Alexander Marra

Outsider Art: The Art of the Insane

People have been fascinated with the insane, and, consequently, with their art, really since the dawn of psychology as a legitimate field of study. In the late 19th century, psychology distinguished itself from physiology and other sciences, as Freud was making breakthroughs in the inner-workings of the mind, particularly with the development of the theory of the conscious and subconscious as distinct pieces of the psyche. Coinciding with this were the changes occurring in the evolution of modern art. Artists were ever more leaving behind the academia-style art and were beginning to favor a less realistic approach, (as they had for at least a century by this time) and moving with and even from what was already radical, impressionism, and eventually delved into surrealism.


Their new taste in art stressed the free flow of spontaneous thoughts, essentially making art that wasn’t planned. Abstraction was more common since there was no reason to paint accurate depictions as the photographs were doing just fine with that. Also, with this abstraction, came an interest in art that was unpolluted from the constraints and ideals of society. A free, unique independent art came about, that looked to the children and “primitives” for direction, instead of the schools. With these inspirations came the fascination with the insane, who were also considered more natural and free in their art, like the children and “primitives.” These people, who were shielded from corruption by society as they were imprisoned in their own minds, were unable to correspond with society in a manner that the sane do. In addition, their being locked up in mental “hospitals” in large numbers at this time contributed to their physical isolation. Thus, definitely not producing art for money’s sake, nor for fame, nor for any reason previously known to artists, the insane art was purer than ever. The insane “create solely to externalize their internal visions and to satisfy their own internal needs (Delamonthe 1301).” The insane aren’t even aware they are making art many times. Beginning in the 19th century, insane art was not only observed, it was promoted. While Freudians swarmed them to learn about the abnormal mind, artists watched as the therapists encouraged art as a way to relinquish stressors and also as a materialistic insight into the strange workings of their disturbed minds, in hopes of finding a cure.


Despite Plato seeing a connection between creativity and insanity, and this same belief affirmed by the Renaissance artists, it lay dormant for a couple hundred years before resurfacing during the 19th century. By today, people now realize that the line between genius and insane can be so incredibly fine. Who is to say that Vincent Van Gogh was not an “outsider” (as these social recluses are now called by the art community)? Or what about the great prose of Edgar Allan Poe? We now think he had a fight with insanity too, specifically, with bipolar disorder, known to strike many artists in all mediums: painters, writers, musicians, etc. In this sense we might be able to posit that insanity increases creativity by nature, that it aids in the production of works of art that otherwise sane individuals have to strain and toil long hours studying how to replicate artificially, as we might see the surrealists doing. We then are led to wonder though, is it the art that brings on the insanity or are the insane drawn to art? It was said by the late 19th century Italian psychiatrist Cesare Lombroso, that all paintings by “lunatics” exhibited the same basic characteristics. These included: distortion, repetition, minute detail, arabesques, obscenity, and rampant symbolism (Porter 49). The connection psychiatrists were making at this time between artists and insane art was so solid, that they later believed all art that exhibited these qualities had to be done only by the insane. According to Theophilus Hyslop, the cubists were suffering from neurological disorders that somehow were connected to their eyes.


But the most important characteristic of insane art is its creativity. It seems if we were to measure art simply by terms of creativity, we’d find that the top quality pieces would be that of the insane. However, clearly this is not the only aspect to art. Nevertheless, the impact the insane had and have on art is remarkable.


The surrealists attempted to, in a sense, copy this free conscious, insane art by using their dreams as blueprints for their pieces. While not too abstract and chock full of symbols to lose all obvious coherence (and thus the comprehension of the onlooker), the surrealists painted what was bizarre and strange while keeping it in a worldly context we are all familiar with. It was in their unique, or rather simply otherworldly juxtaposition of familiar objects and places that made the art surreal. Dali’s famous melting clocks are a perfect example. In addition, Paul Klee, Max Ernst, Jean Dubuffet, and Georg Baselitz all claimed to be heavily influenced by outsider art. However, insane artist Antonin Artaud once wrote in response to what he might’ve seen as the manipulation and bastardization of his art and other insane artists’ by the liberal minded surrealists. A strikingly sobering line, he said, “What divides me from the Surrealists is that they love life as much as I despise it (Kuspit 83).”
As for the madmen, and their more authentic surrealist paintings, no one seems to be held in such esteem (if that is the proper word for the appreciation of the insane) than the Swiss psychotic Adolf Wolfi. Born in 1864, he was put into a mental hospital in his 30’s and died their about 30 years after his arrival. A convicted child molester, he seemed to have been obsessed with little girls since he was prevented from marrying a teenage sweetheart of his at the age of 18 because her parents deemed him too low-class. The obsessive detail of his 3000 illustrations is uncanny. Also, his choice of medium is as varied and wild as the characters he drew and painted. His “Waldorf Astoria Hotel” of 1905, is done in pencil on four sheets of newspaper about 10 feet long. In it, he has 4 hotels depicted as lavish palaces, covered to the point of explosion with detailed, ornately decorated facades. Amazingly, the painting has been compared to cubism, another genre in the modern art scene, in that the “tones subtly advance and recede, knitting together a shallow visual space…(Schjeldahl)”


It has been said of “outsider art” that it is too repetitive, which is naturally a solid complaint since most of the insane are obsessive in nature. Obsession is an adjective we commonly use to describe those we call mad. Even today it riddles psychiatric terminology with all the various “diseases of the mind” which have been only recently diagnosed and given new appellations, like ADD and OCB…the latter even stands for Obsessive Compulsive Behavior. However, it is within this new framework of psychiatric treatment, that we finally see the decline in the obsession or fascination with outsider art, both within the artist community and in the art-loving community, the patrons.


In the late 20th century, as medicine became ever more “effective” in “treating” these “disorders,” the insane artists found their minds ever dulled and quieted by the new-age drugs. They could no longer produce such fantastic works because their creativity, which was so prized by the modern artists, was dissolved. Even too was the original fascination of the psychologists, who now are more of medically oriented brain doctors, resorting to chemicals for their treatments as oppose to the old forms of therapy and counseling, which included art.


The insane were, in the beginning of the 20th century, sadly locked away in asylums and treated with electric shocks and other horrible detrimental “treatments.” Ironically though, they were also given loads of pencils, paints and other materials to occupy them, in hopes that this would keep them from violent behavior. With all the time on their hands, being locked up 24-7, away from reality, the outside world, they found refuge in their art, where a newly created world of their own devise, had found a place to manifest itself. With this society of the insane dispersed and obliterated by drugs and more “humane” treatments, the art of the insane may have ultimately found its demise, at the hand of those who had once appreciated and cultivated it.

Works Cited

Delamothe, Tony. "Mad About the Art." British Medical Journal, Nov 21, 1992 v305
n6864 p1301(1)

Kuspit, Donald. "Antonin Artaud: works on paper." Artforum International, Jan 1997
v35 n5 p80(2)

Porter, Roy. "But is it art? The Difference between a Paul Klee and a painting by a
psychiatric patient is all in all the mind of the beholder." New Statesman, Dec 6,
1996 v125 n4313 p46(3)

Schjeldahl, Peter. "The Far Side." The New Yorker, May 5, 2003 v79 i10 p100

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