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Review of "Outsider Art and Art Therapy"

By Rachel Cohen
Jessica Kingsley, 2017
Review by Mark Welch on Nov 28th 2017
Outsider Art and Art Therapy

What is (Outsider) Art, and what is Art Therapy, and where, if at all, do they intersect, overlap, coexist, sit in opposition or relate to each other? These are some of the questions that Cohen, an Art Therapist herself, looks to explore in this slim, but welcome volume. She suggests that they have shared histories, common problems of definition, and perhaps a mutually reflexive future, and in this she sees deeper currents of social construction and identity issues.

Outsider Art, a term that first emerged in 1972 in direct reference to what Dubuffet called art brut, has usually been taken to mean art works produced by those "outside" the mainstream art world (the art world, it may be noted, not necessarily the world in general), particularly psychiatric patients, children, prisoners and so on; but its relationship to what is art practiced by those in therapy and art therapy has been less clear.

Of course, art works produced by "outsiders" is not new, and certainly the history of psychiatric art has been well-studied. Art Therapy on the other hand is a relative newcomer as a discipline (and curiously Cohen calls both themes "disciplines"). It certainly has roots in art produced by patients, perhaps in a way to occupy their time or in the fashion of a hobby, but did not emerge as a term or establish theoretical underpinnings until the 1940s, and when it did it leant heavily on psycho-analysis and its off-shoots. Would the works of the like of John Martin or Richard Dadd be considered Art Therapy? Probably not, although they might, in modern terms, be considered Outsider Artists.

Herein lies the major question, and the major difficulty for Cohen; to what extent do Outsider Art and Art Therapy have a shared history? Did one emerge from the other? Are they different branches of the same tree? Are they separate species of the same genus, or separate genera of the same family?

To some extent Cohen avoids this question. She discusses the notion of Outsider Art and considers transgressive movements such as Dadaism, but although the works in question may be deliberately provocative (Duchamps' 'ready-made" pieces for example), they were also made to be exhibited; there is little suggestion that they were in any way a therapeutic exercise. Conversely, many major museums (The Metropolitan Museum of Modern Art in New York is one she cites, and some, like the Bethlem Royal or the Wellcome Collection in the UK or the E.C. Dax collection in Australia have specialized in it) have amassed collections of works that were not made to be exhibited, and even if they were not produced in formal Art Therapy, they were in a greater sense personal – and this can raise questions of appropriation.

The problem of definition is something that Cohen acknowledges but somehow dos not quite nail down. Art Therapy may be formalized – people study and take degrees and have formal employment as Art Therapists. It may have a body of theoretical concepts; it may be therapeutic in an intentional way; it may, as some have posited, have predictive or diagnostic qualities. And while Art Therapy may be produced by Outsider Artists, not all Outsider Artists will fall within the understanding of what is Art Therapy. She never quite seems to be clear on the questions of process and product; but to be fair she acknowledges some of these problems in her opening Preface.

The book is well-illustrated, both with the familiar (Blake, Gaugin, Hogarth) and with works from less known sources including Cohen's own gallery and practice, and the cultural references within the text seem inconsistent, as if it is not quite clear to whom the book is addressed. Is it the art world, the Art Therapy establishment, artists (insiders and outsiders), students, researchers, clinicians, the general reader? It is not always easy to decide.

It may sound like damning with faint praise to say that the book is a curate's egg, but it is not meant to be. Sometimes the book cannot seem to decide what it wants to be. It is wrestling with a difficult subject. It is trying to draw attention to important, but in some way unfinished issues and questions, and it may well be that the scope of the subject is beyond the limits of a slim volume and would benefit from a more extended consideration and some conscientious editing. It is a rich and complicated topic. It is complex and sometimes ambiguous and ambivalent and Cohen has done it a great service by adding to the discussion. The book bears re-reading, and will generate fruitful debate and future considerations.


© 2017 Mark Welch


Mark Welch, Vancouver, BC