First published: Winter 1999/2000
The broad-ranging engagement with notions of the cultural periphery that characterises interest in Outsider Art was made possible, at least in part, by the activities and polemical writings of Jean Dubuffet.
The term 'Art Brut', which he coined in the mid-1940s, has come to signify the orthodoxy of the Outsider Art field, though as Cardinal points out, his idea evolved in the course of his career:
'At first a hazy intuition, it solidified into a rigorous set of criteria before finally becoming a more flexible and congenial yardstick'.
Dubuffet's writings – which are nevertheless remarkably consistent over four decades – are characteristically anti-bourgeois in tone and abound with calls for audiences to turn away from the accepted (and acceptable) products of culture, which he saw as being rendered lifeless by virtue of their very acceptability.
'Art, by its very essence, is of the new', he wrote in 1963, 'We expect art to uproot us, to unhinge doors.'
As far as Dubuffet was concerned this could not occur in the context of what he referred to as the dull, 'hollow works' produced by and for mainstream taste:
'When the pompous platforms of Culture are erected, and awards and laurels come raining down, then flee as fast as you can, there'll be little hope for art. If art did once exist here, it's already gone by now, it hurried off for a change of air. It's allergic to the air of collective approval.'
Here, as elsewhere, Dubuffet invites us to look for 'true art' in unexpected places. His own search took him to the archives of psychiatric hospitals and to the work of people living either on the margins of society, or distanced from High Culture by class and lack of education. From these outsiders a collection of work emerged that produced the spectrum of recognisably Art Brut types. The French term 'brut' is not easily translated into a single English word. It carries with it connotations both of simplicity and naturalness as well as ill-breeding and clownishness.
But this range of possibilities – its resistance to precise definition – is probably one of the things that drew Dubuffet to the word in the first place. The notion of being in the 'natural' or 'raw' state lies at the heart of the word and in this sense it is set in opposition to 'culture'.
However, Dubuffet's early career – not as an artist, but working in the family wine business – provides the clue to the most celebratory and poetical meaning of Art Brut, namely that, like the best champagnes, 'brut' here signifies the unadulterated, purest state of things.