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JUL-AUG 2021

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JUL-AUG 2021 Issue
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On Being Sane

Roger Cardinal coined the term “outsider” in 1972, using examples of European art, and specifically the work of psychiatric hospital patients collected by the artist Jean Dubuffet under the heading of Art Brut.1 He argued therein for both the specificity and salience of visual displays of excessive subjectivity, and prized artists for summoning forth inner visions. Like Dubuffet, Cardinal kept outsider art and its ecstatic devotional practices apart from mainstream culture, characterizing tendencies of alienation, whether through developmental disabilities, psychosis, or the seemingly more benign but no less determinant geographical remove from urban modernity. Thus we have the making of antimodern ciphers, freer and more authentic than professional artists.

Indeed, this version of the outsider’s claim on expression has been embraced as an alternate orthodoxy predicated upon marginality and sovereign, sui generis creativity, expressed particularly—perversely—in the most adverse of circumstances. Despite the fact that it does not refer to a defined movement or a stylistic cohort, by the early 1990s, “outsider” art had itself become part of professionalized galleries, fairs, and discourses, apart from—while structurally homologous with—the contemporary art world. Writing in Artforum in 1992, Judith McWillie described a predatory, extra-institutional approach leading to the gathering of “vanloads of works by newly ‘discovered’ artists at a fraction of gallery prices … [and] encounter[s with] the visionary imperative in its rawest states.”2 Perhaps it goes without saying that this admits that the issue is not one of the intrinsic qualities of the art, but rather of gatekeeping (and what Gary Fine called out as “reputational entrepreneurs”3). Beyond the conspicuousness of racism and ableism, so, too, is the privileging of the connoisseur’s curatorial narrative of discovery: a person as found object, the nominalism of the readymade applied to a subject at its crudest and cruelest.

The distribution of privilege was the great subject of Lynne Cooke’s recent Outliers exhibition.4 Cooke’s notion of the outlier is colloquial (following Malcolm Gladwell), framing “distances nearer and farther from an aggregate so that being at variance with the norm can be a position of strength: a place negotiated or sought out rather than predetermined and fixed.”5 That this neatly accords with the DSM-5’s dimensional approach from 2013 is worth noting: here statistical variance is not necessarily pejorative, or maladaptive either, but an admission that we exist on spectrums of disorders, all. Yet how we mark and are marked by this intensity, and to what extent we habituate (the better as to accommodate not defy conditions of inequality) to anyhow incommensurate circumstances, are other matters altogether.   

In 1972, the same year that Cardinal coined “outsider,” psychologist David Rosenhan designed and implemented a foundational study challenging the validity of psychiatric diagnoses, which he published in January 1973 in the journal Science. It appeared under the title “On Being Sane In Insane Places.”6 The experiment consisted of eight people with no history of psychopathology attempting intake into psychiatric hospitals; all of these “pseudopatients” were admitted with a diagnosis of schizophrenia or bipolar disorder, and put under care of psychiatrists who medicated them. They were ultimately released (in many days or weeks) on the condition that they accepted their diagnosis (despite having no such condition).

In bringing these issues to the fore in this context of a re-evaluation of mysticism, I wish simply to highlight the terms through which it has become a radical heuristic—one that I am arguing obtains more for the assessor than the assessed. We might dwell on how this has come to be, and further still, reflect on how it represents neither a perennialist take on religious (or even parapsychological) experience nor a more historically specific epistemology of process-driven experimentation; it grants only the othering of pathology. In 2006 Cardinal qualified his earlier account of severed, or at least subordinated, reference, finally suggesting proximity of a kind, and maybe equivocal possibility:

This domain would remain entirely hermetic … if we did not, first, approach the work in an empathetic manner; and, second, extract something recognizable from within the bewildering cascade of novelties. A completely self-sufficient artwork, nourished by unadulterated internal resources and bearing not the slightest imprint of externality, would in truth be both an improbable ideal and something we could never hope to appreciate.7

  1. Roger Cardinal, Outsider Art (London: Studio Vista, 1972).
  2. Judith McWillie, “Lonnie Holley’s Moves,” Artforum Vol. 30, No. 8 (April 1992), p. 80.
  3. Gary Fine, cited in David Maclagan, From the Margins to the Marketplace (London: Reaktion Books, 2009), p. 66.
  4. Suzanne Hudson, “Personal Voyages,” Outliers and American Vanguard Art (Washington: The National Gallery of Art, 2018), pp. 116–127.
  5. Lynne Cooke, “Boundary Trouble: Navigating Margin and Mainstream,” Outliers and American Vanguard Art (Washington: The National Gallery of Art, 2018), p. 4.
  6. David L. Rosenhan, “On Being Sane in Insane Places,” Science, New Series, Vol. 179, No. 4070. (Jan. 19, 1973), pp. 250–258.
  7. Roger Cardinal, “Worlds Within,” Inner Worlds Outside (Dublin: The Irish Museum of Modern Art, 2006), pp. 23–24.


Suzanne Hudson

Suzanne Hudson is an art historian and critic based in Los Angeles. Recent books include Agnes Martin: Night Sea (2017; 2020) and Contemporary Painting (2021).


The Brooklyn Rail

JUL-AUG 2021

All Issues