How Art Brut Engaged with the Appropriation of the ‘Art’ of the Marginalised Elements of Contemporary Society and Attempted to Engage with the Notion of the ‘Authentic’

L’art brut is an artistic movement concerned with creative authenticity and originality; it is unequivocally linked with the French artist Jean Dubuffet and the ‘Copagnie de l’Art Brut’ group. Dubuffet consistently rejected traditional standards of aesthetics, favouring the pursuit of authentic art over the conventionally beautiful. His obsession with authenticity lead him to develop a theory proposing raw or crude art as preferential to the cultured, ‘museum-approved’ art typically given precedence to by critics and curators alike. Dubuffet was resolute in his belief that the inclination to make art was universally present in everyone, regardless of circumstance[1]. He argued that this innate inclination was polluted by popular culture, but believed that it remained pure and authentic in those who were removed from culture, existing in the darkened margins of contemporary society.

Dubuffet argued that educated artists absorbed in the cultured art world produced only false imitations lacking in originality. He labelled their fine-tuned attempts at rendering art little more than the product of a socially elite clique and their very act of creation no more than the preferred activity of a privileged group. He concluded that the ‘art of these intellectuals is false art’[2] and claimed to have found instances of true, authentic individuals unconcerned with the latest trends in art, during his time travelling Switzerland.

The term ‘l’art brut’ was first coined in 1945 by Dubuffet and used in conjunction with his 1947 exhibit of artworks which was ‘produced by children, the naïve, the “primitive”, and the psychotic’[3] at the Galerie René Drouin in Paris. He conceived the term in order to label the collection of work he had collected which he felt were uninfluenced by the cultured art world and borne from a pure, innate desire to create. However, although this was the first time the term had been officially used and accepted, the concept was not entirely new.

Following the growth of primitivism at the turn of the twentieth century, which saw both Picasso and Delacroix investigate the authenticity of anti-occidental art, avant-garde practitioners began recognizing huge significance in the artistic output of the mentally ill, the mediumistic and particularly in the work of children. Avant-garde artists regarded children’s art as entirely innocent, unrestricted forms of expression where ‘original, authentic forces of creation were at work’[4]. Many successful artists began placing important emphasis upon the act of creating, rather than solely upon the end product[5].

As the pioneer of Art Brut and advocator of the truly original, it can be easy to label Dubuffet as a heretic of the art world: rejecting the conventional and eschewing contemporary style in favour of the other and the authentic. However, his heterodoxy was not entirely innovative and original, as his philosophy borrowed largely from that of former expressionist artists such as Paul Klee and the fundamental group ‘Der Blaue Reiter’, as well as from the philosophy of Romanticism. Romantics were among the first to associate social outsiders and recluses with artists, as well as identifying a link between insanity and genius[6]. Dubuffet was significantly influenced by these preceding artistic movements and philosophies and showed considerable interest in insane asylums and sanatoriums in an attempt to engage with the authentic.

It can be argued that even Dubuffet’s persistent search for the authentic and original was borne out of mimicry. His ethos concerning authentic art was far from dissimilar to that of artists practicing decades earlier who placed emphasis on the condition of the artist and the act of creating, over the aesthetic outcome.

Dubuffet’s own search for authentic art preceded his definition and in early 1945, although he had not yet come to define Art Brut or identify the conditions under which it was typically made, he felt he had encountered it. Piery argues that because Dubuffet’s ‘investigation and discovery [of ‘art brut’] preceded the theory […] he let himself be guided by his private convictions’[7] signalling that art brut’s engagement with the notion of the authentic is very much dependant upon Dubuffet’s personal perception of the authentic. However, Dubuffet insisted that his declination to form a definition prior to discovery only served to support the authenticity of Art Brut. He asserted that had he defined Art Brut prior to its discovery, it would have only damaged its credibility:

‘It is surely not my business to formulate what Art Brut is. To define something- indeed even to isolate it- is to damage it a good deal. It comes close to destroying it.[8]

 

Dubuffet formulated the description of Art Brut once he felt he had found authentic and original artwork, he tailored the description to match the characteristics of the artefacts he had encountered. On his return from Switzerland Dubuffet finally offered this clarifying description of the type of art he held in the highest acclaim, and sought to label as ‘l’art brut’:

 

‘artistic works […] owing nothing (or as little as possible) to the imitation of art that one can see in museums, salons, and galleries; but that on the contrary appeal to humanity’s first origins and the most spontaneous and personal invention; works which the artist has entirely derived (invention and manner of expression) from his own sources, from his own impulses and humours, without regard for the rules, without regard for current convention’.[9]

 

However, it can be argued that over time Dubuffet and the Campagnie l’Art Brut selected specific works and rejected others in order to sustain this theory and definition, which may not have been accurate representation of authentic and original art in its true form. Dubuffet’s guidelines as to what constituted Art Brut led to frequent cases of seemingly unfair exclusion. Dubuffet declined to include the artwork of children in his collection of Art Brut, alleging they did not have the depth of character to produce authentic art work, even in the exceptional case of the autistic child artist Nadia[10], her work was omitted from exhibition. It can be argued that children are the least likely to be influenced by or exposed to artistic culture, and therefore the most original creators. It can also be inferred that as a result of Dubuffet’s strict criteria and despite his desperate attempt to engage with the authentic, he excluded prime examples of truly original artwork, in turn damaging the notion of Art Brut.

On the other hand, there are occasions of artistic practice that appear to exemplify Dubuffet’s description of Art Brut. One of the most influential artists who Dubuffet felt embodied the notion of Art Brut was brought to his attention by psychiatrist and art historian Walter Morgenthaler. His groundbreaking study ‘Ein Geisteskranker als Künstler: Adolf Wölfli’, translated as ‘A Psychiatric Patient as Artist: Adolf Wölfli’[11], detailed the artistic works of the severely psychotic Wölfli and offered an artistic evaluation rather than just a medical one. It was one of the first studies of its kind that named the patient and identified him as an important artist in his own right. This alongside Hans Prinzhorn’s ‘Artistry of the Mentally Ill: A Contribution to the Psychology and Psychopathy of Configuration’[12] revolutionized thinking in the art world, elevating artwork of the mentally ill to the same standard as artwork of sane artists.

Dubuffet argued that Wölfli’s compulsive need to create art, despite his complete lack of artistic training, embodied the notion of Art Brut. His relentless urge to craft various forms of art during his lengthy incarceration in the Waldau Clinic in Switzerland lead Wölfli to overcome any impediment that restricted his ability to create, such as lack of materials. Morgenthaler recalls Wölfli’s obsessive need to express via art:

 

‘Every Monday morning Wölfli is given a new pencil and two large sheets of unprinted newsprint. The pencil is used up in two days; then he has to make do with the stubs he has saved or with whatever he can beg off someone else. He often writes with pieces only five to seven millimeters long and even with the broken-off points of lead, which he handles deftly, holding them between his fingernails. He carefully collects packing paper and any other paper he can get from the guards and patients in his area; otherwise he would run out of paper before the next Sunday night. At Christmas the house gives him a box of coloured pencils, which lasts him two or three weeks at the most.[13]

 

Wölfli’s compulsive behavior was considered the most authentic form of artistic creation. His artwork was not borne out of desire to align himself with a particular clique in culture or to attain a certain standing in society, but out of a psychological need to create. Furthermore, Wölfli was incarcerated in the institute for the majority of his life, removed from central society and devoid of any formal artistic training. As a result of this, Dubuffet argued that he, and other self-alienated artists, were unconcerned with the reception their work might receive, if any. Self-alienated artists created only for themselves and to satisfy their innate need to create. Advocates of Art Brut argued that this was the most authentic form of art, regardless of aesthetic outcome, and attempted to engage with isolated artists in order to attain authenticity.

This disinterest in peer approval also suggests that creators of Art Brut have no desire, conscious or subconscious, to imitate or replicate the successful works of other artists and movements in the same way that typically cultured and educated artists do.  Although Dubuffet conceded that artwork produced by trained and refined artists were undoubtedly of some value and interest, he argued that because they were irrevocably influenced and inspired by other artists, they could never be deemed truly original and authentic, whereas pieces which fell into the category of Art Brut could. He argued that all cultured art was created as a result of, or in response to, previous art produced by the similarly privileged. In this way, Dubuffet felt that only practitioners removed from all artistic influence could truly produce original and authentic work, Art Brut attempted to engage with the authentic by seeking out artists entirely removed from the influence of artistic culture.

However, it can be argued that it is almost impossible to be fully removed from artistic culture. Even Wölfli, widely considered the most prevalent practitioner and paradigm of Art Brut, was exposed to generic culture for a considerable period of his life, where art would have been widely present. Incarcerated at the age of thirty, Wölfli had actively participated in society and inarguably absorbed cultural influences, which inevitably had an impact upon his later work. Wölfli’s art was frequently iconoclastic therefore he must have had some knowledge of cultural institutions in order to be able to attack those via visual media. Furthermore, Pierre Bourdieu criticized Art Brut’s insistence that the uncultured was the most authentic[14]. He argued that without the educated mind, trained in the field of art, the works of Art Brut would never have been recognized as significant and therefore were still routed in the cultured.

Some promising artists were omitted from the category of Art Brut due to Dubuffet’s stubborn resolve to include only marginalized, untrained artists. His initial aim was to include artists only largely uninfluenced by professional artistic culture.  However, Cardinal argues that even Dubuffet came to accept the impossibility of attaining absolute originality[15]. He conceded that it was inevitable an artist would be influenced by external factors, rather than creating purely from internal impulses. As the Copagnie de l’Art Brut grew, so did ambiguities in the constitution of Art Brut.

 Formed in 1948, the group initially consisted of Jean Debuffet, Andre Breton and Michel Tapie, among other members of the elitist art world, and was established in order to manage the artefacts housed at the Galerie Drouin but also to encourage and promote the production, exhibition and appreciation of works considered to be Art Brut. However, Dubuffet’s original definition of Art Brut asserted that art could only by authentic if produced without the intent of exhibition or concern of an audience. By actively encouraging the production and exhibition of Art Brut, Dubuffet established an internal paradox.

 However, Art Brut did not attempt to engage with authenticity solely via the work of the mentally ill. The Comagnie l’Art Brut also showed interest in the work of mediumistic artists. Andre Breton took particular interest in the work of spiritualist artists who he recognized as individuals internally compelled to create art.

Breton’s ideology that the most authentic form of creativity came as a result of spiritual or supernatural inspiration also echoed the attitude of Romanticism. The Romantics ‘positioned the artist as prophet and visionary’[16] and Breton recognized these qualities in spiritual, mediumistic and automatic works. Dubuffet had experimented with automatic writing as early as 1919 and considered visionary ability an important part of artistic creativity. He regarded art as an alternative means of knowledge, a more visionary means. Dubuffet defended the work of untrained artists by asserting that ‘knowledge and intelligence are weak instruments compared to vision’[17] and concluded that visionaries have little to do with intellectuals and academics. This premise was proven in the discovery of Augustin Lesage.

As one of the key spiritualist figures involved with the Art Brut movement, Lesage was educated to a low level and had received no formal artistic training. Lesage had worked as a miner for the majority of his life and was disinclined to engage with the arts in anyway, he remained sheltered from any professional artistic culture.  Lesage claimed that, at the age of thirty-five, he heard a supernatural voice which told him he would become a painter. From then on, Lesage is thought to have gained the ability to interact with the spiritual world and act as a medium; Lesage channelled this ability into automatic writing and painting. The Campagnie de l’Art Brut categorized Lesage as a practitioner of Art Brut under the pretence that he was unaffected by contemporary artistic culture and was instead only influenced by a higher power[18]. The Campagnie de l’Art Brut argued that mediumistic and spiritualistic painters were able to produce original and authentic works of art due to their unencumbered nature of being. Mediumistic painters who employed the technique of automatic painting were considered original and authentic, as they were able to filter out the influences and distractions of the cultured world and express themselves from an entirely internal desire. However, such instances were rare and difficult to locate, much like the work of mentally ill patients.

Defining Art Brut as a movement is problematic. Michel Tapié, core member of the Compagnie de l’Art Brut, refuted the categorization of ‘movement’ and stated; ‘Our interest is not in movements, but in something much rarer, authentic individuals.’[19] Furthermore, since no ‘purely aesthetic standard for evaluating works of Art Brut[20]’ was ever agreed and Dubuffet’s very description of Art Brut severely limits the amount of possible practitioners and suggests they will exist, along with their work, in the most isolated of conditions. Art Brut attempts to engage with authentic art by examining the notion of original artistic intent.

It can be argued that both spiritualistic artists and mentally impaired artists are driven by a need to create which is, to a certain extent, out of their control. Supporters of Art Brut assert that this is the most authentic form of artistic production. Creativity is unbridled by the conscious thought in the case of mediums, and by rational thought in the case of the mentally unsound.

Art Brut attempted to engage with the notion of the authentic by seeking out the unusual and original and avoiding the stereotypical replicas produced by mainstream society. However, Art Brut’s groundbreaking ethos borrowed largely from preceding artistic movements, particularly that of the Expressionists, Avant Garde artists and the Romantics. Furthermore, their attempt to engage with the authentic was severely limited by the requirements they desired and the strict rules they enforced upon categorization. It could be argued that by formulating such a rigid ‘movement’ the Campagnie de l’Art Brut removed the originality from the individual. Had their guidelines been more flexible and catered to the individual, as they initially intended to do, perhaps more atypical art would have been championed and recognized by the cultured artistic world.

 


Bibliography

[1] Jean Dubuffet, ‘Let’s Make Some Room for Uncivic Behaviour’ in A Selection of Texts from Jean Dubuffet: Works/ Writings/ Interviews, ed. by Valerie da Costa and Fabrice Hergott (Michigan: Ediciones Poligrafta 1949).

[2] Jean Dubuffet, ‘Crude Art Preferred to Cultural Art’ in Art in Theory 1900-2000; An Anthology of Changing Ideas, ed. by Charles Harrison and Paul Wood (Oxford: Blackwell, 1992) pp.557-686 (pp.605-8).

[3] ‘The Individual and the Social’ in Art in Theory 1900-2000; An Anthology of Changing Ideas, ed. by Charles Harrison and Paul Wood (Oxford: Blackwell, 1992) pp.557-686 (p.603).

[4] Lucienne Piery, ‘The Other and The Elsewhere’ in Art Brut: The Origins of Outsider Art, (Michigan: Flammarian et Cie, 2001) pp.14-35 (p.18).

[5] Jonathon Fineberg, Discovering Child Art: Childhood, Primitivism and Modernism, (UK: Princeton University Press,1998)

[6] Joanne Cubbs, ‘Rebels, Mystics, and Outcasts: The Romantic Artist Outsider’ in The Artist Outsider: Creativity and Boundaries of Culture ed. by Michael. D. Hall and Eugene W. Metcalf (Washington: Smithsonian Institute Press, 1994)

[7] Lucienne Piery, ‘The Other and The Elsewhere’ in Art Brut: The Origins of Outsider Art, (Michigan: Flammarian et Cie, 2001) pp.14-35 (p.15).

[8] Jean Dubuffet, ‘Notes for The Well Lettered’ in Art in Theory 1900-2000; An Anthology of Changing Ideas, ed. by Charles Harrison and Paul Wood (Oxford: Blackwell, 1946)

[9] Jean Dubuffet, Prospectus et tous écrits suivants (Paris: Gallimard, 1967)

[10] Lorna Selfe, ‘Nadia Reconsidered’ in The Development of Artistically Gifted Children (New Jersey: Lawrence Erlbaum, 1995) pp. 197-237

[11] Walter Morgenthaler, Madness & Art: The Life and the Workds of Adolf Wölfli, Trans. by A. Esman (USA: University of Nebraska Press, 1921)

[12] Hans Prinzhorn, Artistry of the Mentally Ill: A Contribution to the Psychology and Psychopathy of Configuration (Austria: Springer-Verlag,1922)

[13] Morgenthaler, 1992. p.17

[14] Pierre Bourdieu, Pierre Bourdieu and Cultural Theory. ed. by Bridget Fowler (London: Sage, 1997)

[15] Roger Cardinal, ‘Toward an Outsider Aesthetic’ in The Artist Outsider: Creativity and the Boundaries of Culture (Washington: Smithsonian Institution Press, 1994)

[16] Joanne Cubbs, ‘Rebels, Mystics, and Outcasts: The Romantic Artist Outsider’ in The Artist Outsider: Creativity and Boundaries of Culture ed. by Michael. D. Hall and Eugene W. Metcalf (Washington: Smithsonian Institute Press, 1994) p.77

[17] Jean Dubuffet, ‘Crude Art Preferred to Cultured Art’ from ‘Individualism in Europe’ in Art in Theory 1900-2000; An Anthology of Changing Ideas, ed. by Charles Harrison and Paul Wood (Oxford: Blackwell, 1946) p.607

[18] Romana Fotiade, Andre Breton: The Power of Language (UK: Elm Bank, 2000)

[19] Michel Tapie, ‘An Other Art’ from ‘Individualism in Europe’ in Art in Theory 1900-2000; An Anthology of Changing Ideas, ed. by Charles Harrison and Paul Wood (Oxford: Blackwell, 1952) p.629

[20] Roger Cardinal, ‘Art Brut’ The Museum of Modern Art – The Collection. (Oxford University Press, 2009) <http://www.moma.org/collection/artbrut&gt; [Accessed 01.05.2013]

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