In ways that might be considered as ironic as they are unexpected, art brut, the related field of outsider art, and the even broader, related genre category that is known primarily in the United States as “self-taught art” have all become victims of their collective success. (Practically speaking, they all tend to be referred to using the umbrella term “outsider art.”) Today, these genre’ art forms have become more familiar—and perhaps also more popular—than ever.
Jean Dubuffet, the French modern artist who, in the 1940s, became the pioneering protagonist in the new research-and-collecting field he dubbed “art brut” (literally, “raw art”), described the phenomenon he was investigating in contrast to existing familiar forms of artistic expression whose creators had been consciously informed and influenced by mainstream culture and society, and by art history’s established canon.
It is important to keep in mind that art brut is a genre classification that emerged out of the activity of researcher-collectors like Dubuffet. It was not a marketing category cooked up by art dealers. Likewise, no one ever intentionally creates art brut or outsider art or self-taught art per se; these labels are applied a posteriori to certain artworks once they have been recognized and classified as such.
Moreover, there is no such thing as an “art brut style” or an “outsider art style” or, to use that shudder-inducing buzzword of a million exhibition press releases, an art brut or outsider art “sensibility.” That is because, according to Dubuffet’s original theorizing, each work of art brut or the wider, total oeuvre of a particular autodidact can and should be regarded as unique—as the evidence of a genre of its own. Also, according to Dubuffet and his collaborators, works authored by a particular artist must be seen to express a strong, unique, deeply personal vision. (Works by the Mexican-born artist Martín Ramírez or the Swiss artist Adolf Wölfli were shaped by and convey such visions.) The discernible expression of such a distinctive view of the “real world” or of an inner or imaginary world, or one that is marked by highly individualistic aesthetic, philosophical, social, political and/or other values or viewpoints is considered an essential element of any genuine art brut creation.
Can or should outsider art be integrated into mainstream narratives and analyses of art’s history? Why not? After all, this “other” art history can be traced back more than a century, at least, depending on where one chooses to mark its starting point. However, since outsider art was never a self-conscious artistic style, school, or movement, but rather an aesthetic category born of research and collecting, to accurately tell its story means that the history of the aesthetic investigations and debates that have informed it must be told alongside the stories of the art-makers who created the art on which it focuses. This history is multicultural in the truest sense, for noteworthy art-makers whose creations can properly be labeled “art brut” or “outsider art” have been identified in different parts of the world. This history is also not linear. It is not a narrative of one artistic style influencing and begetting another; as noted, these art forms are, characteristically, sui generis.
In recent years, in some precincts, it has become somewhat fashionable to mix it up—to present the works of visionary autodidacts alongside those of schooled, mainstream, modernist, or contemporary artists. To do so in order to explore thematic, technical, historical, or even spiritual affinities between such diverse works can be illuminating and aesthetically satisfying. However, when such exercises are carried out with a superficial understanding of their art brut/outsider art components, a certain weakness shows.
In addition, for better or worse, despite their supposedly good intentions, some of these displays come across as suggesting that outsider artists’ creations can or somehow are legitimized or validated if or when they are presented next to those of academically trained, “professional” artists (who make their works in dialog with mainstream art history). Sure, self-taught art-makers’ creations may be critically assessed in relation to other art forms, but to assume that outsider art is or somehow may be validated or legitimized by its real or imagined proximity to mainstream art product and its supporting institutions is to misunderstand the essential nature of outsider art.
Should a place be made for art brut and outsider art in mainstream art institutions and art history’s familiar canonical narrative? Absolutely, yes. Let’s examine these genres in relation to all sorts of other art forms, including modern art. In doing so, however, historians, curators, collectors, critics, and the viewing public should not lose sight of what makes this kind of art distinctive, special—and, often, deliciously subversive.