Folk Art, Outsider Art and Related Terms: An Overview

Posted by Anca Tutescu on

In the previous blog posts we used some art terminology that we realized may not be familiar to all our readers, and is sometimes hard to distinguish even for specialists! I thought it would be helpful to create an overview about some of the art terms you will encounter in our artist spotlights.

If you're interested to learn about this topic, read on!


Outsider Art

Outsider art is made by self-taught or naïve artists who typically have little or no contact with the mainstream art world or art institutions. The term outsider art was coined by art critic Roger Cardinal in 1972 as an English-language equivalent for art brut (French for "raw art" or "rough art"). "Art brut" is a label created by French artist Jean Dubuffet to describe art created outside the boundaries of mainstream culture and the established art scene, such as psychiatric hospital patients, prisoners and children.

In the 1940s, Dubuffet began collecting works of art made in unusual contexts and in 1948 he formed the Compagnie de l'Art Brut along with other artists, including André Breton. The art collection he established became known as the Collection de l'art brut and is one of the most famous of its kind in the world, containing thousands of works permanently housed in Lausanne, Switzerland.

Dubuffet considered these works more authentic than those of trained artists. He wrote:

"We understand by this term works produced by persons unscathed by artistic culture, where mimicry plays little or no part… These artists derive everything… from their own depths, and not from the conventions of classical or fashionable art. We are witness here to the completely pure artistic operation, raw, brute, and entirely reinvented in all of its phases solely by means of the artists’ own impulses." (from "Art Brut Preferred to the Cultural Arts," 1949).
"Those works created from solitude and from pure and authentic creative impulses – where the worries of competition, acclaim and social promotion do not interfere – are, because of these very facts, more precious than the productions of professionals. After a certain familiarity with these flourishings of an exalted feverishness, lived so fully and so intensely by their authors, we cannot avoid the feeling that in relation to these works, cultural art in its entirety appears to be the game of a futile society, a fallacious parade." — Jean Dubuffet. Place à l'incivisme (Make way for Incivism). Art and Text no. 27 (December 1987 – February 1988).

Dubuffet argued that mainstream culture managed to assimilate every new development in art, and by doing so took away whatever power it might have had and asphyxiated genuine expression. Art brut was his solution to this problem – only art brut was immune to the influences of culture, to being absorbed and assimilated, because the artists themselves were not willing or able to be assimilated.

The interest in "outsider" practices among twentieth-century artists and critics can be seen as part of their challenging, within the avant-garde art circles, of established cultural values. The early part of the 20th century gave rise to movements in art (Cubism, Dadaism, the Constructivist and Futurist) which involved a dramatic shift away from past cultural values and norms. Dadaist Marcel Duchamp, for example, abandoned "painterly" technique to allow chance a role in determining the form of his works or simply to re-contextualize existing "readymade" objects as art (like his infamous Fountain consisting of a porcelain urinal signed "R.Mutt"). Mid-century artists, including Pablo Picasso, looked outside the traditions of high culture for inspiration, drawing from the artifacts of "primitive" societies, the artwork of children and vulgar advertising graphics.

By the 1980s, the term "outsider art" expanded to encompass a much wider range of "marginal" arts. This broadening was particularly important in the United States, where a rich vein of art that reflected racial, religious, and localized histories rather than psychiatric or spiritualist ones had grown independently from art brut. Here, this vein was known successively—and at times concurrently—as "popular painting," "modern primitive art," "self-taught art," and "contemporary folk art."


Folk Art

Typically, the people who created folk art were concerned with life’s necessities. Consequently, the art is often predominantly functional or utilitarian, although there are some objects, such as miniatures created for pleasure, which don’t follow this rule. For the individuals in these communities, whose occupations were often seasonal or dependent on weather and who had to provide their own amusements, the creation of useful objects became also a leisure activity and a creative outlet; a weaving shuttle or a spoon might be transformed with carvings or a chest with painted designs, and even the corset stay came to be an art form.

For this reason, folk art is best studied (as is "primitive" art) with the entire handmade product in mind, paying attention to both its cultural as well as its aesthetic significance. Such applied art differs from fine art, where there is a tendency to separate the utilitarian from more strictly aesthetic forms.

The element of retention (preservation of tradition) is considered fundamental in folk art and folklore. In an isolated situation, the sophisticated ideas that penetrate are generally belated and simplified, and there is an inclination toward conservatism. Both local and ancient traditions maintain a strong hold. Serviceable forms and familiar motifs are likely to persist, and changes are gradual in comparison to the sudden innovations possible in sophisticated art.

The idea of a picture to be hung on the wall is not universal in folk art. It occurs in Europe, notably as the ex-voto (or votive offering) hung in churches and chapels, and in America, where portraits and local scenes were executed in oil, pastel or watercolour. More often though, the painted depictions that occur in folk art are incorporated into other objects (for example, some American clock faces bearing local landscapes).

Some folk art had the approach of creating artwork displayed as if it were painted, while actually being executed in other media such as fern, cork, shells or embroidery. Oil paints and prepared canvases are sophisticated materials and, though sometimes available, were often replaced by house paint or chalk and by textiles like silk, linen, or cotton. Painting on velvet and underglass painting emerged as specific folk types.

The amount of decorative painting on a particular object was often very extensive; among German and German-American groups, for example, every inch of a chest, bed, or chair surface might be covered in detail. Walls or beams were commonly decorated with geometric and floral motifs and occasionally with scenes. Painting on exterior walls was a feature in some areas, including parts of North Africa and India as well as Europe. Stencil painting, widely used for furniture and walls, illustrates the folk capacity for achieving varied effects within technical limitations.

Some forms of figural sculpture and incised or relief decoration appear to be an almost universal practice among societies. Work in wood was particularly widespread, though stone, a more difficult material, was also used, especially for gravestones and religious sculpture. Papier-mâché, with its quick and bold effects, was widely adopted both in the East and West for carnival and votive figures and for a multitude of toys. 

The folk artist was often at their best in making small things, utensils, toys, small-scale representations of daily activities and oddities like ships carved inside bottles. Miniature sculptures were often skillfully executed in elaborate groups displaying a cohesive harmony; in Russia, for example, an entire herd of cattle or a group of soldiers was mounted on a jointed trellis to provide a scissorlike movement to the whole. Some figural types were meant to be set up in groups, as were the European crèche figures (making up the Nativity scene) or Chinese miniature wedding processions. The creation of useful objects in an overall sculptured shape, both in pottery and wood, is also typical. In southern Europe or in Mexico, a bottle, flask, or candlestick might take human, fish, or other forms.




To sum it up, a number of terms are used to describe art viewed as being "outside" of official culture:

  • Art Brut: literally translated from French, it means "raw art"; "raw" in that it has not been through the "cooking" process of art schools, galleries and museums. Jean Dubuffet coined the term to refer to creators who existed almost completely outside culture and society, like those locked in psychiatric hospitals.
  • Folk Art: Folk art embodies traditional forms and social values. Originally referring to crafts and decorative objects produced within peasant communities in Europe and, by extension, any indigenous culture, it has broadened to include any product of practical craftsmanship and decorative skill.
  • Intuitive Art/Visionary Art: Raw Vision Magazine's preferred general terms for outsider art. Visionary Art can often refer to the subject matter of the works, which includes images of a spiritual, mystical or religious nature (a place that houses many such works is the American Visionary Art Museum in Baltimore, Maryland). Intuitive art is the most general term available for the work of artists motivated by their unique personal visions (you may want to visit the Intuit: The Center for Intuitive and Outsider Art based in Chicago).
  • Marginal Art/Art Singulier/Neuve Invention: refers to artists on the margins of the art world.
  • Naïve Art: a term commonly applied to untrained artists who aspire to "normal" artistic status and have a much more conscious interaction with the mainstream art world than outsider artists. Naïve artists are aware of "fine art" conventions, such as graphical perspective and compositional conventions, but are unable to fully use them, or choose not to.
  • Visionary Environments: Buildings and sculpture parks built by visionary artists, ranging from decorated houses to large areas incorporating many individual sculptures with a tightly associated theme. Examples include Watts Towers by Simon Rodia, Buddha Park and Sala Keoku by Bunleua Sulilat, and The Palais Ideal by Ferdinand Cheval.

Sources and further reading:

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