The critic Arthur C. Danto once remarked that the true outsider artist is not merely a self-taught creator, but one who is also deeply outside the institutional framework of the art world.
Outsider art, also called visionary art or Art Brut, belongs to no school or tradition and harbors no aspirations to institutional acceptance, but springs wholly from the raw urgency of its creators' need for expression.
"Treasures of the Soul," the new fall show at the American Visionary Art Museum that opens today, is a fascinating and deeply moving celebration of the untutored imagination's ability to make something wondrous out of nothing.
This show is less tied to a single theme than some previous exhibitions at AVAM, which I think works to its advantage because it puts the emphasis on the freshness of the artists' visions instead of an easily digestible, one-size-fits-all way of seeing them.
The "treasures" of the title refers to the wealth of spiritual power present in all human beings that animates the philosopher, the scientist and the artist alike in the quest for knowledge and union with the transcendent powers of the universe.
The show presents some 225 works by 50 outsider artists, many of whom created their startlingly original visions despite crushing poverty, mental illness and social isolation.
One of the blessings conferred by the presence of the American Visionary Art Museum in Baltimore is that it has finally given such artists a dedicated venue in which their work can be studied, appreciated and enjoyed on its own terms.
Modernism has taught us to find aesthetic value in many works of outsider art that seem, superficially at least, to bear striking formal resemblances to 20th-century abstract styles. But the defining characteristic of outsider art lies not in its formal characteristics but in the internal psychological premises that give rise to its creation.
Jean Dubuffet, the French modern artist who coined the term Art Brut (literally "raw art") to describe the work of children, psychiatric patients and mentally retarded people, described it as "springing from pure invention and in no way based, as cultural art constantly is, on the chameleon or parrot-like processes."
In other words, the visionary artist doesn't imitate the "look" or style of any other artist, nor does his or her choice of subject matter, form or materials have anything to do with contemporary art world practices.
Rather, the purposes of outsider art are generated wholly by the internal psychic compulsions and obsessions of the artist, without regard to the art historical context of the time. In many cases, what these works actually meant to the outsider artists who created them may never be known.
One of the first works that greets the visitor to the AVAM show, for example, is Emery Blagdon's huge kinetic sculpture "The Healing Machines." It wasn't conceived as a work of art at all, but rather as an enormously intricate mechanical antenna designed to capture what Blagdon believed were cosmic waves that could cure serious illnesses like cancer, which had killed several members of his family.
Blagdon's biography is typical of many outsider artists. Born in 1907 in rural Sandhills, Neb., he attended school until about eighth grade, then worked on his family's farm until age 18, when he became a hobo and traveled around the Western United States for the next decade or so.
Eventually he returned to farming after inheriting 160 acres and a house from an uncle in 1952. But he soon gave that up to devote himself, at age 48, to building what he called "healing machines."
He constructed them in a windowless, 800-square-foot shed on his property that he filled with more than 600 wire sculptures, nearly 100 paintings, tinfoil, ribbon and countless blinking Christmas lights.
Blagdon worked on this project steadily for the next 30 years, impelled by a conviction that anyone who entered the shed would be healed by exposure to the electromagnetic auras that emanated from his "machines."
"People come here to be cured," he once said. "The energy fields from my machines help them with arthritis and any other illnesses. A scientist could explain this - I can't. I just know that it works."
Blagdon died - of cancer - in 1986, leaving all of his "machines" still in his shed, many only partly completed. A local pharmacist who was fascinated with Blagdon's ideas later bought the entire contents of the shed at auction and preserved the pieces.
The AVAM show presents only a small fraction of the hundreds of objects Blagdon created, which are displayed in the form of an imposing, three-story-high installation that hangs from the museum's top floor skylight to the ground floor next to the building's main staircase.
This piece has a solemn majesty and grandeur that is belied by the humble origins of the thousands of individual pieces - most of them found objects of prosaic industrial origin - of which it is composed.