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Outsider Art: Madness, Marginalization, and Exploitation

By Jonah Queen

The Origins of “Outsider Art” 

An exhibition of paintings by outsider artist Henry Darger.

Image courtesy of Intuit on Flickr.

In Europe during the first half of the 20th century, some psychiatrists developed an interest in their patients’ drawings, with several doctors publishing books containing such works. These drawings gained the attention of more mainstream artists like Jean Dubuffet who coined the term “art brut” (literally, “raw art”) to describe these works and others made by those who lived on the margins of society. Over time, art brut evolved into the broader category of “outsider art,” a loosely-defined genre that includes art (of any medium) made by those with no formal artistic training or connection to a wider arts scene. 

Popularity and Appeal

Although the label is not limited to those with psychiatric diagnoses, many artists whose works are classified as outsider art have mental illnesses or intellectual disabilities. And the increasing popularity of outsider art has generated controversy regarding the potential for exploitation of these artists. One such way exploitation can occur is if these artists’ works are promoted and consumed in a way that reinforces the “othering” of those with mental illness. 

A drawing by art brut artist Adolf Wölfli.

Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

When it comes to outsider art, is it possible for interest in the art itself to be exploitative? Outsider art often does have unique characteristics because it is created by self-taught individuals who have no intention of conforming to mainstream aesthetics. But what differentiates it from other genres is that it is defined by the artists rather than by the art, and much of its appeal is the life story of the creators themselves. Some patrons might be intrigued by artists who work tirelessly without any desire for recognition and who create despite disability or lack of education. But in some cases, the focus on the artists’ lives can cross the line from being appreciative of their skills and creativity to gawking at their “outsiderness.” This is even more likely to occur when it comes to artists who, like the ones who originally inspired the art brut label, have mental illnesses or intellectual disabilities.

Mental health, exploitation, and “othering”

The potential downsides of the popularity of outsider art can be seen in the career of artist and musician Wesley Willis. His music is often repetitive, bizarre, vulgar, and heavily influenced by his schizophrenia. Willis went from selling his drawings and singing on the streets of Chicago to releasing albums through major record labels. This arrangement has been seen by some fans and music critics as exploitative and even evocative of a “freak show.” One critic wrote that “… it often seems that his audience is laughing at him, not with him.” Not everyone shares this sentiment, and Willis did have sincere and respectful fans and supporters (including several famous musicians). But even some of his fans questioned the attitudes of the audience at his concerts, with one observing that “the attendees were there for the irony, or at the very least, laughing at Wesley because he was ‘stupid’ or shtick.” It is also interesting to note that Willis gained less mainstream attention for his drawings, in which the symptoms of his schizophrenia are not as apparent. 

One of Wesley Willis’s drawings on display.

Image courtesy of Flickr.

For artists like Willis, if their art is tied to their psychiatric conditions, it emphasizes the differences between them and their mostly neurotypical audiences. The audiences’ understanding of the artists and their art can then be colored by their own misunderstandings and stereotypes regarding mental health. This view of outsider artists can lessen their perceived value as creators, reducing them to novelties where they are not given the respect and admiration they would otherwise receive if their art were appreciated on its own. 

Artists who both fall under the outsider label and have psychiatric diagnoses are uniquely vulnerable to this type of exploitation. While outsider artists are of course not the only creative types who struggle with their mental health, the nature of the genre means that any diagnoses or mental differences outsider artists have become a larger part of the way they are perceived by the public, especially when it comes to conditions which are already heavily stigmatized like psychotic disorders, autism, and intellectual disabilities. Artists with physical disabilities can also attract disrespectful attention, but it is more likely to occur in the case of non-neurotypical artists because of the stronger stigma around mental illness

This type of exploitation can also contribute to the general “othering” of those with psychiatric diagnoses. In this situation, the process of “othering” sets them apart from those who are seen as “normal,” which reinforces the stereotypes and stigma they face and adds to discrimination while diminishing opportunities. 

Outsider Art and the Art Industry 

The Watts Towers: an example of an

outsider art visionary environment.

Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

For this reason, the term “outsider art” is itself controversial. Some artists, art critics, and advocates argue that labeling artists as “outsiders” contributes to this othering, and instead use more neutral terms like “self-taught art,” which they feel carry less stigma as these words don’t focus on the marginalization of the artists. Some disability rights activists include art by those with psychiatric conditions or intellectual disabilities in the separate category of “disability arts” instead of outsider art. Others see no reason for outsider art to exist as its own category as they think that the outsider label prevents self-taught artists from being perceived as legitimate. 

Still, some art critics and gallery owners support outsider art as a distinct genre and believe that doing so allows people who might otherwise be dismissed and ignored to be celebrated for their creativity. When done sensitively, galleries and centers dedicated to outsider art and art brut can provide good examples of respectful ways to display and promote this unique category of art.  

The Art Brut Center Gugging in Austria was originally a psychiatric hospital where patients were encouraged to draw as a form of art therapy. Many of the works there were considered classic examples of art brut by Dubuffet, and over time the hospital developed into an arts center with a gallery and studio. As part of this transformation, the Center began to focus on the creativity of its artists rather than their mental illnesses. In time, they stopped referring to those who participated in their art therapy program as “patients” and started referring to them as “artists”.

Arts Project Australia, an art studio that displays works by those with intellectual disabilities, is also aware of this controversy. To protect against exploitation, artists whose works are displayed there are payed according to National Association for the Visual Arts guidelines, and their art is emphasized rather than their disabilities. 

A gallery at Arts Project Australia.

Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

Curators at other institutions (including art museums not dedicated solely to outsider art) express similar sentiments of taking care to avoid “pathologizing of the artist” when displaying outsider art. This is done both out of respect for the artists and their privacy (especially when it comes to living artists) and to allow the works to stand on their own artistic merits. 

In some ways, this nuanced approach to outsider art is in line with the original spirit of the art brut movement. When it came to the works that first inspired Dubuffet, there was a focus on the diagnoses of the artists, but the appreciation of their art was respectful; psychiatrists encouraged patients to draw for therapeutic reasons, and the mainstream artists who were first intrigued by the works sincerely appreciated them because of their perceived individuality and authenticity. 

Artists from a wide range of circumstances can be grouped into the category of outsider art. When it comes to those who are on the margins of society due to psychiatric illness or disability, it is important that their art is appreciated in a respectful way. The steps taken by some of the art critics, disability advocates, and curators who promote such art provide a framework for not only mutually beneficial relationships with outsider artists but also ways we can treat all of those who are considered “outsiders.”


Jonah Queen is an editorial intern at AJOB Neuroscience and the senior layout editor for The Neuroethics Blog.

Want to cite this post?

Queen, J. (2019). Outsider Art: Madness, Marginalization, and Exploitation. The Neuroethics Blog. Retrieved on , from


  1. I’d like to take a different tack on Outsider Art and suggest that it’s not necessarily a derogatory term but, in fact, can allude admiringly to the origins of visual creativity: to the repeated trials of myth, to the intensities of cave painting, to the “daimonic” of Greek Tragedy—forces independent or outside of market values, amassing collectors, hierarchical canons, and convention-teaching art institutions. What follows is an attempt to go beyond recent labeling disputes.

    While much contemporary media confuses art with décor, Outsider Art is deeply performative– but not in the sense of being about selling a personal “brand” to an audience and attempting to control their reaction. In fact, it’s largely not about audience at all [unless one means self-audience] but about an individual making the invisible visible for him- or her-self I believe it shares this desire with some of the greatest portrait art intent on revealing inner life. What I find so significant is that it tends to do this with abstract hieroglyphics or abbreviated icons, not with Rembrandtesque brushstrokes and fully-fledged representational figures. That is, it uses a formal geometry to image the joys and torments haunting the brain-mind.

    I think such powerful work has much to teach the neurosciences interested in aesthetics. I will never forget, after visiting the incredible Museum of Alterity outside Lucerne, how striking it was to see the depiction of raw emotion literally caged in the hallucinatory structure of points, lines, grids. To be sure, there’s much to learn from art outside, as well as inside, cultural norms. However, what Outsider Art– with its overt insistence on repetitive patterns and attention-forcing detail –makes particularly clear is the skeletal or primal structure underlying fleshed-out representation to which the viewer intuitively, unconsciously responds. It brings us one step closer to understanding the mimetic impulse underlying the imitative arts and to understanding the different affective and configurational means for getting at the interior life wanting to be expressed. Such deeper understanding would contribute to a neuroethical respect for the maker—not as disabled or odd—but as revealing something fundamental about the impactful workings of art.

    Barbara Maria Stafford


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