Reviews: Unpacking Dubuffet’s Legacy

Art Brut in America: The Incursion of Jean DubuffetFrom Art Brut to Art Without Boundaries From Art Brut to Art without Boundaries: A Century of Fascination through the Eyes of Hans Prinzhorn, Jean Dubuffet and Harald Szeemann, by Carine Fol. Skira, Milan, 192 pages, 80 color illustrations, 2015. ISBN: 978-8-8572-2748-1. Paperback, $45

Art Brut in America: The Incursion of Jean Dubuffet, by Valérie Rousseau with a foreword by Anne-Imelda Radice and contributions from Jean Dubuffet, Sarah Lombardi, Kent Minturn and Jill Shaw. American Folk Art Museum, New York, 248 pages, 142 illustrations, 2016. ISBN: 978-0-9121-6126-6. Paperback, $45

Jean Dubuffet – inventor of art brut, important painter, master collector and connoisseur, exploiter, radical, crank. For obvious reasons Jean Dubuffet figures prominently in two recent books about brut, both bringing new insights into the nuances of these roles, and those of other key figures.

Carine Fol, an art historian and museum director formerly with Art En Marge in Belgium, works thorny issues of definition and power that afflict the outsider art world by focusing on pioneering advocates, Dubuffet along with Hans Prinzhorn and Harald Szeemann. Her scholarly text betrays its origins as a doctoral dissertation composed in another language, and despite lovely illustrations it’s not a coffee-table book. But If you are interested in engaging deeper than usual with the trio’s thinking, it’s well worth the effort of a close look.

“Art Brut in America: The Incursion of Jean Dubuffet” is an easier read and more richly illustrated — appropriately so since it is an exhibition catalog drawing on the world’s greatest collection of self-taught art, Dubuffet’s own. As with most such catalogs, the work is presented by artist, with the inevitable biographical summary for each of them. The introductory essays contain the most interesting insights and factual nuggets, however, including the account of the collection’s 10-year American sojourn in the 1950s; of Alfonso Ossorio, the Filipino artist and collector who hosted it; and of Dubuffet’s own experience in the United States.

For her part, Fol adds enlightening background to the history of art brut and its close relations. She points out, for example, that when the psychiatrist Prinzhorn was selecting asylum work to analyze in his important book “Artistry of the Mentally Ill,” he was broadly influenced by his own taste for German Expressionism. His book thus featured work that resonated with Expressionism whether or not that style was typical of the art being produced in asylums. In another interesting sidelight she relates how the curator Harald Szeemann, who was committed to showing outsider art on an equal footing with the work of trained artists, pulled out of co-curating the show that became “Self-Taught Artists of the 20th Century” at the American Folk Art Museum in 1998 because he could not confine himself to outsiders. “I told them to drop the title ‘self-taught’ and just say ‘art,’ not to be afraid of presenting them alongside the greatest since obsession had no borders,” he said.

Prinzhorn shared that perspective, and in some ways his views come across as most current, more so in some respects than Dubuffet’s, even though Prinzhorn died in 1933 and Dubuffet in 1985.

“Prinzhorn was not anti-cultural, nor did he wish for asylum creations to be segregated. Instead, he sought to ‘convince reluctant intellectuals … and celebrate his poor minds by presenting their work in a Fine Art museum,’” as he wrote in a letter to the artist Emile Nolde.

Szeemann, as noted, shared Prinzhorn’s perspective. “The Swiss curator had no intention of glorifying [outsider Heinrich Anton] Müller to the detriment of Duchamp. Both bodies of work were honest and significant. He did not establish any hierarchy between Art Brut and official art, quite the contrary….”

Dubuffet, by contrast, was adamant that his art brut collection not be shown together with academic art, refusing loans to Szeemann, among others.

But Fol, while clearly more sympathetic to Szeemann’s view, still gives an understanding account of Dubuffet’s, as does Valérie Rousseau, the American Folk Art Museum’s curator of 20th-century and contemporary art. For Dubuffet art brut was not just another tranche of interesting material in the grand parade of art history but rather a philosophical concept, something actually separate and separately important from the work itself. As Rousseau writes, he viewed art brut first and foremost as evidence in his case against “official art” and in favor of spontaneous innovation, unencumbered by the dead weight of Cultural tradition. His hope was that art brut would actively undermine that tradition; cooperating with its exhibits and celebrations was not only beside the point but anathema.

For that view he is something of a tragic hero. His philosophical creation has prospected exactly as the kind of art-world category he rejected. Few followers of art brut share his insistence that it remain isolated from mainstream art. Even big museums, prime upholders of Culture, have lately shown enthusiasm. As Fol writes, “Ultimately, neither Art Brut nor the new museum [the Collection de l’Art Brut in Lausanne, Switzerland] had any ruinous effect on official art, instead it became the instrument that enabled Art Brut to gradually infiltrate mainstream art.” That may be the worst indignity.

Dubuffet’s “anti cultural positions” had power as a critique but did not lead to his hoped-for “permanent revolution,” a concept he borrowed from Leon Trotsky (it also failed in the political world). Revolution, in art or politics, wears people out. It is perhaps inevitable for those in post-revolutionary generations to abandon the crankiness of their forebears and just enjoy the fruits of progress. Our catholic tastes don’t require us to share Dubuffet’s passionate hostilities and rejection of all that was impure, or the twists and turns of his thinking, which was not always consistent, as Fol shows. But we remain the beneficiaries of his taste.

There is little to be gained from engaging in polemics with a dead man, and much to admire in Dubuffet’s activities and thinking. But there also are reasons to credit contemporary critics who saw him as controlling and self-serving. The petty disputes that arose in his efforts to institutionalize art brut will be familiar, and tiresome, to anyone who has had to live with organizational politics, and those disputes may have slowed the eventual rise of art brut to public prominence.

More concerning is whether Dubuffet in effect exploited these creators, who after all had no say in their conscription as artistes brut in service of his theoretical crusades. As Fol points out, “Most of the makers of Art Brut … had no particular desire to go against the dominant culture.”

Categories like art brut and outsider art are ultimately external creations, imposed on creators by people who have power and influence in the art world. Some labels benefit artists, or are adopted by them as a way of positioning themselves to the public. But any attempt to categorize art brings it within a restrictive definition, and any sensible artist is likely to eventually chafe against restriction.

Put another way, labels like outsider art and art brut did not arise for the immediate benefit of the artist or their work but as a framework helpful to those trying to define, understand, explain, and in some cases market art. Artists should be free to embrace, reject or resent a label as the case may be. They may also take on a label that clearly does not apply, such as Chicagoan Lee Godie calling herself a French Impressionist.

Just as art brut was born as a philosophical proposition, as these books show, there also are philosophical objections to any labeling at all. That case has been most forcefully argued by those concerned with the distorting effect of power relationships where socio-economic status is disproportional — like art-world elites encountering work produced by the economically disadvantaged, or the insane, for that matter. It does feels unfair for an “us” to define what a “them” are doing.

But short of taking an even more radical position than Dubuffet — basically putting art on hold until after a revolution eradicates inequality — there needs to be a conceptual model for understanding how the work of self-taught creators connects with the broader stream of human artistic creation. Concepts like art brut and outsider art remain useful in that effort, at least when they are used to describe, not prescribe, exclude or mystically elevate. Yes, these concepts reflect broader power relations, but they mostly take a stand for human creativity against indifference – and they help ensure that artists’ creations, and their names, survive – in many cases to the artist’s benefit.

They open up artistic expression to interesting groups of marginalized people, even if marginalization is not in itself a qualification or source of artistic value. Similarly, production of expressive objects by people who have had no training in how to make them is not necessarily magical. What’s powerful is how these concepts allow art to be found where few bothered to look before people like Prinzhorn and Dubuffet started poking around. The labels are gateways to innovation (the passion for invention at all costs being the most powerful of Dubuffet’s core ideas) and, more to the point, aesthetic abundance — far more variety than you would find in a museum showing only academic art for the same period.

Not that Dubuffet was free of his own blinders. Both these books include evidence that his need for personal control led him to underplay or exclude work that would seem natural elements of the art brut canon. His relative disinterest in art environments, for example, may reflect the fact that he couldn’t actually collect them, and the point of art brut for Dubuffet was making a point through his collection.

He also wound up dismissing art by children as uninteresting after initially embracing it. Rousseau cites his explanation in a 1976 interview with John MacGregor, where he said he viewed children as attempting to absorb and emulate “the civilization of adults” — exactly what he was resisting. Children’s art is “completely opposed to what interests me, because it’s an effort to assimilate culture.” A cynic might say that what children produced was also beyond the control of his strict conceptual categories. He could codify art brut and dictate what work belonged within that domain, but hardly so with art by children.

There is a different and credible way for the art of children to be incorporated into Dubuffet’s philosophical framework, though. Michel Thevoz, the first director of the Lausanne collection and keeper of the art brut flame, appears to have taken a somewhat more inclusive position as a way of explaining the distinction between art brut creators and other artists, Fol points out. Trained artists, he said, experience a decisive break between their childhood creativity and their post-education professional work. For art brut creators, there may be a long hiatus in time (many start making art relatively late in life) but no equivalent conceptual break. There is a sort of organic continuity to their creativity from childhood on.

If Dubuffet lost interest in the art of children, he of course was hardly more sympathetic to what he deemed cultural art. In his U.S. incursion he was, not surprisingly, dismissive of the American avant-garde. But then that avant-garde did not seem to have much interest in his art brut project.

Rousseau quotes Osorio as saying in 1953, “Among the artists — I speak of the ‘avant-garde’ — there were several whom it reduced to a state of fury…. By strange coincidence those whose work most closely resembles some aspects of the ‘Art Brut’ … are those whom it irritates the most.” Jackson Pollock was not interested, nor Clifford Still. Claes Oldenburg was, however, and in fact represents a bridge to the most famous part of Dubuffet’s “incursion” – his “Anti-Cultural Positions” lecture at the Arts Club of Chicago, which Oldenburg may have attended.

Some would like to draw a direct line from that near-mythical 1951 appearance to the founding of Intuit in Chicago 40 years later. Jill Shaw’s essay in the Incursions catalog makes that harder. There was certainly an impact on Oldenburg and a handful of other artists in attendance. The visit also affected Dubuffet, but more through the lasting relationships he forged with Chicago contemporary art collectors and curators than on any nascent Midwestern taste for the self taught. Rousseau for her part mentions Intuit founder Don Baum downplaying the importance of the speech in promoting the idea of art brut.

Perhaps the most intriguing Chicago connection Shaw cites is with the painter Ivan Albright. The Art Institute at the time of Dubuffet’s visit had hung one of his paintings adjacent to an Albright masterpiece, “Into the World There Came a Soul Called Ida.” It’s testament to the Frenchman’s good taste that he considered Albright’s painting “worth going to the ends of the earth to see.” Albright was the only Chicago artist Dubuffet was interested in meeting at this time, according to Shaw.

That same good taste, as embodied in the art brut collection, may be Dubuffet’s most lasting legacy – making it, perversely, a very Cultural act of connoisseurship.

Equally awkward, Dubuffet’s anti-aestheticism seems very much in line with academic art’s evolution away from notions of beauty and emotion in favor of the conceptual. His own condemnation of Culture seems very apt for today’s art world. If you’re not an initiate into its dominant discourses (indeed, if you’re not comfortable using terms like discourses), it’s easy to sympathize with his alienation: “I think this culture is very much like a dead language, without anything in common with the language spoken on the street. This culture drifts further and further from daily life… It no longer has real and living roots,” he wrote in 1951’s Anticultural Positions.

When he puts it that way, his anti-cultural positions, and his focus on unexpected sources of creative innovation, have a great deal of appeal indeed.

A version of these reviews originally appeared in The Outsider magazine, published by Intuit: The Center for Intuitive and Outsider Art.

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