The world continues to find the extremely fascinating yet difficult phenomenon of outsider art problematic. Notwithstanding all the positive changes that have occurred in the recent years both in the mass awareness and academic approach to the topic, we can still observe not even a lack of widespread interest in art brut, but rather a strong sense of distance to this phenomenon. It is also accompanied by shamefaced uncertainty and/or patronising embrace of it as something deficient and more amateurish in comparison with the universe of “classic” art. It is plain to see that the topic still requires the development of a specific discourse and a conceptual apparatus that would make it possible to avoid moral traps, which are very easy to fall into while presenting or analysing art created by people with mental disabilities or those relegated for various reasons to the margins of social life.
Film seems to offer a perfect tool to present and propagate knowledge of outsider art and its representatives. The medium’s immanent qualities and form seem almost tailor-made for visual tales of this fascinating phenomenon. Film combines an analytical approach with a historical narrative that most often describes the life stories of individual artists, which are of immense importance for developing a comprehensive perspective. It is also characterised by a visual appeal and can thus depict the artists’ oeuvre without losses in quality and cognition. As such, film almost begs to become a tool in familiarising the audience with the field of art brut. Yet, the cinema world still remains almost entirely indifferent to the subject. Although documentaries about art outsiders are indeed made, they form a fraction of the film production.
As a person with a long history of engagement with the topic,
I can distinguish three main types of representation of outsider art in film. The first embraces short documentary films lasting less than twenty minutes, created entirely by enthusiasts with
a long-standing commitment to promoting this type of art. Their initiators, producers and makers are most often people active in propagating knowledge of art brut – scholars, researchers or owners of specialised galleries. Paradoxically enough, these films represent the lowest value both in artistic and cognitive terms. They very often follow the same, very simple and painfully amateurish scheme, filled almost entirely with a sequence of slowly changing photographs of the artists, their homes or studios as well as images of their works. Such a slide show, akin to a Power Point presentation, is accompanied by a doleful and empathic voice of the narrator who paints a clichéd picture of the artist’s life and work. The final nail in the coffin is usually put by often painfully sentimental music unrelated to the presented works, which emotionally blackmails and terrorises the viewer, as it were, trying to elicit sympathy for the artist’s miserable fate.
The second type are documentaries commissioned by television stations – longer (usually several dozen minutes) and much more professionally produced. They do not strike the viewer as amateurish, as opposed to the above discussed “fan” videos. Such films present the topic in questions on a much more spectacular scale. However, they are still far from perfect as they usually manifest all the typical flaws of television productions – they follow a popular-scientific format oriented towards simple presentation of facts and a superficial approach to the topic that focusses primarily on those elements of the artists’ life and work that may prove attractive and sensational for the viewer.
The third and most valuable type of films devoted to outsider art are feature-length professional documentaries, unfortunately still very scarce. Some of the reasons for this shortage are obvious: production of a classic documentary comes at a considerable cost required to thoroughly research the topic, clear copyright to include images of works and cover the expenses of the film crew that needs to reach all possible sources. Yet, such films betray a certain mysterious and striking characteristic, which may even come across as a conspiracy of directors and screenwriters – they almost never feature such terms as “outsider art” or “art brut,” and if they do appear, they are mentioned in passing, perhaps one or two times throughout the ninety minutes of the film. What is more, the issue is immediately turned around with the claim that the artists should not be stigmatised by such a categorisation because, after all, “art is art, one way or another.” Such an approach of the filmmakers can be rationally explained by the lack of appropriate conceptual apparatus, mentioned at the very beginning, and all the prejudices and fallacious views that have accumulated around the topic in the course of time.
We can only hope that the clearly visible change in approach to outsiders and their increasingly widespread acceptance combined with admiration of their art – which slowly ceases to be viewed as inferior to academic art and instead becomes a separate branch in the history of human artistic activity – the world of film will take a closer look at this still unexplored and exotic (to put it cynically) territory. What comes as a harbinger of positive change is the fact that already more than a decade ago one of such documentaries, Yessika Yu’s “In the Realms of the Unreal”, devoted to one of the “emperors” of outsider art, Henry Darger, came close to the most famous award in global cinematography – in 2005, it received an Oscar nomination for the best feature-length documentary. The growing awareness and knowledge of art brut allows us to look into the future with optimism and hope that outsider art will find its place in the powerful and influential film universe.