“It’s now become an almost umbrella term for any art made by a person outside the mainstream,” Gilbert said, reserving specific ire for the overuse of the #outsiderart hashtag on social media. This apparent flexibility has also led to more than a few unsolicited pitches from artists who want to self-identify as outsiders, simply because they haven’t yet gained a foothold in the mainstream. “I do get people contacting me who have just graduated and find it hard to get gallery representation…people with work that they say galleries find hard to understand, or that’s a bit ‘out there,’” Gilbert said.
So in 2019, you might well find MFA grads who want to somewhat cravenly market themselves as “outsider” artists, as well as self-taught artists who might balk or take offense at the term. Such confusions have led some to call for abandoning the label entirely, but it has, in many ways, become part of the shared culture.
“As much as the term has been debated, when you say ‘outsider art,’ people know what you’re talking about,” Edlin asserted. In contrast, he alluded to how befuddling it can be when clunkier language is used, as was the case with the recent traveling exhibition “Outliers and American Vanguard Art
Likewise, Ogden of Shrine still finds the term “useful and relevant,” despite its slipperiness. It’s a way, he said, of “distinguishing artists who embody completely unique artistic systems.”
In the end, somewhat frustratingly, there’s no easy way to dictate or define what constitutes outsider art. To borrow from those I spoke to, it’s “wholly self-created,” “extremely idiosyncratic,” “raw art produced by non-professionals,” and resolutely “non-conformist.” Ogden quoted the late art dealer Phyllis Kind, who said that “there is just something different about these artists and their creations.”
We might do well to worry less about distinctions between labels. “The ultimate thing that matters is: Is it great? Is it compelling? It is interesting?” Edlin said. “What you call it is completely secondary.”