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It's a question that bedevils collectors and critics, who also worry about related terms such as folk art, self-taught art, vernacular art, naive art and primitive art -- words on which there is little consensus about appropriateness or even meaning.
Roughly, though, a working definition of outsider art could go like this:
Works of art -- paintings, drawings, sculptures, assemblages, and idiosyncratic gardens and other outdoor constructions -- produced by people who have had little or no formal training in art and who produce (or at least began by producing) art without regard to the mainstream art world's recognition or marketplace.
These are people who make art for themselves or their immediate community, usually without recognizing themselves as artists, at least until some collector or expert comes along to inform that they are making art.
There are a number of problems with the concept, however. There is implied elitism, for one, since outsider art implies there is someone inside designating these others as outside. And just what are they outside of? Art schools? Museums? The gallery world? Culture altogether (which some see in the extremes of insane art -- the original paradigm for outsider art)?
How outside must someone be to qualify, and what happens when they are discovered by art aficionados and start being influenced by them? Finally, why not call their work just plain art? Why segregate it?
These questions have been debated at length in any number of books and articles, but as a matter of convenience the term remains in wide use. Partly it seems to persist for commercial reasons -- demarcating a particular sector of the art market -- but it also remains a handy shorthand for work that is seen to have different motivations, histories and concerns than that generally produced by art school graduates.
Its visionary quality, putative naivete or innocence, unpretentiousness, freedom from formal constraints, ingenious use of materials, left-field creativity, wild subject matter or some combination of those qualities are not exclusive to outsider art, of course, but they are to some extent typical of it.