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Roger Cardinal, Scholar Behind ‘Outsider Art’, Dies at 79

Roger Cardinal, artist and writer who coined the term ‘Outsider Art’, died at the age of 79. The Guardian reported the news of his death only on Wednesday, though he died on November 1. American Folk Art Museum released a statement, calling Cardinal a “leading authority on Surrealism”. Roger Cardinal was born in 1940. He was academically trained in Surrealism and automatist thought, later becoming a self-taught artist in 1970s.

Perhaps the biggest contribution of Cardinal was his 1972 book, Outsider Art. The title of the book became a category in itself – art made by people with no formal training. The term has since being fallen out of use after people realized that it was overwhelmingly applied to non-white and mentally-challenged artists. However, according to Cardinal, his initial plan was to write a book called art brut, about the aforementioned term coined by artist Jean Dubuffet. Dubuffet used his term to describe art made by children and mentally-challenged; art considered ‘naive’ in the eyes of the art academics. 

Together, Cardinal and Dubuffet researched about artists who were ‘anti-academic’, i.e. people who defied conventional artistic wisdom for their own flavour. Including names like Adolf Wölfli, the book initially had the controversial title ‘Art of the Artless’, which was changed following protests. Still, the book was largely ignored in England, until it saw its resounding success in America. 

Then, in 1979, Roger Cardinal was one of the people behind the landmark ‘Outsiders‘ exhibition at Hayward Gallery in London. The exhibition featured 42 artists and their 400 works. Cardinal worked hard to ensure that the works exhibited were not considered inferior in any way to the traditional artworks. At the time, it was a very open-minded and almost revolutionary event in art history. Thanks in some part to it, galleries today don’t look down upon self-taught artists. Exhibitions such as Outsider Art Fair and Outliers and American Vanguard Art have become a frequent show. It will not be wrong to say that this will be the enduring legacy of Roger Cardinal.