In 2011, Sam Farber was honored by the American Folk Art Museum with the Visionary Award, a recognition of his longtime commitment to outsider art. At the ceremony he spoke sincerely about the effect that outsider art has had on his life. Since he began collecting, in 1984, Sam has played an instrumental role in bringing outsider art to the public eye. As trustee of the American Folk Art Museum, he was a driving force behind the founding of the museum's Contemporary Center, in 1997, and the development of the Henry Darger Study Center, in 2000.
As I listened to Sam speak about artists like Henry Darger, Adolf Wölfli, Madge Gill, and Pascal Verbena, I wondered why outsider art is distinguished as a separate artistic genre. Is it because the people who created it live on the periphery of society? They are often institutionalized for mental illness, and are always self-taught. Even so, how is the art itself different from the art we see in "mainstream" museums or galleries? The more I thought about it, the more I questioned the integrity of "outsider art" as a distinct category.
When Dubuffet coined the term art brut (French for "raw art"), in the mid-1940s, he believed that mainstream art suffered from being weighed down by historical reverence and academicism: its self-awareness as art made it too much a product of culture and not enough a reflection of humankind's knee-jerk impulse to create. He sought to find art that did not belong to any cultural system, and he compiled a collection of art that otherwise would never have reached the public eye.
Dubuffet commenced his search for outsider art in European mental institutions that had collected the art of their patients. In the first half of the twentieth century, many doctors were determined to find correlations between their patients' illnesses and the art they produced, while others, such as Leo Navratil (at the Maria Gugging Psychiatric Clinic), observed that making art served a cathartic function for his patients, and encouraged its creation. Since then, galleries, museums, art fairs, and publications continue to study and expand the field. Those recognized as outsider artists are now exhibiting in mainstream institutions, and well-known artists are influenced by previous generations of outsider art.
In Sam Farber's apartment, surrounded by the work of the great outsider artists of the last century, we discussed the polemic surrounding outsider art, how it became accepted as a legitimate art form, and what he sees for its future.
THE BELIEVER: Is there a difference between folk art and outsider art?
SAM FARBER: In my mind there is a difference. They are both self-taught, but folk art, as a rule, relates to traditional art. It comes from tradition, going back to the early eighteenth century, let's say, and the folk art of that period has continued that way. I find it to be interesting, but I think that outsider art is much more complicated, especially in terms of the depth of the individual artist's emotional input.
BLVR: Folk art is more culturally informed—having to do more with a collective consciousness?
SF: I think I would put it differently. Folk art follows the tradition. Outsider artists like Darger and Wölfli are culturally informed, but use that to express a strong personal emotion.