In Their Own Worlds

In recent decades, a tale unfolding within the larger story of contemporary art has been our gradually learning more about, and our trying to place, outsider artists. Problems begin at once, with the label. It is a description that many remain ambivalent about, and often believe should be put in quotation marks, to indicate its tentativeness. The situation somewhat echoes the moment, beginning in the 1920s and 1930s, when folk art was first being taken out of attics and looked at anew, and commentators were not sure whether that term—or the labels “self-taught,” “naive,” or “primitive,” among others—was the appropriate one or would merely suffice. “Self-taught,” though imprecise in its way—it has been said, for example, that most of the significant painters of the nineteenth century were essentially self-trained—has remained interchangeable with “folk art” for many commentators. It is sometimes used interchangeably with “outsider,” too. It strikes far less the note of a judgment from above.
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