Outsider Art and Mental Health

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Where McNamara struggled to combine her day-to-day reality with her spiritual experiences artist Hundertwasser found a beautiful way to bring these elements together through painting. He combined eastern ideologies and abstract painting, nature and culture, the unconscious, and logic. In 1950 he traveled to Japan and learned about Buddhism where he worked on finding inner peace distancing himself from the lust for money and power in the western world. The spirals in his paintings represent this journey or ’long road’ (Belvedere Palace, Vienna) to achieve this objective, with the middle of the paintings symbolizing tranquility. Hundertwasser wanted his work to be hung next to Klimt’s Kiss to show the comparison between work made for inner and purposeful meaning to those which depicted wealth and materialistic values.

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Work created in past eras could never be truly understood and recreations of past work are just actions without any real meaning. Spirituality in the art could be seen as painting from the fundamental truths of our existence outside of our bodily form, out of the reach of our five senses, and only manifested through art. What it is to be human. Kandinsky states “This ‘what’ is the internal truth which only art can divine, which only art can express by those means of expression which are hers alone.” Some would suggest that spiritualism in art is the impulse and internal necessity that drives artists to create. This motive for creating art is clearly seen in the work of many ‘outsider artists’.

The term ‘outsider’ was established by Roger Cardinal, an art critic, in 1972 as a translation to the french term ‘art brut’. This label, founded by artist Jean Dubuffet, describes ‘rough’ or ‘raw’ art created by people who make work with no knowledge of art movements or culture. Dubuffet began to collect the work of mentally ill patients who were living in psychiatric hospitals in central Europe. He admired the lack of sophistication and artistic technique, saw this as purity in a world full of calculated contemporary art. He saw the work as “deliberately a stranger to culture.

 The definition of an outsider artist is a person who has no formal art training and they have had little or no contact with the mainstream art world such as galleries and museums. However, the term outsider artist is often associated with mental health. While not all outsider artists have mental illnesses, many do. Often their work illustrates different realities, unconventional ideas and reflects the mental state of the artist.

Over more recent years this type of work has been gaining more recognition, for example, in 2013 the largest exhibition of outsider artists was shown in the Encyclopaedic Palace at the Venice Biennale. The duration of these works blurred the lines between some of the biggest names in the art world and the self-taught artists, as their work was presented together. The aim was to marginalize the two different types of work and give outsider art the acknowledgment it deserves by focusing on the individual pieces of art instead of the life stories of the artists. 

Carlos Zinelli was one of the most famous outsider artists who returned from the Spanish Civil War in 1939 unable to talk. He began to draw and paint using art as a way to communicate what was happening inside his head. He created hundreds of paintings, mostly referencing his experiences during the war, while he was incarcerated and many of them were shown in this exhibition. Ethical issues arise when work like Zinellis’ is looked at in an aesthetic way, rather than their true purpose which was for this man to express his thoughts and emotions when he was very ill and had no other way to communicate.

Artists with disabilities which hinder their ability to talk about their work, such as mental health and developmental problems create work and leave it to curators, critics and writers to categorize and analyze. Perhaps “free artists” (Hearing Voices, Seeing things page 32) would be a more accurate term. Free from any restriction of what is seen as the wrong or right way of making work to be revenant in the art market. The consequences from this term needs to be analyzed. Is the label helping these artists or restricting them? ‘Outsider’ has more recently been given to any artist who doesn’t fit inside the mainstream art world. 

This is damaging for artists who come from minority backgrounds, who are not taken seriously as professional artists when this stamp is attached. This is especially inaccurate, as outsider art was first presented as a sort of experiment to the art world. The work made by patients was also, at the time, not fully understood by psychiatry. Outsider artists were usually in isolation and the work came purely from the imagination or creative drive within the individual, nonetheless, it feels outdated in today’s society where information is easily accessible through the internet. To live in isolation from any dialog from the art world is near impossible. One could argue that it is an unfair label as some of the most famous artists such as Caravaggio were insane, homeless, and incarcerated yet escaped this categorization.

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