Outer Limits

Within the milieu of contemporary art 'the outsider’ is a literal misnomer, a tag deserving of the sort of revision and decolonising that has been so thoroughly performed on ‘the primitive’. ++++++ It’s not hard to script such a sales pitch for this takeover of the outsider’s relatively uncultivated extraterritoriality. ++++++ Do we not already have a perfectly good term to account for the rich diversity of this kind of art without resorting to the offensive, derogatory, repressive or exclusionist anthropological and normative psychiatric indictment of so-called ‘outsider’ status? ++++++ Could that ideologically neutral but inclusive label, ready to be stamped on the outsider’s papers, simply be ‘contemporary art’? ++++++ Under judiciously cosmopolitan critical and responsible curatorial policies, the outsider would be a strategic and attractive émigré from the outlands or the border zones of culture, accommodated and assimilated into the contemporary art portfolio as productive stock, and a worthy citizen of the contemporary world. ++++++ Within this perspective there indeed will be no restricted ‘outsider’ status, no one unwelcome, alien, estranged, exiled or reclusive. ++++++ Call this figure instead, if you still wish to differentiate the elite investment profile of the artist formerly known as outsider, call it the exceptional outlier or black swan. ++++++ Cast in such a positive guise of identity politics and political economy, an outsider’s difference to normative and dominant culture will be profitable precisely for their unorthodoxy, or heterodoxy, or queerness, or minority, or eccentricity. ++++++ Marginalisation invokes the remedial treatment or revision of this precarious or peripheral status, not in this case to normalise it but to capitalise upon its precarity.

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Edward Colless is a Senior Lecturer of Critical and Theoretical Studies at the Victorian College of the Arts, University of Melbourne. Aside from education, he has in the past also worked in theatre, film, broadcasting and architecture, been a curator, occasionally worked as a travel writer, and dabbled in fiction—but mainly he writes art criticism. In this field he has been an arts reviewer for The Age and The Australian, and associate editor and features writer for Art Collector. He is currently editor of the journal Art+Australia, with its associated publishing program. He also shamelessly uses any opportunity to write on arcane topics, the more obscure the better: heretical theology, art historical marginalia, crypto-zoology, dark tourism…