Jean Dubuffet, Art Brut Pioneer

The arts are well known to have a mainstream or establishment face, but since the last century it has become harder to find instances of naïve or folk art that is free of conventional influences. Due to the work and theories of French painter Jean Dubuffet, art brut (a term he invented in 1945) has emerged as a means of defining so-called „raw art“ that was independent of modern intellectual or standard dictates of art. In this manner, it could escape the saturation exposure by which art had been made subject to institutional and conformist attitudes, especially since the 20th century and onward.

Dubuffet (1901 – 1985) initially concentrated his search for authentic nonconformist art on the insane, such as artwork done in mental institutions or by totally untrained persons, where presumably the amount of mainstream influence on the visual art created would be altogether absent. Other examples of authentic naïve artwork in a jaded, convention-dominated age would be found from studying work created by ancient or modern cavemen, urban graffiti artists, and other „outside art“ sources (the latter term was later devised by critic Roger Cardinal to cover works that were not considered by Dubuffet).

The painter was himself influenced by the simplicity and energy of these kinds of creations, especially as reflected in his own paintings. To Jean Dubuffet art brut was a nonconformist means to that exact end, and this shaped his research during his travels in the 1920s and after to psychiatric hospitals and other nonconventional locales across Europe. He preferred artwork that was in opposition to mainstream criticism, and from the 1920s believed in an art that “is anchored in practical and mundane life.”  Dubuffet even abandoned painting in his youth and devoted his life to travel, especially in Buenos Aires, where he lived a reclusive life for decades, and founded his own business of trading in wine at Bercy.

Ironically, art brut has become much more intensely studied and respected by the mainstream art world. In the decades following Dubuffet’s passing, and the painter’s own work has been the object of several revival exhibits. Nonconforming art has become a curious specialty that is increasingly expected to be understood by the modern art world, regardless of its origins or the oppositional stances of its advocates. For students of Jean Dubuffet art brut should be a required launching point for understanding how unprocessed, independent art can be accomplished in the age of cars, TV and the Internet.