Outsider Art’ – A Perspective from artist Sally Case

‘Blueprint’ – Sally Case

First, a couple of definitions. Regarding what constitutes ‘good / great art’ is, I would say, the extent to which a piece exhibits – either separately or in combination- a quality of transcendence, insight and technique to a wide range of viewers and over an extended period of time.

Likewise, as the mainstream art world has for a long time recognised (albeit to varying degrees of acceptance) the work of all races, creeds, cultures, genders and those deemed both sane and mentally ill, it would seem the term ‘outsider’ has a specific relationship to those outside the contemporary art establishment. That is, contemporary and future artists’ legitimacy (and therefore the opportunities that come with it) is almost exclusively predicated on a set course through GCSEs (or equivalent), foundation courses, degrees and possibly Masters. From this route the graduate having proved their credentials to the market, is introduced to / adopted by agents, galleries, professional bodies and patrons –the same people who, in the past rejected the ‘unqualified’ van Gogh and laughed at the ‘unfinished’ works of Monet, et al.

Therefore, I would say if the existing art world is considering ‘absorbing’ Outsider work into what would then be effectively the mainstream, this carries one or two serious implications. Implications that would be as potentially disruptive to the regular art world as when a certain ‘R Mutt’ decided to exhibit a urinal a century ago. Basically, if the art world finally agrees to fully ‘absorb’ the Outside  (according to the above definition), this could of course be seen as either patronisingly dilettante, a way of heading off a potential commercial rival or, an increasingly desperate attempt to resuscitate a dying form.

‘Psycho Flea’ – Sally Case

However, if it is genuine acceptance, this then accepts the principle that ‘good’ or ‘valid’ art doesn’t necessarily require formal training; therefore it implicitly accepts that a fine art degree is at best of limited value and at worst absolutely worthless. Likewise, just because a work has been produced by someone who falls under the definition of ‘Outsider’, no matter how much of a personal achievement that is (and that is not to in any way negate how much that can mean to the individual concerned), it nevertheless doesn’t automatically qualify it as ‘good art’ as defined above.

Connected to that, it seems to me the current interpretation of the term seems to be overly equating ‘Outsider’ with both physical and mental disabilities, and issues of race or gender, rather than the far more pertinent criteria of a given individual producing ‘meaningful art’  having had no (or minimal) formal training. To be selected / absorbed largely because one fits the above categories, is in its way, as patronising and insulting as any exclusion and, ultimately, does no one any favours. Just as when  in the land of the blind, the one-eyed man is king, so too, if everything has the same value, nothing has any meaning. Discuss….

While at least paying lip-service to most of those categories, it is sidestepping academia to which the current art world seems so opposed. Why should this be? I would suggest, given the paucity of imagination regularly on display from final year exhibitions (of which I’ve endured many)  to many contemporary artists / galleries, the breadth of invention and originality regularly displayed in Outsider work, calls into question the way art theory and practice is taught. There exists a comfy conformity about methodology and attitude that, combined with commodification and the often vacuous nature of the work itself, has led the art world into an ever-narrowing blind alley from which it seems desperate to emerge. A failing which is probably no small factor in why Outsider art began to seem attractive in the first place. The Post-Modern emperor can, after all, only prance around naked for so long before being rumbled. In many ways I’d say the real question is, under the circumstances, just who the real beneficiaries of such an ‘absorption’ would be. 

‘Jam Today’ – Sally Case

This was first published in the Newsletter of ‘ Outside in’ –  https://outsidein.org.uk

More of Sally’s art-work can be found here……….  https://outsidein.org.uk/galleries/sally-case/

Thank you to Bernie Bell for sending it onto The Orkney News

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  1. A well written, and well-reasoned piece Sally.

    It’s too big a theme/question for me – the ‘What is Art?’ thing.

    The other theme under discussion – ‘outsiders’ – I have a bee in my bonnet about when someone is made part of anything – specifically because they are seen as being an ‘outsider’. The token people, of any kind, which establishment feels it has to have, to show willing.
    Hmmmm – that’s too big a theme/question, for me, too.

    Basically – I just go along – I like what I like, and I don’t like what I don’t like.
    I would like to meet Damien Hurst simply to say “Come off it.” He’s a joker, and he knows it.

    Meanwhile – his dead sheep are in art galleries. I don’t know how much that matters to me, either – it’s up to people, whether they stand about ‘oohing’ and ‘aaing’ at Mr Hurts stuff, or urinals, or unmade beds.

    Or, conversely, a piece by Anthony Gormley, Andy Goldsworthy, Lotte Glob, or……..anyone.

    And there’s Jackson Pollock. Look at a Jackson Pollock painting. Look at the floor of his studio. Which is which ? Hmmmmmm…….

    Too big for me – I’ll just carry on, living my life – exploding at some things I see in the Pier Arts Centre (Stromness, Orkney), and being touched, deeply, by some things I see in the Pier Arts Centre.

    That’s my tuppenceworth.

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