Los Angeles Review of Books: Learning from Weirdos

By Gayle Rogers
Los Angeles Review of Books

Outsider Theory (Jonathan P. Eburne)OUTSIDERS HOLD a paradoxically privileged position in aesthetic histories. What Jean Dubuffet famously termed art brut fetches millions at auction and rests securely on college syllabi. Writers who have no formal training and whose style seems the furthest from an MFA program become the darlings of literary worlds. Countless independent and low-budget films are now enshrined by critical praise, cult followings, or both. But if aesthetic pasts are filled with such figures — from virtuoso autodidacts and non-native speakers to pranksters and sheer lunatics — and if the Salon des Refusés, Entartete Kunst, or banned-book status eventually become badges of honor and prestige, then what exactly do these putative boundaries of inside and outside signify? Does the “inside” exist only to provide the necessary crenellations for outsider artist-heroes to surmount?

More pointedly, what happens if we follow the lead of Jonathan Eburne’s stimulating and highly original new book, Outsider Theory: Intellectual Histories of Unorthodox Ideas, and “adopt this art historical provocation [of art brut] as a heuristic for the study of modern intellectual history”? In “taking up a detailed investigation of the ways in which marginal or otherwise underground, hermetic, or far-fetched ideas circulate,” Eburne answers this question by placing matters of epistemology front and center. The fundamental questions of outsidership, that is, are questions of how we know what we know; in this observation, Eburne’s capacious title and ambitious scope become a real provocation.

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