Pop Culture
Jul 13, 2010, 09:27AM

Outsider Art in the Digital Age

A very public display of insanity.

Though the term “outsider art” has as many conditions as there are artists, there must be a very rare, insular set of circumstances which can produce an artist who is genuinely disconnected and unmolested by the art world. At the core of the “outsider” definition is the fact that an outsider artist must have no formal art training, and even more significantly than that, have minimal or no interaction with art culture, or even better, popular culture. And contrary to popular perception, an outsider artist doesn’t necessarily have to be insane or a criminal—but as with most occupations, it helps.

Of course, there are myriad sub-terms to define those outsiders who want to be professional artists, who are art hobbyists, who took high school art classes, who like to look at art in museums, who live on the moon, and so forth—but it all comes down to one essential thing: there is no aesthetic reason to apply these designations, and it’s often done for the sole purpose of marketing. There are no creators whom we’ve labeled “outsider artists” who actually label themselves as such, unless it’s to some superficial financial advantage. Outsider art is a scary, weird expression of alien preoccupations, and to us, it’s almost always more about the creator than it is the product itself. It’s our strange voyeuristic preoccupation with society’s outsiders trying to explain who they are, but without us having to actually touch them. So, what do you call it when the artist is radically transparent?

When the term “outsider artist” was coined in 1972, it focused on artists creating in isolation—generally mental isolation as well as physical, and many outsider artists were not discovered until they had already passed away. Now, with the Internet creating a nearly omnipresent interconnectedness, aspiring artists who once would’ve toiled in obscurity are free to spread themselves as far as their obsessions take them. This is not to say we’re in some kind of Good Will Hunting scenario wherein we are enriched with the unexpected discovery of a creative prodigy. This feels far more like an autopsy, as evidenced by the prolific output of a few unusual Internet characters whose personae are as expressive as their artwork, changing the “outsider” dynamic significantly. They might lead quiet lives at home and minimize their physical interactions with the world, but their online presence and interactions are significant.

I’m inclined to first mention the extensive, scrawling output of Christian Weston Chandler—a character so fascinating that there is a gargantuan Wikipedia dedicated solely to analyzing and understanding his art and unusual exploits. As an unemployed, late twentysomething man with Asperger’s Syndrome, he has spent at least a decade constructing comics about “Sonichu,” his amalgamation of Sonic the Hedgehog and Pikachu, which he adamantly declares is a completely original entity. This comic, which he apparently intends for children to read, involves a great deal of repressed sexual desires and jokes culled directly from Family Guy, while it also serves as a kind of autobiography-by-proxy in which he’s supplanted himself as the homophobic, racist mayor of an entire town with an elaborate justice system patrolled by psychic animals and his dead dog. It would be surrealist if it weren’t so sad.

Chandler’s obsession with his imaginary world is a common characteristic of “outsiders,” but is also overshadowed by videos that Chandler has made of himself fornicating with inflatable women and freely admitting to incontinence, breaking the weird veil that has always separated the art from the artist within the outsider world. Can we still classify Internet-enabled artists as outsider when the online world is very “inside”? Or do we make up another superficial designation?

Technology has also shifted the mediums that are available to outsider artists. My favorite example of this is Fred and Sharon’s Movies, a truly strange little outfit based out of British Columbia. Fred tends to keep a lower personal profile beneath his art, but by day, we’ve been able to assess that Fred sells bread at local fairs. By night, a terrifying and innocently strange Fred emerges and constructs hilarious, unexpected videos using rudimentary animation software. It’s an exercise in unintentional non sequitur that is unrelentingly weird—bigfoot rock shows that go on for far too long, celebrity dating advice from his wife, and holiday messages with guttural, off-key Santas that have been spawned from the depths of nightmare.

I still don’t think that the “outsider” designation has any practical validity in any non-commercial sense, as it’s one of the few terms (if not the only term) which places the state of the artist over the aesthetic, but if we’re going to continue to throw it around, we need to consider the implications that Web 2.0 has created. As the Internet becomes an essential aspect of daily life for more people, the probability increases that there’s just no such thing as outsider artists anymore—at least under the definition we currently use. Unless they’re locked in an attic and fed through a slot, “outsider” artists might not actually exist for much longer.


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