Categorizing Self-Taught Art

Work by self-taught artists has been called by many names. Discuss with your students the effect of a name. Why is giving something a name important? What influence can a name have on the thing named? Can a name be beneficial? Can it bring harm?

“Outsider,” “folk,” “art brut,” and “naïve” are all terms that have been applied to this kind of work. Each implies something different about the artists and is problematic when used to categorize a broad swath of makers without a common background, form of training, or even style.

Try this pre-activity with your students to explore the meaning of names.

Overall, a good rule of thumb is to remember that the name of the style depends on a number of things: the artist’s style, the artist’s background, and the art historian who is doing the categorization. Although “self-taught” is the term more often used today, it is not always the best choice. Encourage your students to be critical thinkers and to challenge convention—a tactic that applies not just to art categorization but to other subjects as well.

The essays in the exhibition catalogue focus on the issues of categorization and naming in detail, and you may want to refer to them for more information on this topic.