as related to outsider tradition.

Thompson, Robert Farris. Flash of the Spirit. New York, 1984. Influential study of the African religious roots of African American vernacular art and tradition.

Norman J. Girardot (2005)