University of Illinois at Chicago

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So-Called “Outsiders”: A Case Against the Moniker

posted on 2022-08-01, 00:00 authored by Emily D Olek
In the margins of Art historical texts, the corners of prestigious museums, and the far banks of art fairs, live the works of those who’ve been deemed “Outsiders”. Developed by professor and art historian, Roger Cardinal in the early 1970s, the term defies all conventional classification of art (i.e. geography, media, period, subject, or style), instead creating a genus of makers bound together by their shared otherness. Initially generated as an English language equivalent to artist Jean Dubuffet’s, Art Brut, Cardinal defines “Outsiders” term as “untrained artists whose position in society was often obscure and humble”.1 While the category began as a limiting classifier of artists not included in the mainstream canon of art history, over time and in the hands of an art world perpetually wanting for definitions and order, the moniker has become even more restrictive yet widely applied. This study explores the “Outsider” moniker from its initial inception to its current implementation. I do this first by discussing how categories and classifications develop in the art historical process, giving specific interest to the role western aesthetics play in shaping these terms. I then analyze common tropes and stereotypes often applied to “Outsider” artists such as reclusive lifestyles, mental illness, and naivety regarding their own artistic pursuits. I make the case that these experiences and attributes are widely accepted as consistent among all artists under the “Outsider” moniker, yet apply to few, leaving many of individuals true biographies unexplored and under-researched. I use the landscape artist Joseph E. Yoakum as an example of this issue of assumed biography. I argue that the “Outsider” term is rooted in a history of systemic prejudice and that its continued application is a hazard to the integrity of art historical practice and the perception of artists not included within the mainstream canon.



Lee, Lisa Yun


Lee, Lisa Yun


Art and Art History

Degree Grantor

University of Illinois at Chicago

Degree Level

  • Masters

Degree name

MA, Master of Arts

Committee Member

Higgins, Hannah Pascale, Mark Corbett, John

Submitted date

August 2022

Thesis type



  • en

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