The emblematic outsider artist, Rousseau, was a "naïf" (the category of the outsider had not been invented), and he was very much part of modernists' sense of themselves.


Bill Traylor's "Mexican Woman," from an auction site, listed as expecting $25,000. The market helps sustain the notion of outsider art and its principal values of spontaneity, naiveté, authenticity, and immediacy.

A photograph of Louis Wain with a cat. Psychotic artists like Wain are sometimes grouped with outsider artists, because they are said to share some of the same characteristics: they may be untrained, and they are free of contentions. But no psychotic artists were free of the conventions of their times and places.

There is No Such Thing as Outsider Art

The argument here is that "outsider art" and similar concepts ("naive art," "primitive art," etc.) are constructions of modernism, and only exist as ideals understood as contrasts to normative practice. It doesn't mean there aren't artists outside of the traditions of modernism and postmodernism, or outside of academic art—rather that the value we place on them is itself characteristic of modernism, so that "outsider" or "naive" art is not distinct from the modernist enterprise. The essay gives several arguments, using references from North America, Europe, Taiwan, and Georgia. It is available here as a pdf.

This was originally published as “Naïfs, Faux-Naïfs, Faux Faux-Naïfs, Would-Be-Faux-Naïfs: There is No such Thing as Outsider Art,” in Inner Worlds Outside, exh. cat., edited by John Thompson (Dublin: Irish Museum of Modern Art, 2006), 71–79.

Pirosmani (Niko Pirosmanashvili; ნიკო ფიროსმანი) (1862–1918) is the preeminent naïve (primitivist) painter of the country of Georgia.

He occupies a unique position, as far as I know, among naïve or outsider artists: he functions both as the Rousseau of Georgia, and the (early) Picasso: he is at once the unschooled spiritual counterpoint to modernism, and modernism's cornerstone. It's a curious double role. In 2014, after the planned Pirosmani conference, will be expanding this essay using Pirosmani as the exception that proves the rule.