Art brut (also called raw art) is not well understood in this country, although Henry Darger, the most famous of the art brut artists, was an American who lived in Chicago. Art brut means something serious in European terms. It has psychological meaning as well as artistic meaning.
A couple of years ago I went to the Art Brut Museum in Lausanne. (Use pull-down menu to view various artists.) The artist Jean Dubuffet’s art brut collection is kept there in a smallish mansion, just right for a couple of hours of viewing. The work I noticed most tended toward compulsive repetition, elaborate small details in over-all patterns, sterile, wooden drawing, cartoons and caricature, garish, dark, or muddy colors, sometimes disagreeable.
Art brut does not desire to charm or please, to shock, to relate in any way to its audience. It seems cut off but not serene. Culturally speaking, the European or European American outsider was a person with a bizarre inner world that could not be integrated into a modern humanistic framework. Art brut was the work of repressed people, sometimes insane institutionalized people. Some art brut can seem humorous, but the artists never intended for their work to be light or funny.
I recall doing exactly the same kind of neat and obsessive artwork with idiosyncratic features around age 10 in the “latent” period of my life. Earlier, in my preschool and early elementary years, like many children, I went through a “great artist” period when I used color and form with boldness and freedom. After I learned to read and write, that talent left me. Picasso, Matisse, Gaughan, and other great artists never lost their early freedom. They acquired mature skills and combined the imagination of the child with the competence of the adult to produce their masterworks.
The art brut artists seem never to have emerged from latency; they were unable to move beyond the compulsiveness of the pre-adolescent. They still believed in stepping over cracks for fear of breaking their mother’s backs. While suitable in the development toward adolescence and adulthood in European culture, such repressions, if not overcome, led to obsessive compulsive disorder, sexual aberrations, even insanity. These afflictions were perhaps more common 50 or 100 years ago than they are now. At present, the great human troubles are of expression, not repression: addictions, acting out behavior, perversions. Mainstream art reflects these preoccupations. Pollock, Mapplethorpe, Bacon, Freud: any art that shocks and repels, as well as the converse: art that is decorative, whimsical, funny, and therefore has an escapist quality.
Dubuffet, a mainstream painter, capitalized on art brut style in his painting and other art works. A mature man, he combined the freedom of the child with the stiff unintentional humor of art brut to produce his uniquely witty sculptures, installations, and paintings. He championed art brut, collected it, copied some of the cartoonish techniques, the bizarre uses of texture and color and so on, but all his work breathed the humanistic spirit so lacking in art brut. His work was conscious, intelligent, brilliant, was self conscious while at the same time being uninhibited. Dubuffet was not isolated.
Darger was an isolated and unknown person. This eccentric man’s theme concerned the menace to the lives of a group of little blonde girls with tiny penises, a kind of transgender pedophile comic and text series. The Edlin Gallery web site shows how Darger’s works have been turned into commodities in the world of art. Sex and violence themes are not so prevalent in European examples as in Darger's work. But interestingly enough, I think Darger’s theme, like theirs, is the resistance to maturity, the desire for latency. And that is what I see in all art brut.
I believe that critics in Europe once made the mistake of claiming that art brut was a universal form of expression not culturally determined. They thought of it as relating to “primitive” art, but primitive art is stylized according to the culture it is embedded in. Some of the Lausanne collection does seem to have that quality of “primitiveness,” but most of it does not. Art brut is dehumanized. It is cultural in that isolation and dehumanization have been common disturbances of people in western culture. Dehumanized routinization and repression of basic drives reached a peak some time ago and have receded to be replaced by other disturbances. I think of popular cultural icons like Tom Cruise and Michael Jackson, acting out kinds of behavior that used to stay in the fantasy realm. Not to mention Oprah, Dr. Phil and reality shows. These bizarre figures have become normalized and imitated in people's everyday lives.
Art brut has come to the attention of the New York art world, so I suppose it is now very valuable. I do not think anyone does this kind of work any more. The culture has changed too much. I am very suspicious of any claims that art brut is now a recognized art style that people are working in, as this article in Adbusters would claim:
Coleman is on the leading edge of a way of art making that has its roots in French painter Jean Dubuffet’s notion of art brut – art created by “irregulars”: the mentally insane, naives, mediums, and other social misfits. But unlike Dubuffet’s somewhat rigid definition, today’s umbrella term “outsider” is expansive enough to enfold makers of roadside found-object sculpture parks and graffiti art, punk-rock posters and tattoo “flash art.” Some artists, like Paul Laffoley who creates detailed schematics of invented cosmologies at his one-man Boston Visionary Cell, or the late Howard Finster who claimed God directed him to make some 40,000 “sermons in paint,” strive to express specific ideologies. Others create art to crystallize a legacy — or just because: Nek Chand spent 18 years secretly building a dreamlike 40-acre visionary rock garden in the jungle outside Chandigarh, India, and Simon Rodia erected the iconic Watts Towers in Los Angeles merely because “I had in mind to do something big, and I did.”
This article displays the typical misunderstanding of art brut of those who do not understand that art brut depicts repression, not acting out. The author dilutes the definition too much, pulling in junk sculpture and such. The desire to display, so typical of contemporary culture, is not part of art brut. And certainly it was not created in order to sell in the artistic marketplace. I consider real art brut to be historic: no longer produced.
© 2005, Marianna Scheffer