The visual-art products of individuals whose art training and social and economic
circumstances lie clearly outside the mainstream art establishment. The term was coined
in the 1970s by British scholar Roger Cardinal, who used it to describe the visual art
created by inmates in mental institutions. Outsider art is created by self-taught
individuals, often inspired by dreams, visions, or religious experiences. Outsider art,
connected to neither academic systems of aesthetics nor folk traditions, is created
typically to adorn the artist’s personal environment and is often obsessive.
Since the late 1970s, outsider art has become particularly popular with gallery owners
and art collectors and has been the subject of a number of museum exhibitions. Most of
these exhibitions have focused on the work of artists from the Southeastern United States,
many of them African American. Among the most recognized outsider artists are Howard
Finster (Georgia), Sam Doyle (South Carolina), Moses Tolliver (Alabama), Mary
T.Smith (Mississippi), Clyde Jones (North Carolina), Thornton Dial (Alabama),
Z.B.Armstrong (Georgia), Charlie Lucas (Alabama), Bessie Harvey (Tennessee), and
Royal Robertson (Louisiana).
In academic discourse, outsider art is also labeled visionary, self-taught, idiosyncratic,
naive, primitive, found, grassroots, isolate, and folk. There have been continuing debates
surrounding the use of the label “folk” to describe art that seems to have no traditional
community grounding and surrounding the perceived pejorative connotations of some of
the other labels.
Cardinal, Roger. 1972. Outsider Art. London: Studio Publishers.
Glassie, Henry. 1989. The Spirit of Folk Art. New York: Harry N.Abrams.
Manley, Roger. 1991. Separating the Folk from Their Art. New Art Examiner 19 (1):25–28.
Metcalf, Eugene. 1992. American Folk Art and Cultural Meaning. In North American Material
Culture Studies: New Directions, ed. Gerald Pocius. Canada: Institute for Social and Economic
Patterson, Tom, ed. 1989. Outsider Art. Arts Journal (Special Issue) 14(12).