History of SELF-TAUGHT
& OUTSIDER ART

Michel Thévoz, "Prehistory of Art Brut," in Art Brut (1976)

What is Art Brut? The by now standard French term was coined by Jean Dubuffet: it means "raw art." Dubuffet not only created the notion, he also discovered and collected most of the works designated by this name. He has described them as "works of every kind – drawings, paintings, embroideries, carved or modeled figures, etc. – presenting a spontaneous, highly inventive character, as little beholden as possible to the ordinary run of art or to cultural conventions, the makers of them being obscure persons foreign to professional art circles."[1] Again, in an essay entitled L’art brut préféré aux arts culturels, Dubuffet writes:"We mean by this the works executed by people untouched by artistic culture, works in which imitation – contrary to what occurs among intellectuals – has little or no part, so that their makers derive everything (subjects, choice of materials used, means of transposition, rhythms, ways of patterning, etc.) from their own resources and not from the conventions of classic art or the art that happens to be fashionable. Here we find art at its purest and crudest; we see it being wholly reinvented at every stage of the operation by its maker, acting entirely on his own. This, then, is art springing solely from its maker’s knack of invention and not, as always in cultural art, from his power of aping others or changing like a chameleon."[2]

From these definitions, three essential features can be singled out. First, the makers of Art Brut are outsiders, mentally and/or socially. Second, their work is conceived and produced outside the field of "fine arts" in its usual sense as referring to the network of schools, galleries, museums, etc.; it is also conceived without any regard for the usual recipients of works of art, or indeed without regard for any recipient at all. Third, the subjects, techniques and systems of figuration have little connection with those handed down by tradition or current in the fashionable art of the day; they stem rather from personal invention. In short, Art Brut is opposed to what may be termed "cultural art," including the avant-garde forms of the latter....


As regards the history of Art Brut and the creation of such works in the past, we are reduced to guesswork and conjecture, for very few of them have survived from before the twentieth century. This for an obvious reason; works of this kind went unnoticed and were not preserved. The fact is that Western society long remained blind to whatever departed drastically from its own standards, as fixed and institutionalized since the Renaissance. These standards found their strictest formulation in the academic canons. They were based on the exclusive priority of optical representation and all the conventions deriving from it. Thus painting was governed by the principles–necessarily arbitrary principles–of monocular vision, a fixed viewpoint, unity of time, space and lighting, planimetric projection, linear and aerial perspective, etc....



[1] Jean Dubuffet, Prospectus et tous écrits suivants, Vol. 1 (Paris: Gallimard, 1967).

[2] ibid.


Excerpt source:
Michel Thévoz, "Prehistory of Art Brut," in Art Brut (Geneva: Editions d'Art Albert Skira, 1976), 9-10.


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