The Brooklyn Rail

JUL-AUG 2018

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JUL-AUG 2018 Issue
Editor's Message Guest Critic

At the Beginning, A Monologue: The Fate of Self-Taught Art

By conceiving the notion of art brut in a Europe devastated by the Second World War, French artist Jean Dubuffet questioned the underlying pretense behind the processes of artistic legitimization, dispossessing those authorities empowered to legislate in the art world. He also insisted on the flexible nature of definitions, maintaining that art brut could incessantly evolve depending on the context of its emergence, knowing that the norm and the margins are perpetually reassessed. Without an art movement or identifiable style, art brut is not a category, but an evolving critical concept. Above all, as observed Céline Delavaux, Dubuffet likely proposed a singular, even poetic and literary way of thinking about art, “It is in the absence of the voice of the madman, the excluded, the uneducated, that his radically subjective art discourse was invented.”1

Following Dubuffet’s rationale, art brut—literally “uncooked,” “raw,” or “pure,” with the terms self-taught art and outsider art as its American counterparts—is seen as a dislodged and inopportune art, discovered by looking away from professional artistic networks (streets, asylums, penitentiaries) where live the “champions of non-alignment, the standard bearers of personal and unconditioned thought, the great addicts to the imaginative, and great deniers of any inculcated data.”2 An “illegitimate” art, as it were, born outside any artistic filiations, created by the common man, the marginal, the prisoner, the psychiatric patient, the delusional, the original, the medium, the solitary, and the anarchist, each entrenched in their own way in a mindset that reinterprets collective values. Dubuffet, at his own risk, defended the idea that an art thus dislodged—whose appropriation of cultural data by creators is carried out in a displaced mode—demands a museum that decentralizes the gaze of its viewers.

Dubuffet’s initiatives eventually led to the establishment of a specialized museum in 1976, the Collection de l’Art Brut in Lausanne.3 Despite his anti-museum stance, Dubuffet saw the institutionalization of art brut as necessary; a step above the regular enthusiasm for self-taught art by several trained artists. Indeed, Dubuffet formed a permanent reference collection, welcomed new acquisitions, and generated studies on this subject according to its specificities. He could have done otherwise—like the collector and art dealer Daniel Cordier who, later on, made successive donations to the Centre Pompidou in Paris, picking a large national museum as a springboard, and thereby setting up a disruption within its walls. Dubuffet was hesitant about the long-term commitment of such institutions towards non-mainstream art: would there be directors and curators who, like him, would pay consistent attention to overlooked narratives, and save in extremis works like Marino Auriti’s Encyclopedic Palace,4 Auguste Forestier’s sculptures of wood, bones, and leather, or Jeanne Tripier’s crocheted pieces and spirit drawings? He thought that in order to give real scope to these works, and approach their creator’s idiosyncrasies, it was necessary to carve out a custom-made place, far from the privilege, criteria of exclusivity (cf. Massimiliano Gioni’s essay, suggesting that all art be considered as minor), and generalist discourse of the art institution. As the Collection de l’Art Brut’s first director, Michel Thévoz defended, art brut works, like “the easel canvas and the oil painting, prescribe their own aesthetic instructions.”5

Susan Te Kahurangi King (1951, New Zealand), untitled, Auckland, New Zealand, c. 1965, pencil and colored pencil on paper, 11 x 9 in. Collection of KAWS. Photo by Adam Reich, courtesy of Chris Byrne and Andrew Edlin Gallery, New York, © Susan Te Kahurangi King.

Throughout the 20th century, self-taught artists have been increasingly lauded for their impact on visual culture, but acknowledgment often occurs posthumously or without their direct involvement (epitomized by “mute” artists like James Castle, Susan Te Kahurangi King, and Judith Scott). Silent but essential players in shaking and reshaping the art historical canon, they caught the attention—successively—of trained artists (the first to embrace them), critics, art dealers, collectors, and museums. Among them was the luminary curator Harald Szeemann, a fervent opponent to the existence of specialized museums à la Dubuffet, which he perceived as ghettos. Szeemann not only challenged the artistic autism of these creators, but claimed that art brut would become a contemporary art equal as soon as it got away from the voyeurism of case studies. But for Dubuffet, this de-partitioning was superficial, banalizing art brut and favoring “its sweetening, its reversal into an ordinary cultural object.” For one, inclusion meant assimilation and dissolution, and for the other, exclusivity invited idealization and was detrimental to the achievement of artistic recognition.

Almost fifty years later, it is worth trying to draw fresh observations on the legacy of these still polarized visions. The year 2018 has seen a marked proliferation in art fairs and large art venues of artists who followed unconventional artistic trajectories—the exhibitions History Refused to Die on self-taught contemporary African American artists at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, Outliers and American Vanguard Art at the National Gallery in Washington, which articulated the intersection of mainstream art and its peripheries, Bodys Isek Kingelez at the Museum of Modern Art in New York, and Hilma af Klint: Paintings for the Future at the Guggenheim in New York. How have the voices of these artists been interpreted on national and international platforms? Are we getting closer to reconciling particularism and universalism in the arts?

In a world profoundly altered by digital technology and its far-reaching effects on community structures, social relationships, educational systems, and changing mediums of expression (performance, photography, and video, as opposed to earlier art brut discoveries made of paper and found objects), the idea of self-taught art could also be radically revised in the 21st century. Admitting that Dubuffet’s eye-opening pursuit has in some manner permeated the definition of art, should we now consider whether or not art brut is an obsolete historical concept? In the context of significant remodeling in psychiatric treatments, post-colonialism, and globalization (alterity as a new normal), many will claim that all visual forms should henceforth be considered with the same attention or, to quote Outliers’s curator Lynne Cooke, “without distinction.” Is the stand alone term “artist” (without any modifiers) the democratic corrective lens that will resolve the conundrum, or does that word still connote the same old hierarchical construction unshaken at its core? Sanford Schwartz has remarked that these artists are on a different wavelength; however, “In time, as outsiders, or outliers, artists become more fully recognized and known, we might lose our sense that they are, so to speak, a breed apart.”6 This query is tackled in Daniel Baumann’s essay: if the European avant-garde was mainly responsible for Adolf Wölfli’s artistic legitimization, their fundamental beliefs in the autonomy of art prevented his oeuvre—with its highly biographical grounds—to be inscribed in the canon, which Baumann admitted has failed to establish a sustainable critical paradigm. Patronization and peer recognition have operated like monologues.

During its lifetime (1937 – 2005), the now shuttered Musée des Arts et Traditions Populaires in Paris—whose holdings were transferred to the MUCEM in Marseille—collected the art and material culture of the “common man,” de facto rarities that were usually thrown away after their use; these inglorious, invisible witnesses of our daily lives, like the uniform of the simple soldier covered with holes, blood stains, and patches. It also collected exceptional objects: the finest achievements of untrained artists, those personal, cherished unique creations, that were kept close by. The founding director, George Henri Rivière, was responding to a desire to safeguard the memory of a civilization threatened with extinction by France’s massive industrialization, modernization, and rural exodus in the mid-19th century. Michel de Certeau, referring to street literature in “The Beauty of the Dead,” argued that “popular culture presupposes an unavowed operation. Before being studied, it had to be censored. Only after its danger had been eliminated did it become an object of interest.”7 This example teaches us that the recognition processes of self-taught art have often occurred in response to impending losses, disappearances, and voicelessness, echoing Kerry James Marshall’s concerns in his essay, regarding authorizing narrative, processes of inclusion, and attempts at diversity. The contributors to this issue provide formative thoughts on how to protect the distinctive visual language and mindset of such art forms from being either ineptly idealized or lost in translation within the 21st century art museum.


  1. Céline Delavaux, L’art brut, un fantasme de peintre (Paris: Palette…, 2010)
  2. Jean Dubuffet, “Place à l’incivisme,” February 1967, in Dubuffet, Prospectus et tous écrits suivants. Tome 1 (Paris: Gallimard, 1967), 457.
  3. Other specialized museums in related fields are the Prinzhorn Collection in Heidelberg, the American Folk Art Museum in New York, Art & Marges Museum in Brussels, and the American Visionary Art Museum in Baltimore.
  4. This architectural model created by Marino Auriti (1891–1980) is part of the collection of the American Folk Art Museum, New York (gift of Colette Auriti Firmani in memory of Marino Auriti, 2002.35.1).
  5. Michel Thévoz, Collection de l’Art Brut, Lausanne (Zurich: Institut suisse pour l’étude de l’art, 2001), 17.
  6. Sanford Schwartz, “In their own worlds.” in The New York Review of Books, June 7, 2018, 60 – 62.
  7. Michel de Certeau, coll. with Dominique Julia and Jacques Revel, “La beauté du mort (The beauty of the Dead),” in Michel de Certeau, La culture au pluriel (Paris: Seuil, 1993), 45 – 49.


Valérie Rousseau

PHD, is a Curator of Self-Taught Art & Art Brut, American Folk Art Museum, New York.


The Brooklyn Rail

JUL-AUG 2018

All Issues