The term outsider art was coined by art critic Roger Cardinal in 1972 as an English synonym for art brut  “raw art” or “rough art”, a label created by French artist Jean Dubuffet to describe art created outside the boundaries of official culture; Dubuffet focused particularly on art by insane-asylum inmates.

While Dubuffet’s term is quite specific, the English term “outsider art” is often applied more broadly, to include certain self-taught or Naïve art makers who were never institutionalized. Typically, those labeled as outsider artists have little or no contact with the mainstream art world or art institutions. In many cases, their work is discovered only after their deaths. Often, outsider art illustrates extreme mental states, unconventional ideas, or elaborate fantasy worlds.

Outsider art has emerged as a successful art marketing category (an annual Outsider Art Fair has taken place in New York since 1993). The term is sometimes misapplied as a catch-all marketing label for art created by people outside the mainstream “art world,” regardless of their circumstances or the content of their work.

The development of the awareness of forms of creative expression that exist outside accepted cultural norms, or the realm of “fine art”, began with the researches of psychiatrists early in the century.