The concept of art brut has been constantly challenging our aesthetic perceptions and our definitions of art since its advent in the aftermath of the Second World War—although, in fact, the works brought together under this heading existed long before it was coined. Is it because of their very ambiguous status that these artistic productions renew our quest for absolute knowledge, reviving the dream of the philosopher’s stone, of an eternally unfinished encyclopaedia? Is it that the secret of art brut should be traced to its semiological opacity, generating a multitude of possible meanings?
It was the French painter Jean Dubuffet (1901 – 1985), who invented the notion of art brut as such in 1945 and founded the Compagnie de l’Art Brut. The aim of the Compagnie was to search for “artistic productions coming from obscure people, displaying personal inventiveness, spontaneity and freedom, away from the usual conventions and standards.” In other words, the works collected by Dubuffet—drawings, paintings, sculptures, and various assemblages—had to be made by artists situated outside the circuits of artistic education. The most powerful creations in Dubuffet’s collection, housed in a museum of the City of Lausanne since 1976, are those of psychotic artists and mediums. In the last decades of the twentieth century it could be said that a number of art historians, critics, and curators viewed art brut as a kind of “parallel avant-garde” that was marginal and excluded from the usual networks of contemporary art. It should be recognised that Dubuffet, as well as many of his French heirs, did all they could to ensure that this was the case, at the risk of opening wide the door to a reactionary “anti-contemporary-art” ideology, as if art brut was a school of thought, an anti-capitalist ideology or a homogenous style. At the same time, this period saw the constitution of several private collections (notably abcd/Bruno Decharme collection in Paris, Treger-Saint Silvestre collection in São João da Madeira, Portugal, Gerhard & Karin Dammann collection in Tägerwilen, Switzerland).
Today, the concept persists and is very much alive, and not only in the European context. There is, indeed, nothing stable about the territory of art brut: it is evolving, its corpus is consistently enriched. It is constantly being probed through the eyes of new collectors, with discoveries made in non-European countries such as Japan, South Korea, Brazil, India, Cuba, and Colombia, and with the appearance of new artists in Western Europe (like the ones from l’Atelier Goldstein in Frankfurt, Germany, and “La S” Grand Atelier in Vielsalm, Belgium). Each geographical and cultural context being entirely different, the concept is used and understood differently, based on the curatorial and political agenda of the institutions and individuals purporting it. Analyzing the different meanings of art brut and the strategies surrounding its use would require hundreds of pages.
By presenting works by schooled and unschooled artists together, with an insistence on the artists's biographies, the Venice Biennale of 2013, entitled The Encyclopedic Palace, seems to have functioned as a keystone in changing the perception of this field in the eyes of the contemporary art world public. Since then, major museums in France have been keen on integrating individual art brut creators in their collections, based on the “quality” and originality of their production. However, one might wonder if the inclusion of exceptional self-taught artists in large art museums (like Henry Darger at the Musée d’Art moderne de la Ville de Paris and the Czech artist Luboš Plný in the Centre national d’art et de culture Georges-Pompidou), following a strategy of “selective enfranchising” while failing to display them into exhibitions from their permanent collection of 20th century art, really addresses the institutional blindness in their respect. Other contemporary art institutions (like the Palais de Tokyo, with the exhibition At the Edge of the Worlds) chose to present professional artists and art brut on the same level, without any distinction or classification. However, one might argue that such approach not only does not automatically establish the equality of opportunity—the questions of privilege, access, and control are fundamental to the operations of the mainstream art world—but more importantly, it obliterates the author’s intentions with which he or she produced the work in the first place, eliminating important nuances of meaning for the viewer.
Addressing the imbalance through historical exhibitions, by putting the emphasis on works and artists who have been forgotten, contextualizing these works, deterring data from archives and medical files, rewriting and correcting artists biographies: this seems to be one of the things that we can do today, as exhibition curators and active participants in the field of art brut. And until such work is done, art brut will continue to function as an index or a pointer, demonstrating that there are differences between artist’s intentions and contexts that might not only be a matter of a degree. But that is already another question, the answers to which will differ depending on the point of view of the viewer.