The Beginner’s Guide to Outsider Art and Ableism


Is Outsider Art ableist? Let’s look to The Beginner’s Guide, a video game made in 2015, to understand how a viewer’s perception of an artist can change an artwork. Watch the essay in video form here.


Watch the essay as a video on Youtube.
Chapter 1: The Beginner’s Guide to The Beginner’s Guide
Chapter 2: What is Outsider Art?
Chapter 3: A Critique of Outsider Art by a Disabled Person
Chapter 4: Art does NOT give you access to the creator

Chapter 1: The Beginner’s Guide to The Beginner’s Guide

Can you get to know an artist only through their work? This is the question that drives Davey Wreden’s video game The Beginner’s Guide. The game’s main inquiry question is probably most directly stated in its trailer:

“Let’s say you sit down at a stranger’s computer … you come to a folder that just says “My Work” … now try to imagine, without having met this person, who they are? Let’s find out if you’re right.”

The Beginner’s Guide is a narrative video game released in fall 2015. According to the Game’s official website: 

“It lasts about an hour and a half and has no traditional mechanics, no goals or objectives. Instead, it tells the story of a person struggling to deal with something they do not understand.”

It was created, directed, designed, and written by Davey Wreden and it was released under the studio name Everything Unlimited Ltd. Wreden narrates the game, telling the player that the game is about a collection of video games made between 2008-11 by a developer named Coda. I’m going to refer to Wreden’s in-game presence as “the narrator” because his role is written and scripted to be part of the game’s story. The narrator tells us that despite only meeting Coda a few times, his work was very inspirational to him. 

“I met Coda in early 2009 at a time when I was really struggling with some personal stuff, and his work pointed me in a very powerful direction, I found it to be a good reference point for the kinds of creative works that I wanted to make.”

The narrator also said that he was worried about Coda because he assumed he was troubled and reclusive, providing analysis of Coda’s games to justify this opinion.  

“Seeing this game at the time that he made it, it looked very unhealthy to me. I was watching him do this to himself, and I hated it. I hated seeing him so trapped.”

The speaker states he had to share Coda’s work without his consent because it needs to be seen by others so Coda can develop self-confidence. Sharing without consent is one thing, but the narrator also takes it upon himself to interpret and even add to Coda’s work, changing each level from its intended version in order to make each game more accessible and palatable to the player.

“You walk down a corridor, you solve a puzzle, you get to the end. Simple enough. Alright, now I’m going to modify the game again so that when you press the ‘Use’ key on your gamepad it’ll remove all of the walls from this room. How about that, there was more to it than we had any way of knowing.”

The narrator states: “Art gives you access to the creator.”  But is this true? Well, no. The whole entire experience of the game goes on to show you that art does NOT give you access to the creator. How can it?

The narrator interprets Coda’s games incorrectly, suggesting that he is crying out for attention and seeking external validation for his work. It turns out this wasn’t the case at all, and the narrator was actually assuming things based on his own experience and point of view.

“I guess if someone had told me ahead of time that he just really enjoyed making prison games, maybe I wouldn’t have thought he was so desperate? I wouldn’t have told so many people that he was depressed. Maybe he just likes making prisons.”

At the end of The Beginner’s Guide, Coda creates a game to tell the narrator that he doesn’t appreciate the narrator’s meddling in his work or process. That he makes what he makes for himself, not the narrator or anyone else. The narrator also discovers that his interpretation of Coda’s work says more about himself than it does about Coda. 

“Heh, it’s strange, but the thought of not being driven by external validation is unthinkable, like I actually cannot conceive of what that would be like! What now? I think I need to go. And…I’m sorry, because I know that I said I would be here and I would walk you through this, but. I’m starting to feel like I have a lot of work to do. I have a lot that I need to make up for. And so I’m… just going to… Okay.”

OK, that’s a summary of what The Beginner’s Guide is about in terms of its narrative and gameplay. There’s a lot of speculation about The Beginner’s Guide in relation to its own creator. Did Davey Wreden make this as an autobiographical game? How much of himself did he put into the game? Many people think the game could be about how Wreden’s life changed after he released his first successful title, The Stanley Parable (2013). But The Beginner’s Guide, by its very premise, asks us to be very careful about this thought. Does The Beginner’s Guide give us access to Wreden? What if we played both of Wreden’s games? Would we be able to gain an understanding of who he is as a person through his game development choices? What do you think?


Chapter 2: What is Outsider Art?

Let’s take it a step further: what if an artist couldn’t tell you how they were feeling? And what if your favourite artist could draw or paint, but they otherwise couldn’t speak or advocate for themselves? Would you be able to interpret their imagery and understand them as if you had a meaningful conversation? Outsider Art is a branch of art that tends to assume that art gives you access to the creator’s inner landscape. 

Simply put, Outsider Art is art made by self-taught artists who are not part of any artistic establishment.

The history of outsider artists began in asylums with schizophrenic, autistic, and other mentally ill and physically disabled people making art. During the early twentieth century, Hans Prinzhorn, a German psychiatrist and art historian, took an interest in the work of his mentally ill patients. He began studying and collecting his patients’ artwork with the hope that it would reveal something useful about the inner worlds of those he was trying to help. Until the last century or so, art was seen more as a trade or a craft rather than a form of self-expression. This need for raw self-expression by disabled people was shocking to viewers at the time.

Prinzhorn’s book Artistry of the Mentally Ill was released in 1922 and it quickly became the foundational text on the topic. It’s important to know that Prinzhorn’s interest wasn’t only diagnostic, it was also aesthetically driven. He wanted to stake a claim in art history. His book thoroughly described ten people that he dubbed the “schizophrenic masters,” documenting their artworks and personal histories. 

Prinzhorn’s book became popular with artists in the decade after its release because many were looking for a new, more pure form of art making after the end of World War I. French artist Jean Dubuffet was particularly inspired by this text. He collected art from people in institutions and coined the term Art Brut, or Raw Art, and he fiercely protected this collection and concept, selectively applying the label where he thought it was most appropriate. He reinforced Prinzhorn’s early psychiatric findings that a disabled artist’s creative output is strictly segregated from the sophisticated academic world of trained artmaking. It was something “authentic” and new.

Roger Cardinal, an art historian, translated and built on Dubuffet’s ideas since the early 1970’s. He coined the term Outsider Art for English speakers in 1972, and then went on to create more arbitrary designations of who was and wasn’t considered an outsider based on his own opinions. In 2009, he wrote an essay that clarified that he believed Autistic people weren’t outsider artists because outsider art was about being a visionary, and Autistic people produce work that’s too formulaic and representational due to the type of disability they have.  

As I will continue to explain later, the whole category and history of outsider art is flawed and based on the assumptions of a few people sharing their interpretations of others’ artworks. This branch of art was and is reserved for groups of people that were assumed to be unimportant until they did something that a few historians deemed interesting. It’s worthwhile to remember that the term ‘outsider art’ is literal in the way that it describes how there are insiders (trained, welcomed people) and outsiders (untrained, unwelcome people) in the art world. 

Outsider art is a big umbrella term, by the way, and it also tends to include or overlap with naive (or untrained) art, spiritual art, folk art, and children’s art. So in addition to the mentally ill and physically disabled, outsider art is also made by the uneducated, the religious, the poor, the rural, the racialized, and actual children.

The secret ingredient in all of this is ableism (discrimination against disabled people), but sexism, racism, classism, and ageism certainly play a part too. The lines between educated and uneducated artists are blurry, with many educated artists often being described as outsider artists, because of their approach to artmaking that’s inspired by marginalized people (Jean Dubuffet, Paul Klee, Jean-Michel Basquiat, and Pablo Picasso, among others). Insiders have often benefited from their faux outsider status.

So as discussed, this category of art has historically been a real mixed bag for disabled and marginalised artists. As Thea Hurwitz, contributor for Studio Gallery succinctly wrote:

“The establishment of Outsider Art as a genre created many opportunities for artists with disabilities, but also raised questions of exploitation and fetishization, as well as the inherent othering of the term. … Works by self-taught artists were newly legitimized in the art world, but were often falsely labelled as ‘primitive’ and simply used as inspiration for well-known contemporary artists. Many established artists envied, and almost fetishized, the way Outsider artists employed their natural creativity without artistic input from others, but often ignored the reality of these artists’ experiences as marginalized people.”

While it may seem optimal to provide disabled artists opportunities in niche fields, being categorized as an outsider artist is likely to stifle long-term opportunities.  Theoretically outsider status gives these artists a platform, but it will never grant them wider recognition beyond this cult status, and considering that the artist cannot be separated from their collectors and advocates, it strips away their autonomy.  Similar to the outcomes of racial and  gender based segregation, by narrowing these artists into strict categories, or castes, opportunities to participate in the wider cultural context are also narrowed.

In contrast to all of the expressed concerns,  John Maizels, the founder of Raw Vision Magazine, justifies his love of Outsider Art with these sentiments: 

“It’s not for sale and most of it isn’t even done to be exhibited. When I came across it I was just so amazed by it, it was so powerful and it had such strong personal meaning… people are revealing themselves, their demons, their own aspirations, their own inner feelings. … you’re right inside someone’s creative world and it’s an extraordinary experience. They [outsider artists] don’t go to exhibitions or private views, they just work. They’ve got an inner compulsion.”

This sounds a lot like how the narrator speaks about Coda in The Beginner’s Guide, doesn’t it?

We’re told that outsider art is mystical and profound, and we’re told that it gains these properties because it’s made by marginalized people that are ignorant of their own artmaking, and they paradoxically know more about art by knowing less about it formally. This artistic label demonstrates the inherent discrimination in art establishment thinking that is lurking just below the surface of what is considered mainstream art.

Part of the reason why categories like this one proliferate is because they act as marketing gimmicks in the art market. Capitalism necessitates demand, and thus is the role of the capitalist to take advantage of niche markets when they can. The reason why people are resistant to change their perspectives on ideas relating to the “outsider artist” is because people have already invested in the market. There is not integration for disabled/queer/racialized/poor artists so long as the art market exists as it currently does, because the demand of such a market relies on the “othering” of those specific group identities.

Prinzhorn, Dubuffet, and Cardinal all made names for themselves by staking their claims in relation to others’ work through their interpretations. The artists they categorized and interpreted were vulnerable people that were often unable to advocate for themselves. The flawed writings of these scholars are entangled with the work of generations of disabled and marginalized artists in our books and records, shaping our thoughts and perceptions.

In The Beginner’s Guide, the narrator tries to stake a claim to Coda’s work through his discovery and interpretation of it. By the end of the game, the narrator learns to listen to the artist he was infringing upon, coming to the understanding that his perception of someone else’s art was warped by his own need for external validation. The narrator’s commentary and the artist’s work go their own separate ways.


Chapter 3: A Critique of Outsider Art by a Disabled Person

To fully engage with the idea of insider and outsider artists, it’s important to consider any biases that you might hold when looking at a disabled person’s work because what we’re told about art shapes our perception of it. Let’s keep that in mind as we look at two artworks by two different artists.

Matthew, an Autistic person and trained artist, wrote the following critique of Outsider Art. 

Image on the left: Portrait by anonymous artist (approximately age 6), 2017,
Image on the right: Self portrait (approximately age 23), 2014

The image on the left is a print created in 2017 by a young person attending an art class, and the image on the right is a drawing created by yours truly during my freshman year at University in 2014.  

While they look radically different at first glance, both of these images are portraits of the same person (me!) and they took roughly the same amount of time to produce. We see a much more sporadic and abstract image on the left, presented next to its polar opposite on the right: a rigidly representational drawing in the foreground with lazily drawn ink splatters in the background to cynically meet specific classroom criteria.

Despite lacking the technical skill to fully render a representational face, this young person rendered my likeness with striking attention to detail. The artist was able to identify my key facial features through keen observation. Similarly to how I drew my own portrait, they incorporated short hair, spirited eyebrows, bags under the eyes, an evenly groomed beard, and my famously monotone expression.  

Even the oblong shape of the head was no accident, because they were working on a rectangular foam plate and they opted to maximise the space of the drawing surface. Many children of their age do not have the capability to consider the use of space on the page, often resulting in small drawings or empty, unused space.

Since this image is a print, the artist did not have the means to precisely place colours where desired, they instead creatively blocked out the colours in broad strokes using a limited palette.  Few colours are used, and the orientation they are placed expresses an understanding of who they were modelling the print after; the blue highlights the hair, red accentuates the tired eyes, and yellow was used as the Simpsons equivalent of white skin.

Though the differences in terms of skill between both artists is obvious, their similarities are what make these examples important; both artists are neuro-divergent, both were non-verbal during their childhood, and both have had their proclivities for art making attributed to their disability. In other words they would be considered “savants,” which derives from the ableist term “idiot savant.” 

Their artmaking would be considered a compulsion first and a skill second. Despite the level of education, knowledge, and effort involved, it’s the personal qualities of the artists involved that would become the focal point, rather than their technical skills, or what they have to say with their art.

To me, the only difference between the anonymous child artist and I that day was that we were at different places in our lives and art education: I was in university while they were in an art lesson. This print was a gift from the non-verbal child artist because I (gently) reprimanded their mother for casually speaking about their child’s disability to me as though they were not present. A child being non-verbal does not make them ignorant to how you speak about them.  Although the young artist could not yet properly articulate it through words, they demonstrated that they understood what I said by enthusiastically gifting me the print.  It’s the only artwork I hang on my wall. 

The stories that we tell about artists and their artworks matter. There are no insiders or outsiders, there are only people at different ages and skills making things for their own reasons. We should let them speak for themselves whenever we can, and when they can’t we certainly shouldn’t assume. 

Written by Matthew, 2022.

Chapter 4: Art does NOT give you access to the creator 

The narrator in The Beginner’s Guide asks, “So if your role here is not to understand, then what is it?”

I don’t know if there’s a single correct answer to that question. Being an artist is one role and being an art viewer is another. Maybe the viewer’s role is to embrace and accept that interpretation is inevitable, because the human brain wants to make sense of what it’s seeing and it can only do so in relation to itself. But in another way, isn’t interpretation the act of claiming partial ownership of someone else’s work? By interpreting someone’s artwork, you are adding new meaning or value, as well as stripping away the author’s intentions. Interpretation can be an additive or a destructive process. 

 Interpretations or misinterpretations made by audiences can have massive cultural rippling effects that can positively or negatively transform an author’s intended message. For example, Matt Furie created Pepe the Frog for his graphic novel Boy’s Club. He intended Pepe to be a little brother-like character in a friend group, but his character was co-opted from its comic context to become a meme and then a hate symbol, and all of this landed him on a database of hate crime-related imagery through no doing of his own. It was the viewer’s interpretations of Pepe that changed him, not the creator’s.

The Beginner’s Guide and Outsider Art present us with this problem too: how much are our interactions with art mediated by our own experiences and biases? It should make us wonder if we are able to be self-aware enough to set aside our prejudices when viewing works by people whose experiences are outside our own. There are plenty of instances of outsider artists that didn’t make artwork to be seen or couldn’t express otherwise, like Vivian Mier and Henry Darger, and these figures should make us ask ourselves: should we look at and interpret someone’s work when they probably didn’t want us to? 

Another question we need to ask ourselves: is looking at the work of disabled people a form of voyeurism? It can be. As art critic Ian Patel writes in his article Outside Looking In, “Exhibitions of marginal artwork are fundamentally different from mainstream art exhibitions: they demand a duty of care.”

Viewing art is not a passive activity. We actively construct frameworks and meanings that then change the opinions of others, maybe even without them noticing. Outsider art is a category of art that makes assumptions about those who have been compartmentalised into distinct groups, spreading them academically in order to justify cultural myths for collectors and institutions to earn them wealth and recognition. We should be wary of labels like these, taking care to ask who benefits.

The work produced by disabled artists deserves to be shown alongside work created by all other types of artists. This artwork should be celebrated for its unique artistic choices and rationale, just as anyone else’s work is.  Disabled people share the same space with everyone else and their insights and contributions should be afforded the same considerations, including privacy. Their participation in the art world is both personal and professional, and it serves to disrupt the neurotypical bias that invisibly permeates all aspects of life.  

The idea of the outsider artist makes the perceived uselessness of a person useful, but that way of thinking is reductive and it really only serves to create avenues to generate capital and notoriety for its discovery. Art by disabled people is not a genre, it’s just art.

To conclude, I’d like to share a quote by artist and writer Adam Turl from his article “Outsider Art is a Lie”

“… we can only learn from [outsider] art if we treat it as genuine conscious work. The abstractions of authenticity and otherness conceal and reify what this work actually means, good or bad, in order to preserve market shares for different currents of artistic commodities, and to perpetuate the artificial shortage of “genius” on which the art world depends (both its academic canon and its market).”

Adam Turl, “Outsider Art is a Lie”

Works Cited:

  • Artistry of the Mentally Ill by Hans Prinzhorn (1922)
  • Outsider Art by Roger Cardinal (1972)
  • Outsider Art and the Autistic Creator by Roger Cardinal (2009)
  • Outsider Art: Visionary Worlds and Trauma by Daniel Wojcik (2016)
  • Outside Looking In by Ian Patel (2012)
  • Outsider Art Is A Lie by Adam Turl (2019)
  • Public Domain Review – Hans Prinzhorn’s Artistry of the Mentally Ill (2019)
  • Raw Creation: Outsider Art and Beyond by John Maizels (1996)

Some related contemporary artworks to explore:

  • Henry Darger – Untitled (Grape shaped damna fruit), n.d. (Image credit: MoMA)
  • Grandma Moses – Christmas at Home, n.d. (Image credit: WikiArt)
  • Adolf Wölfli – Irren-Anstalt Band Hain, 1910 (Image credit: WikiArt)
  • Bill Traylor – Untitled (Exciting Event), 1947 (Image credit: WikiArt)
  • August Natterer – Witch’s Head, 1915  (Image credit: WikiArt)
  • Clementine Hunter – The Wedding, 1975  (Image credit: WikiArt)
  • William Hawkins – Steer and Dog, 1984  (Image credit: WikiArt)
  • Friedrich Schröder-Sonnenstern – The Mass Demon, 1954  (Image credit: WikiArt)
  • Chaibia Talal – Mon Village, Chtouka, 1990  (Image credit: WikiArt)
  • Ruth Annaqtuusi Tulurialik – Barney Visits a Winter Camp, 1994  (Image credit: WikiArt)
  • Maria Primachenko – Атомна війна, будь проклята вона! (May That Nuclear War Be Cursed!), 1978 (Image credit: WikiArt)
  • Lee Godie – Sweet Sixteen, 1973-74 (Image credit: The New York Times)
  • Maria Auxiliadora da Silva – Mobral, 1971 (Image credit: artforum.com)
  • Madge Gill – After the War, 1946 (Image credit: madgegill.com)
  • Thornton Dial – Remembering the Road, 1992 (Image credit: artnet.com)

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