Roughly, though, a working definition of outsider art could go like this:
Creative works-- paintings, drawings, sculptures, assemblages, and idiosyncratic gardens and other outdoor constructions -- by people who have had little or no formal training in art and who produce (or at least began by producing) art without regard to the mainstream art world's recognition, marketplace or definitions. These are people who make art for themselves or their immediate community, often without recognizing themselves as artists until some collector or expert comes along to inform that what they are doing is making art.
It is these collections and experts who have found "outsider art" useful as a way to organize collecting activities and as a marketing term. But the concept implies a certain elitism, since if there is outsider art, there presumably is someone inside designating these others as outside. And what are they outside of? Art schools? Museums? The gallery world? Culture altogether? (That last quality is what some see in the extremes of insane art, the original paradigm for outsider art.)
And there are more questions: What is it about any particular work that makes it outsider, or makes it worthwhile at all? Is there a line between idiosyncrasy, one of the most sought-after qualities in outsider art, and simple incompetence? How outside must someone be to qualify, and what happens when they are discovered by art collectors and dealers and start being influenced by them? Finally, why not call their work just plain art? Why segregate it?
These questions have been debated ad infinitum, and even its defenders admit the concept can be problematic. As a matter of convenience, though, "outsider art" remains widely used. Partly it seems to persist for commercial reasons -- demarcating a particular sector of the art market helps to create and sustain it. But it also remains a handy shorthand for work that is liable to reflect different motivations, histories and concerns than that generally produced by art school graduates.
Its visionary quality, putative naivete or innocence, freedom from formal conventions, eccentric use of materials, left-field creativity, wild subject matter or some combination of these qualities are not exclusive to outsider art, of course, but they are to some extent typical of it. In addition, the conditions under which the art is produced do have a meaningful effect on its nature, even if they don't impart the almost-magical authenticity that some boosters find in outsider art.
Copyright Interesting Ideas 1995