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Outside Insight / 3 May 2012

Looking from the inside out

View looking from inside The Art House to the outside through an artist designed window vinyl of tree branches

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I recently asked an artist if they were aware of the project Outside In. I wondered if that artist identified with this project which aims ‘to provide a platform for artists who find it difficult to access the art world’ for reasons of mental health, disability or social circumstance. The artist backed away from me, almost recoiling in horror at the mention that they might be associated with the genre. I was taken aback by the artist’s response and wondered why such a strong reaction to what seemed to me to be an opportunity for the artist to show their work within a new forum. I discovered that the origins of this genre stem from Art Brut, ‘a label created by French artist Jean Dubuffet to describe art created outside the boundaries of official culture; Dubuffet focused particularly on art by insane-asylum inmates.’ Wikipedia.
The term Outsider Art however would seem to have a broader meaning but I wonder if the associations with Art Brut, asylums, mental health or disability presented a barrier for the artist I spoke to? Why should an artist feel insulted or embarrassed to be associated with ‘outsider art’? For some perhaps it is viewed as ‘2nd rate’. Many outsider artists have not come through traditional routes of art education and have no formal training, but equally this could apply to non-‘outsider artists’. Does this mean their work has any less substance/meaning? What exactly is an outsider artist then? If it’s simply an artist who works outside of the mainstream then surely that applies to a high proportion of artists also?. Is it a combination of being outside the ‘mainstream’ plus other factors? Looking through a list of notable historical Outsider Artists I noted certain characteristics and similarities in their circumstances; solitary, institutionalized, fantasy, isolation, secretive, seclusion, mental health issues, disability. It also occurred to me that these artists were creating their art for reasons other than notoriety or to become accepted in the ‘mainstream’. It was part of their make-up, a compulsion and their art was not necessarily being created to be shared or viewed by others. Their work was subsequently ‘discovered’ by someone else who then brought that artists work to a mainstream audience.
I recently had the opportunity to speak to a few artists who have become involved in the ‘Outside in’ project. A commonality for each of these artists was their wish to share their work, for it to be viewed and appreciated by an audience of peers and the public. The Outside In project provides this opportunity for ‘outsider artists’ alone. I still question why the need for differentiation between outsider artists and non-outsider artists. The Art House strives for equality, creating opportunities for all artists however I wonder if there is some security for some artists to belong within a specific confined genre. Showing their work amongst comparable peers? I don’t know if this is a fair supposition to make but I wonder then if this makes the task of providing equality of opportunities harder to achieve if some artists prefer the ‘security’ of belonging to a specific group. Do they perhaps consider this provides them with a better chance of reaching mainstream audiences but why should it? I guess my conclusion is that we need forums, platforms and opportunities presented in alternative ways in order that the individual can make a choice to take part, get involved in the way that best suits them.
Lisa Noyce
The Art House Administrator