We Are All Outsider Artists Now

This article is a continuation of two earlier articles, “Outsider Art is a Lie,” posted on February 28, 2019, and “No More Art Districts,” posted on December 20, 2018.

Bill Traylor, Man and Large Dog, 1932-1942, poster paint and pencil on cardboard. Dogs are regular motifs in Traylor’s work, varying from small and friendly looking animals to monsters. Of course dogs would have played a particular role in Traylor’s formative years as a salve, and a similar role after the defeat of Reconstruction.

Outside What?

“Outsider Art” positions art and artists in or outside the art world. “Art Brut” and “Outsider Art” were terms coined during the reign of the modernist avant-garde, in the 1940s and 1970s respectively. In this, whatever problems these concepts had, they initially positioned artists in and outside a conscious stream on ongoing aesthetic innovation, a stream in which a significant minority of artists had political sympathies with anarchist, socialist, and Marxist politics. But, as Boris Groys observes, the modern avant-garde became, in the late 20th century, a weak avant-garde; avoiding the strong politics of modern art, as well as the strong images of classical and popular culture.

There are number of reasons for this transition. First of all, the 19th and 20th century process of aesthetic innovation came to a close. In hindsight it is clear that the modernist succession of styles was, in fact, the birthing of the visual language of full capitalism. That this occurred against the wishes of past elites only indicates this process was a kind of “deflected cultural revolution.” In tandem with the attenuation of modernist art movements there were the wider political and ideological developments of the late 20th century; the dissolution of the USSR, the neoliberal turn, and the art world embrace of post-modernism.

The avant-garde, which had an oppositional role aesthetically, and sometimes politically, in the 19th and 20th centuries, moved away from expressionism, “metanarratives,” and totality, while, at the same time, becoming more and more open to capital. To be sure, art institutions had always been tied to money and corruption. But as long as the innovating dynamics of modern art remained important, the cultured bourgeois had to tolerate, at least to some degree, the anarchism and socialism of (some of) its artists. 

Moreover, the dominant ruling-class modern art ideology, based on Kant and Hegel, was “art for art’s sake.” Post-modernism tore down this ideology. In the 1980s and 1990s this was presented, in part, as a progressive dismantling of dominant white male narratives – and to some degree it was. But after the art world stripped art of its bourgeois social-spiritual use value it replaced it with… nothing. Art became, without a reason for being, increasingly utilitarian. And, pretense aside, the new mandarins of art remained, mostly, if slightly less, white, rich, and male. Artists concerned with individual subjectivity and social totality were progressively evicted from the art world. Social criticism was possible, even desirable, but only if it went so far.


So, if outsider art is defined against the inside of the art world, let us look at the material reality of the weak avant-garde. A 2018 study in the UK showed that working-class people were “hugely under-represented in the arts.” Less than 20 percent of people working in the visual arts, in the UK, were from working-class backgrounds. [1] Less than three percent were non-white. [2] In 2016 a study of the demographics of artists represented by New York’s most successful commercial galleries found that 80.5 percent of the artists represented were white, or 88.1 percent when non-US based artists were not considered. Only 8.8 percent of artists represented were Black. 68 percent were male. [3] US studies of this sort rarely look at social class. One can assume, however, a similar, or even worse, pattern as the aforementioned UK study. Nearly one in five artists in the New York study, for example, graduated from Yale. [4]

Inequality is reproduced within the art world as well. Only a few thousand visual artists in the US art world make a living full-time as artists. The art world is filled with middle- and working-class people who make up what Gregory Sholette calls its “dark matter;” working at no or little income to maintain the art world’s architecture. Moreover, a recent study of metadata, published in the journal Science, reported, what matters most in art world “success” are one’s social networks, who one knows personally, not the content, skill, form, innovativeness, or other qualities of one’s work. [5]

Squeezed between class polarization and new technology, the art market, has polarized — like retail more generally. On the one hand there are pedestrian art fairs and Etsy, on the other, high end galleries and international art fairs. The experimental and mid-range galleries, often the bedrock of modernist experimentation, are going out of business. The top of the art world has become increasingly meshed with finance capital. Writing of the contemporary art market, Rachel Wetzler observes:

“As contemporary art is increasingly viewed as an asset class – alongside equities, bonds, and real estate… artworks [are] often used a vehicle to hide or launder money, and artists encouraged to churn out works in market-approved styles, bringing about a decline in quality.” [6]

At street level, the art world is more and more complicit in gentrification. As cities have deindustrialized, local politicians have sought ways to economically diversify and repurpose urban spaces. While gentrification predates the 1964 coining of the term it has become increasingly important in US urban policy since the neoliberal turn, as has its relationship to art. Art institutions, starved for money since the decimation of federal arts funding in the 1990s culture wars, turned to opportunistic funds from real-estate and financial capital, as well as gentrifying local governments. Artists, although largely unpaid for the service, add aesthetic value to urban spaces, allowing real estate interests to price out working-class residents, and, ultimately, most artists as well.


“Insider Art” - Museum fundraiser designed by Marina Abramovic . Have dinner with the heads of underpaid models telegraphing hunger pains.



The art world is increasingly tied to finance capital, complicit in gentrification, ideologically hostile to individual subjective expression as well as collective emancipation, materially inhospitable to the working-class, to most women and people of color, practically inaccessible to poor and working-class (and even many middle-class) persons, and in many cases abusive to the working-class people who are already a part of it. The contemporary art world is even wary of the modern bourgeois idea of art, not to mention Romantic and pre-capitalist conceptions of art. In effect, the ideology, structure and economy of the weak avant-garde has made most of us outsiders. It is, in this way, making more and more art outsider art.

Academically-trained working-class artists who pretend their hard earned knowledge, their BFAs and MFAs, make them immune from this dynamic, are fooling themselves. It is understandable. We do not want to think of ourselves as art world dark-matter, permanent adjuncts, and stalking horses for gentrification. But this is what the art world is making of us, and what we must break from as workers, as artists, and as socialists.

Outsider Art vs. The Weak Avant-Garde

Outsider Art is not closer to the subconscious. However, much of the work categorized in this way does emphasize, to a much greater degree than contemporary institutional art, the importance of individual subjectivity and self-expression. By categorizing individual expression as naïve and quant, as outsider, the art world can commodify this expression while still embracing a post-human, technology-fetishizing, contemporary art. This art flatters the bourgeois ego. Working-class expression, however, is alien to the bourgeoisie. It is, by definition, “outside.”


Jesse Cylyde Howard posing with his installation.


Outsider Art is not more “authentic” than any other kind of art. However, the work described in this manner does tend toward a specificity of context, the interaction of the artist with an analog audience outside the rarefied art world, at least before the problematic “discovery” of said artist. Jesse Clyde Howard’s work was, almost in its entirety, a somewhat cranky argument with his neighbors. This dynamic holds out the promise of developing a constituency for experimental art beyond the institutional art world. This promise, however, is short-circuited by the way in which outsider art is then incorporated into the art world; denying or minimizing the agency of artists, minimizing the specificity of context (beyond biographies that exaggerate otherness), and often obscuring the content of work. Of course, when these artists begin to produce for the outsider art market they are often deemed “inauthentic.”

Outsider Art tends to emphasize content; even when that content is obscurantist, theological, or conspiratorial. The weak avant-garde tends to minimize content. Even political contemporary art tends to avoid clarity, lest it be seen as didactic. Much political contemporary art is “situationism without soviets,” tinkering with the signs of oppression, but disbelieving that oppression can ever be overcome. Therefore, the art world, starved for anything that actually says something, reifies outsider art. The form of saying something is celebrated. What is actually said must be, at least partially, hidden. This may be because an individual artist is a fundamentalist Christian lunatic. Or they may be an uncompromising throwback to the old left. Either way, the institutional art world, like the neoliberal political center, cannot really fathom these things in the concrete.

Many outsider artists engage in world-building. They present a counter-narrative to the world as is. This may or may not be progressive, intentionally “political” at all, and may be reactionary. But these artists present a totalizing mythology. The art world has been trained to disbelieve such things. This disbelief makes it much easier for the artifacts of the weak avant-garde to be incorporated into the art market and the (secretly) totalizing mythologies of neoliberal capital. Many outsider artists, by contrast, have a mission. Indeed, this is part of their great appeal in an art world that has been trained by school and conditioned by capitalist realism to be suspicious of larger purpose.


Mark Hogancamp’s Marwencol – which was the basis of the fine enough documentary Marwencol and the no doubt terrible Robert Zemeckis movie Welcome to Marwen. Hogancamp built a model fictional Belgian village perpetually in the middle of World War Two.


Lessons for Working-Class + Socialist Artists

1) Individual subjective expression remains important. Far from being bourgeois, it can be, in its very form, an argument against a depersonalizing post-human contemporary capitalist culture. 2) Socialist artists should aim to develop, both by the content of our work, and its geography and social orientation, constituencies beyond the art world. Indeed, these should come first, before the art world. 3) While our work need not always be didactic, we should embrace an overdetermined and unapologetic socialism in our art. This is much easier, of course, after you decide the art world is not your primary audience. 4) Borrowing from Lunacharsky’s concept of socialist “god-building,” as well as Ernst Fischer’s materialist analysis of art’s origins, we should take from so-called outsider art a campaigning construction of mythologies. Unlike, of course, evangelical artists like Howard Finster, our myths will focus on the intersection of the subjective individual with our collective emancipation; the existential and the social.


  1. Mark Brown, “Arts Industry Report Asks: Where Are All the Working-Class People?” The Guardian (April 16, 2018)

  2. Hette Judah, “The Art World is Overwhelmingly Liberal But Still Overwhelmingly Middle-Class and White – Why?” Frieze (July 6, 2018)

  3. Henn Nuendorf, “It’s Official, 80 percent of the Artists in NYC’s Top Galleries Are White,” ArtNet.com (June 2, 2017)

  4. Nuendorf

  5. Faye Flam, “In Art, Who You Know Pays Off More Than Hard Work,” Bloomberg (November 20, 2018)

  6. Rachel Wetzler, “How Modern Art Serves the Rich,” The New Republic (February 26, 2018)

Adam Turl is an artist and writer from southern Illinois (by way of upstate New York, Wisconsin, Chicago and St. Louis) living in Las Vegas, Nevada. His is the art and design editor at Red Wedge and an adjunct instructor at the University of Nevada - Las Vegas. He has an MFA from the Sam Fox School of Design and Visual Arts at Washington University in St. Louis, and a BFA from Southern Illinois University in Carbondale, Illinois. Turl’s most recent exhibitions include Revolt of the Swivel Chairs at the Cube Gallery (Las Vegas, NV 2018), The Barista Who Disappeared at Arspace 304 (Carbondale, IL 2018) and The Barista Who Could See the Future at Gallery 210 as part of Exposure 19 (St. Louis, MO 2017). In 2016 he received a fellowship and residency at the Cité Internationale des Arts in Paris, France. Turl’s Instagram is adamturl_art. His website, which he shares with writer Tish Markley, is evictedart.com.