Outsider art, as a term, lumps huge groups of disparate artists into one, messy, patronising heap. Whatever doesn’t fit easily into the art world must be ‘outside’ of it – whether that means the artist has learning difficulties or is just untrained. The categorisation can turn any such display into a freakshow, where us norms get to indulge in voyeurism of disabled people’s lives, or just pat them on the back for learning how to paint.
Fortunately – some condescending curatorial mumbo-jumbo aside – the Wellcome has concentrated on the art of these 46 artists who attend Japanese social welfare institutions, and not their lives. There’s plenty of background here, on the artists’ conditions and daily rituals, but you don’t need it. The narrative is still important, but this is art that can stand alone, and deserves to. From Yumiko Kawai’s intricate embroidery to Takako Shibata’s portraits of her mother, there’s some incredible work on display. If this was billed as a show of contemporary Japanese art, it would not only be valid, but stunning, accomplished and fascinating. Its ‘outsiderness’ doesn’t define it, its quality does.
What the outsider status does bring to the show, however, is a different set of intentions from contemporary art. This is art made as therapy or distraction, not as careerist commercialism. These artists aren’t trying to be the next Koons or Emin, they just create for the sake of it. There are no nods to art’s past, no clever in-jokes. It’s just art, and that’s incredibly liberating.