History of SELF-TAUGHT
& OUTSIDER ART

Jenifer P. Borum, "ABCD: A Collection of Art Brut," Folk Art magazine (2001)

Art brut is a uniquely fascinating and often misunderstood category of twentieth-century art. Coined by the French artist Jean Dubuffet during the mid-forties, the term means "raw art" — art that has not been influenced or "cooked" by high cultural aesthetic standards or current art trends. In a polemical essay written in 1949 and intended as an attack against "l’art culturel" (art officially sanctioned by academies, museums, and galleries), Dubuffet clearly and passionately defined this new category: "What we mean is anything produced by people unsmirched by artistic culture, works in which mimicry, contrary to what occurs with intellectuals, has little or no part. So that the makers (in regard to subjects, choice of materials, means of transposition, rhythms, kinds of handwriting, etc.) draw entirely on their own resources rather than on the stereotypes of classical or fashionable art."[1]

...His search for "people unsmirched by artistic culture" led him away from the sophisticated artworld of which he was admittedly a part to the unlikeliest of places: the psychiatric hospital, the medium’s parlor, the hidden world of the isolate, and the quotidian, workaday world in which artistic talent is often undervalued or ignored. In all these places he discovered art brut, which art historian John MacGregor has effectively characterized as "the spontaneous creative activity of artistically untrained men and women working alone outside of any artistic movement or cultural influence, motivated by an intense inner need to make images and free of any concern with art."[2]

Dubuffet was certainly not the only one with an appetite for "uncooked" modes of expression. His interest in art created by the insane had been sparked as early as 1923 by the seminal book Artistry of the Mentally Ill (1923), by the psychiatrist Hans Prinzhorn, who dared to defend the inherent aesthetic value of art produces by psychiatric patients. Dubuffet's fascination with the art of psychotics and mediums was also presaged by the advocacy (and appropriation) of such art forms as the Parisian circle of Surrealists led by André Breton. Initially intending to publish a series of studies on art brut, Dubuffet made a pilgrimage to a number of Swiss asylums in 1945. During this time, he began to collect the work of psychotic artists such as Adolf Wölfli and Aloïse Corbaz, and the Collection de l’Art Brut was born. With Breton and a number of other sympathetic artists and poets, Dubuffet formed the Compagnie de l'Art Brut for the purpose of building, maintaining, and exhibiting the Collection. The legacy of the Compagnie includes a series of books begun in 1964, a major exhibition of art brut at the Musée des Arts Décoratifs in Paris in 1967, and the establishment in 1976 of a permanent museum for the Collection at the Château de Beaulieu in Lausanne, Switzerland.


Jennifer P. Borum is a Ph.D. candidate in art history at the City University of New York’s Graduate Center. She is a lecturer at the Museum of American Folk Art’s Folk Art Institute and has written for Art-forum, The New Art Examiner, Raw Vision, and this publication.


[1] Jean Dubuffet, "Art Brut Preferred to the Cultural Arts," exhibition catalogue (Paris: René Drouin Gallery, 1949), translated in Mildred Glimcher, Jean Dubuffet: Toward an Alternative Reality (New York: Pace Publications, Inc. in association with Abbeville Press Publishers, 1987), 101-104.

[2] John MacGregor, The Discovery of the Art of the Insane (Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1989), 301.


Excerpt source:
Jenifer P. Borum, "ABCD: A Collection of Art Brut," Folk Art magazine, Spring, 2001, 26-33.



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