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Outsider art (Art brut)

Art movement

Art brut is a French term that translates as 'raw art', invented by the French artist Jean Dubuffet to describe art such as graffiti or Naïve Art, as a way to categorize the artwork made by introverted, isolated, and exceptionally imaginative characters, outside the academic tradition of fine art. Outsider art is used to describe art that has a naïve quality, often produced by people who have not trained as artists or worked within the conventional structures of the art production. The term, Outsider Art, was introduced in 1972 (eight years after Art Brut) by the English academic, Roger Cardinal, and like Dubuffet, he intended to shine a light on art made by artists usually untrained, living quietly, and possibly somehow sheltered. The definitions Art Brut and Outsider Art are often used interchangeably. Related terms, Folk Art, Naïve Art, have some more specific characteristics; the term Primitivist Art is generally considered outdated and bounded to problematic social and ethnological dimensions.

Early Interest in the Outsider Art

The first noted case of interest by artists in the art outside of academic tradition is traced back to Der Blaue Reiter (The Blue Rider) group who were active in Germany from 1911 to 1914, and who studied the art of the mentally ill. The Blue Rider artists believed in the expression of spiritual values through color and form. In this quest, they were interested in the linkages between music and painting, as well as the concept of synaesthesia, whereby the stimulation of one sense can cause an involuntary reaction in one or more other senses. In 1912, the group published Der Blaue Reiter Almanach, which included theoretical essays by Kandinsky and Marc, as well as over 140 reproductions of artworks, the majority of which were classified as "primitive" art, folk art, children's art, and art of the mentally ill. In this way, they demonstrated their belief that the traditional Western Art Historical canon was suffering a particular lack that could be remedied by turning to sources outside of its purview.

In 1921, Dr. Walter Morgenthaler published his book Ein Geisteskranker als Künstler (A Psychiatric Patient as Artist) about Adolf Wölfli, a psychotic mental patient in his care who had turned to art-making (particularly drawing), which seemed to have the effect of calming him down. Then, in 1922, Prinzhorn published Bildnerei der Geisteskranken (Artistry of the Mentally Ill). This book included formal analyses based on thousands of artworks by mentally ill patients at various European institutions, which Prinzhorn also amassed into a great collection (now housed at the University of Heidelberg). Both the book and the art collection received a great deal of interest from avant-garde artists of the time, including Paul Klee, Max Ernst, and Jean Dubuffet. The book remains even today one of the seminal and most important works published on this subject.

Jean Dubuffet and Art Brut

After reading Prinzhorn's book in 1923 (although he was unable to read German so the book's main influence upon him came from the images themselves), Jean Dubuffet began his own collection of such art. However, Dubuffet expanded the scope of his collection to also include works by other eccentrics and social misfits making art on the fringes of society, not just those suffering from mental health issues. The collection grew to include about 5,000 works by 133 creators, including Adolf Wölfli. He named this type of art Art Brut and defined it as "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 transportation, 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."

In 1948, Dubuffet with other artists (including Jean Paulhan, Charles Ratton, Michel Tapie, and Henri-Pierre Roche), and theoretician André Breton, formed the Compagnie de l'Art Brut, with artist Slavko Kopač designated as the collection's curator. The organization was intended to serve as a center point for further research and curatorial activities. In 1949, the first exhibition of Art Brut was held at the Galerie René Drouin in Paris, and included over 200 works. In 1951, just before the Compagnie's dissolution (due in part to a disagreement wherein Dubuffet accused Breton of attempting to co-opt Art Brut into the "huge cultural machine" of Surrealism), painter Alfonso Ossorio offered to house the collection in his home in East Hampton, near New York. While visiting the United States, Dubuffet delivered a lecture at the Art Institute of Chicago, titled "Anti-cultural Positions," in which he accused Western culture of suppressing true creativity. The collection remained in New York for ten years, before being repatriated to Paris where Kopač once again served as its curator and archivist. In 1962 the Compagnie de l'Art Brut was reformed, with over 100 members dedicating themselves to the discovery and collection of works of Art Brut. In 1964, Dubuffet began publishing the first eight editions of Art Brut booklets, which continue to be produced today. In 1967, another major exhibition of over 700 Art Brut works by 75 different creators was mounted at the Musée des Arts Décoratifs in Paris. In 1971 Dubuffet donated his collection of Art Brut to the city of Lausanne, Switzerland.

Dubuffet found Art Brut to be an important inspiration for his own art, as he believed it to be a more pure, sincere, and authentic expression of emotion, immune to the assimilating influences of mainstream culture. He attempted to emulate the childlike naiveté that he saw in Art Brut, however, his training in painting at an arts academy as well as his self-awareness as an artist and his knowledge of the mainstream art world mean that he should not be considered himself as an Art Brut / Outsider Artist (as a number of art historians assert). Instead, his work is better defined within pseudo-naïve art, and faux naïve art. Although Dubuffet's art sought to imitate freedom from societal constraints - both in the subject and in technique - in the same way as the art that he admired and collected - his position and status within the art world make him far from an Outsider Artist. In many ways, founding a movement, in this case, is the very antithesis to the art gathered within it. However, the grouping he championed does help to direct attention to a body of art made by people who have no interest in self-aggrandizement or self-promotion.

Mainstream Artists' Growing Interest in Art Brut

There are a variety of factors that contributed to the interest in Art Brut in the first half of the 20th century. Many mainstream artists were attracted to Art Brut in what they saw as the "primitive" art of faraway cultures. This may have come about because of growing dissatisfaction with the mainstream art world, and more broadly speaking with a distrust of mainstream society in the period surrounding the two World Wars. Artists in the Western world at this time witnessed the utter devastation and upheaval that had resulted from widespread ideologies centered upon technological, industrial, and rational routes of "progress". People living during this period also saw the tragic and inhumane implementation of social philosophies, including Eugenics, which claimed to improve the quality of life for the general public by eliminating undesirable traits such as mental illness, disability, and criminal tendencies. The multiple atrocities carried out for the duration of World War II caused many people, especially artists, to become skeptical and wary of grand theories and ideologies, both beyond and within the art world itself. Many artists hoped that a celebration of the irrational and a turning for help to individuals on the margins of society could offer new sources of inspiration regarding different ways of understanding, relating to, and representing other people and the world around us. In this way, celebrating Outsider Art was an alternative way for artists to "fight" against political injustice. As artist and author David Maclagan asserts, "Art Brut can be seen as the continuation and intensification of a widespread and typical feature of Modernism: the quest for new and original forms of creativity in areas considered immune from conventional culture."

At the same time, many within the art world continued to operate with the romantic notion of the "mad genius". Commonly referred to as the "genius-insanity" theory, the idea that (as German philosopher Arthur Schopenhauer expressed) "genius is nearer to madness than the average intelligence" can be traced back to Aristotle. The idea began to pervade common thought during the Renaissance, peaked during the Romantic period, and, MacGregor wrote in 1989, "has not yet been laid to rest". The result of this preoccupation with the insane genius during the Romantic period led artists to turn their attention toward madhouses, making frequent visits and recording their observations of insane artists at work, in order to answer the question "could the madman give birth to art?" Indeed, as MacGregor writes, "artists were beginning to note that under the impact of mental disturbance individuals who had never displayed any involvement with art developed an unexplained inclination to make images, to draw." Into and throughout the 20th century, this notion of the insanity of genius endured, contributing to the popular notion of the creative artist as a social outcast. This is perhaps a misguided line of inquiry because it is so often wrongs committed by a society that ultimately causes mental illness.

The rise in interest in Art Brut, particularly of the "mentally imbalanced", was aided by simultaneous developments in the field of psychiatry, and later the realms of art therapy. Medical professionals who worked with mentally ill and cognitively disabled patients (such as Dr. Walter Morgenthaler and Dr. Hans Prinzhorn) began to turn to patients' artworks as potential clues that could grant them insight into the nature of their ailments and disturbances, or, at the very least, into ways in which these afflictions could be differentiated and categorized. This led many doctors to begin collecting and analyzing patient artwork rather than merely discarding it, and many of these artistic samples eventually found their way into the public sphere and the hands of mainstream artists who hoped to find inspiration from these works. As art historian John MacGregor writes, "The role of the physician as the interpreter of this new type of image was very influential, determining to some extent the way in which it was received at first by the lay public. Nevertheless, as was the case with Primitive Art, the creative artist saw these images in his own unique way."

Roger Cardinal and Outsider Art

The term Outsider Art was coined in 1972 by Roger Cardinal (professor emeritus of literary and visual studies at the University of Kent at Canterbury), who sought an appropriate English equivalent for the French term Art Brut. Just as Dubuffet described Art Brut, Cardinal described Outsider Art as creative works produced by self-taught artists (that is, artists with no formal art training), that do not follow traditional or academic artistic conventions and that convey "a strong sense of individuality". Both Dubuffet and Cardinal have specified that while Outsider Art and Art Brut tend to be associated with artists who are mentally ill (such as schizophrenics), it also includes art "by individuals who are quite capable of handling their social lives but who recoil, consciously or unconsciously, from the notion of art being necessarily a publicly defined activity with communally recognized standards," including children, and social recluses.

According to Cardinal, Outsider Art's "ambit of use rests on the notion that art-making is a widespread human activity reaching far beyond the world of public galleries, teaching institutions, and culturally marked art production." He insists that an artist's work's status as "Outsider" must be centered upon the "anti-conventional nature of the art-making itself, its idiosyncrasy, its often unworldly distance from artistic norms as well as from commonplace experience," in addition to the "thrilling visual experience" it offers to its audience.

Later Developments and Criticisms

Art Brut and Outsider Art remain labels given, not by the artists themselves but by others, often posthumously and mainly to gather together artists as operating outside of any sort of art historical tradition, rather than in an attempt to describe a common style or ethos in their works. These terms continue to be employed, for instance, at exhibitions like A Special Touch - Straight from the Heart, held at the Kunstcentret Silkeborg Bad in Silkeborg, Denmark (2016); World Transformers: The Art of the Outsiders, held at the Schirn Kunsthalle Gallery in Römerberg, Germany (2011); Inner Worlds Outside at the Whitechapel Gallery in London, the La Caixa Foundation Exhibition Hall in Madrid, and the Irish Museum of Modern Art in Dublin (2006); and In Another World at the Kiasma Gallery in Helsinki (2005), as well as at the Outsider Art Fair held annually since 2013, alternating venues between New York and Paris. The terms have also inspired a steady increase in the use of art therapy as a reputable means to support and rehabilitate individuals suffering from mental health difficulties.

Although the category of Art Brut / Outsider Art has carved an art historical niche for visual artwork by the mentally ill and others living on the fringes of society, the category has been criticized for contextualizing this type of work in such a way as to present it as heavily exoticized and thus contributing to further Othering and marginalization of its creators. For this reason, many Disability Rights activists and Critical Disability Studies scholars prefer to locate art made by contemporary mental health sufferers and intellectually/developmentally disabled artists within the nascent, and politically conscientious category of Disability Arts, while others do not see any reason for a separate genre to be created for this work, preferring instead for all artists to be included within mainstream trends and dialogue. Art critic Jerry Saltz argues that Outsider Art only serves as a discriminatory boundary preventing untrained artists from taking "their rightful places in the canon". Others, like humanities professor Rita Elizabeth Risser, criticize the quickly rising popularity of art explicitly made possible by mental or physical suffering as a form of voyeurism. Yet proponents of the category of Outsider Art maintain that it is only meant to demarcate "self-taught or non-academic work," as Rebecca Hoffman, director of the Outsider Art Fair in New York, explains.

Furthermore, the increased recognition and exhibition of Art Brut / Outsider Artists serves to negate the "Outsider" aspect of their identities and their artwork. As well, many previously institutionalized Outsider Artists are living back in their communities following the de-institutionalization movement. Many of them are even creating art in collaborative environments and/or with the mentorship of professional "Insider" artists at specialized arts centers such as Creative Growth Art Center in Oakland, California. Therefore, their practices do not follow Dubuffet's and Cardinal's vision of Outsider Artists as wholly cut off from society and from the mainstream art world. Thus many scholars and critics are coming to see "Outsider" as an obsolete categorization. There is an argument though that recognizes these categories as crucial at the time they were coined - shining a light onto hidden talent - but now there is gradual recognition that labels and prejudices are ideally better dissolved.

There is a big question, perhaps even a problem, as to who should be termed an Outsider artist, especially because many artists work very close to the edge of this definition; Niki de Saint Phalle, Hilma af Klint, Yayoi Kusama, and Joseph Cornell (with Kusama and Cornell interestingly having had a relationship) are all good examples. It seems that extreme rawness in art, and thus true Art Brut, can never become part of a convention, even if that convention starts to promote unconventionality. The artists mentioned above perhaps have the ability to shift in and out of the art world according to situation and need, whilst for an outsider, this capacity to adapt is more painful and sometimes impossible.

See also Art Brut (style), Outsider Art (style)




Wikipedia: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Outsider_art

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