What exactly is “Outsider” Art? (Part I)


It is art created on the fringes of society without regard for traditional genres—certainly a nebulous definition. To bring more clarity to the issue, we have to go back to the artist and collector who was one of the first champions of “outsider art.” Jean Dubuffet (1901-1985) famous French artist from the 20th century, was disillusioned with the established, mainstream art world and found great creative energy within the art of the mentally challenged and those who created art on the fringes of culture and society. In 1945, he coined the term “Art Brut”, (or “raw art”) for these artists who were not conditioned by academic training, museums, and society about what art should look like. Dubuffet noted: “It may be that artistic creation, with all that it calls for in the way of free inventiveness, takes place at a higher pitch of tension in the nameless crowd of ordinary people than in the circles that think they have the monopoly of it. It may even be that art thrives in its healthiest form among these ordinary people, because practiced without applause or profit, for the maker’s own delight; and that the over-publicized activity of professionals produces merely a specious form of art, all too often watered down and doctored.”1

It should be noted that Jean Dubuffet was only one of many European avant-garde artists who looked for forms of expression outside of the academic tradition. His interest in self-taught painters was echoed by the Cubist interests in tribal art, and the Impressionist and Post-Impressionist interest in Japanese prints. Many of you may not be aware that Henri Rousseau, whose paintings you are most likely familiar with, was a self taught painter who caught the eye of the avant-garde, specifically Picasso. Henri Rousseau worked as a toll booth collector to earn a living. His coworkers, knowing his passion for art, and believing in the power of his work, used to let him leave work early so that he could work on a painting.

Now Rousseau is best considered as a naive painter, as opposed to brut. Naive painters are self-taught, but live within the bounds of culture and society. Brut painters know nothing of society, nor are they concerned with it. They simply paint their inner world.

Here at the gallery, it is our pleasure to present you with both naive and brut painters. We hope the worlds these artists create will both intrigue and delight you.

Thevoz, Michel Art Brut, Editions d’Art Albert Skira S.A., Geneva, 1995, p. 5.

(I will continue the discussion on European and American “Outsider” art in our next blog.)