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The Shock of the Crazed

The hidden world of art brut

Art brut “auteurs” are not artists, I’m told. The champions of art brut—variously translated as “raw,” “rough,” or “outsider” art—stress that the work of individual, untutored practitioners trumps all the usual conventions of artistic legacy-building, including the analytic categories of art criticism. Hence, those who write about “auteurs” are, at best, critiques bruts.

Lucky for me. I’m not even an art journalist, to be honest. I am untrained, I have no knowledge of art history, and most art aficionados would probably find my taste pretty plebian. Like the irate middle-class philistines of modernist legend, I sometimes look at what passes for art these days and think, “What the fuck?” (I’m talking to you, Cy Twombly.)

I heard about the recent art brut show at the American Folk Art Museum in Manhattan from the New York Times. The show has already closed. You can’t go see it. That’s how crappy an art journalist I am.

But I went to see the show a few times, and what struck me at first wasn’t the auteurs at all, but French artist and art brut champion Jean Dubuffet’s manifesto, “Anticultural Positions,” which was hung on the museum wall in its original manuscript form, as though it were a piece of art brut in its own right. “Anticultural Positions” was delivered as a lecture at the Arts Club of Chicago on December 20, 1951. Marcel Duchamp helped Dubuffet translate the speech into English.

Wait a second. I was struck by the auteurs. That’s why I’d gone to the show in the first place: because as a writer, on the subject of art or anything else, I think of myself as sort of self-taught. I, too, shun the familiar models of aesthetic and intellectual advancement via incremental mastery and expertise. Instead, I prefer dramatic chronicles of the shift from ignorance to knowledge, from innocence to experience. In other words, I want every story to reinvent literature. I want every drawing to expand the definition of art.

That’s what I found at the show, among the auteurs. But to my considerable surprise, I couldn’t fully embrace the chaotic mythos of art brut as a purely self-invented tradition. And now, as I try to think up ways to characterize the pieces that came from some of Dubuffet’s earliest expeditions to gather the elaborate productions of madpersons who were locked away in European psychiatric hospitals, I find that my instinct is to place the works into preestablished traditions or histories, if only so that you might be able to picture them. How else to account for their stories, which seem calculated to undermine the steady commercial march of art as depicted in high-end auction catalogs? In lieu of a stately succession of movements, schools, and styles, art brut gives us an array of butchers and scientists and soldiers and housewives who suddenly went crazy and then produced huge bodies of work—most often for discrete periods of time, three years or eight years or fourteen years—before falling silent and eking out the rest of their isolated, artless lives.

I sometimes look at what passes for art these days and think, “What the fuck?” (I’m talking to you, Cy Twombly.)

Take, for example, the case of Auguste Forestier, one of the first auteurs Dubuffet stumbled across. Forestier spent his life in a psychiatric institution after causing a train to derail at age twenty-seven (he had piled stones on the tracks). In sizing up his work, I want to say that there is something vaguely Aztec about the small wooden statuettes he carved with a cobbler’s blade from recovered wood and decorated with scraps of fabric, leather, metal, and string. Of Augustin Lesage, a miner from a family of miners, who began to work in oils on canvas when a voice from deep in a mine told him he would one day be a painter, I want to argue that his productions look like medieval portrayals of heaven and hell, those crowd-clustered renderings of Christian afterworlds, though there is also something Buddhist or Indian to the works’ obsessive intricacy. And of Berthe Urasco, who studied piano and voice as a young woman before sinking into paranoid delusions and spending seven years in the Bel-Air Clinic near Geneva, I would claim that her drawings of huge-eyed figures staring out from bleak landscapes recall the ancient statues that led psychologist Julian Jaynes, the great theorist of the “bicameral mind,” to conclude that early Homo sapiens had not yet formed a complete brain.

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But all of that is wrong, sort of. Because Dubuffet’s point is that art brut “auteurs”—his term—weren’t responding to anything at all when they set out to create their works. They did not think of themselves as artists, and they were part of no school of art. They belonged to no tradition. Their work was “in conversation” with nothing. To describe their productions by comparing them to anything else—even to call the work “art”—was to miss something essential.

That essential thing—the reason Dubuffet had gathered the frenzied works of madpersons in the first place—was what he attempted to articulate in his manifesto, hanging on the museum wall in French and in English, some of it handwritten, some of it typed. I was able to read enough of it there on that first visit to be roused by it, to recognize the hand of a kindred soul in some of Dubuffet’s claims, and to be outraged by others.

Margins Incorporated

“Anticultural Positions” doesn’t list the names Dubuffet tried before “art brut”—“crude art,” “marginal art”—and the lecture is, first and foremost, an attempt to sketch out the “borders” of whatever he was attempting to describe. To get at this, Dubuffet set about dismantling all of Western culture, which he likened to a dead language and then criticized for its contempt of nature, for having fetishized logic and reason, for being overly fond of analysis, and for having too routine a notion of beauty. Laudable points all. Despite the manifesto’s charms, however, Dubuffet makes his argument more succinctly in a different essay, “In Honor of Savage Values,” in which he claims that when an artist “reels off something that is not his, that he has received from outside, I consider that we are looking at a counterfeit work, which is entirely uninteresting.”

Now, even I can tell you them’s fightin’ words. “In Honor of Savage Values” suggests more or less the opposite of what T. S. Eliot prescribes in “Tradition and the Individual Talent,” which I understand to be the proposition that art is always in conversation with other art—and that, yes, sure, the vision of the inspired individual is important, but it’s also important, as you apply your individual vision, to understand the tradition to which your vision responds, and which it might tweak, bolster, transform, or quash. Dubuffet disagreed with all that—I found I did too—and he said a bunch of other exciting things as well, which I was able to grasp even on that first day in the museum. For example, when he claimed of his quirky auteurs that “insanity is the term used for everything that is distanced from the normal . . . and there are various ways to distance oneself from the normal prototype,” I experienced a thrill of recognition and thought of Georges Canguilhem’s The Normal and the Pathological, which predated “Anticultural Positions” by just a few years.

Even commentary about Dubuffet excited me. When an essay in the book of the museum’s show claimed that Dubuffet’s own literary productions demonstrated that “the act of writing about a work of art should be a literary reenactment and re-performance of it,” my brain bloated with admiration; this approach was virtually identical to critic James Wood’s claim, many years later, that “criticism means, in part, telling a good story about the story you are criticizing.” By way of contrast, when Dubuffet argued that “painting is more concrete than written words and is a much richer instrument than written words for the expression and elaboration of thought,” I felt a bubble of bile rise in my throat, and I wanted to travel back in time and hit him with James Agee, who, again just a few years earlier, had cried out an anticipatory retort: “Words could, I believe, be made to do or to tell anything within human conceit. That is more than can be said of the instruments of any other art.”

But nothing hit me harder or stuck longer than those first claims about the borders of art brut, probably because it felt like they’d been addressed to me personally, and because they tackled obliquely the fundamental question of what art is exactly. For Dubuffet, it seemed, art was mostly, or perhaps entirely, about what we understand consciousness to be. “Art addresses itself to the mind,” he wrote, “and not to the eyes.”

Carlo Zinelli
© Olivier Laffely Carlo Zinelli

Almost a hundred years before Dubuffet, American psychologist William James—who addressed the mind directly by coining the phrase “stream of consciousness”—studied to be an artist for several years in the Newport studio of painter William Morris Hunt. It’s unclear whether it was an episode of depression or his father’s disapproval that ultimately steered James away from brushes and canvases, but what’s known for sure is that some time later James outlined a polemical lecture about schools of art. Enough remains of his notes to reconstruct a thesis. Schools of art celebrate uninspired work, James wanted to claim, because art conceived as a response to other art was the creation of an artist knowingly borrowing from or mimicking or working in the thrall of another artist, one who was the school’s original visionary. This work, he theorized, tended to lack a spark of inspiration that you could see at a glance, the magical resonance that the beholder of art craves without ever knowing that he or she desires some mysterious nourishment. In other words, schools of art create watered-down art and watered-down artists.

Dubuffet’s critique of “counterfeit” works might have been drawn directly from James, had James gone ahead and written his polemic. But that didn’t happen, and in any event, what’s substantially more interesting is what James did with the core idea of his aborted lecture decades later, when he penned what Robert Stone once described as the most important work of nonfiction of the twentieth century, The Varieties of Religious Experience. The book celebrated personal religion in a highly secular time. More specifically, it argued for the truth of mystical experiences: the fleeting and indescribable intervals that left individuals transformed, convinced they had been touched by a divine presence. James was struck by the uniformity of these experiences, stretching across cultures and eras. He believed the reports indicated something real and true. He was far less keen, however, on the movements that tended to grow out of mystical experiences.

According to James, all organized religions followed a basic template: a mystic has an experience and then becomes a prophet by dint of communicating the experience to seekers who, disillusioned with highly structured traditions, hunger for something new. A movement grows as the message is disseminated, and the prophet is heralded as an earthly divine presence. When the prophet dies, leadership passes to a figure with no immediate experience of the animating vision, and the group’s core purpose shifts to growth and self-perpetuation; it becomes corporate in nature. A now watered-down cosmology appeals to a new laity, a different sort of seeker who longs to become attached to something established and communal. Soon, not much remains of the animating vision—the movement is no longer based on a tactile experience of something believed to be otherworldly, but rather on an organization that offers the corporate rewards of hierarchical advancement and an association with institutional wealth.

Which brings us back to Dubuffet and art brut. An artist, it seems to me, is one who attempts to receive at will the kind of vision that arrived spontaneously in those who were once labeled mystics. The “creative process” is an attempt to conjure inspiration. Art brut “auteurs,” then, are mystics of another sort: the culture’s soulfulness locked away in asylums, desperately recording visions they mistook for glimpses of other worlds.

A Brut Abroad

And inevitably, it seems, the solitary transports of art brut auteurs became bound up with broader currents of political and commercial madness in the modern age. As a result, like debutante globetrotters, the works displayed at the American Folk Art Museum had to cross the Atlantic three times before I had the chance to see them.

Their full story begins even earlier than that.

In 1923 a mentally ill French factory worker named Clémentine Ripoche filled a ledger with visionary images of clouds and interpretations of cloud formations. She posted the notebook to the director of France’s National Meteorological Office, which was headquartered in Paris, in a weather laboratory on the third floor of the Eiffel Tower. The notebook was given to then twenty-two-year-old Jean Dubuffet, who had been assigned to the Meteorological Office to perform his obligatory national service. Dubuffet had long nursed a passion for nontraditional art, graffiti, prisoners’ tattoos, and so on. Intrigued, Dubuffet met several times with factory worker / cloud interpreter Ripoche, but it would be years before he would begin to amass his own collection of works produced in psychiatric hospitals. Before then, Nazi Germany, led by a different sort of madman, one whose own artistic sensibility hewed far closer to tradition, led an attack on the art world that culminated in the infamous Degenerate Art show of 1937, in which the works of the mentally ill were displayed alongside the work of modern artists, presumably to suggest that they were all equally certifiable.

“Auteurs” are the culture’s soulfulness locked away in asylums.

During the war, French surrealist poet Paul Éluard, a friend of Man Ray and Pablo Picasso, spent time in a psychiatric institution southwest of Lyon. Éluard wasn’t crazy. His patriotic sonnet, “Liberty,” had been reprinted thousands of times over and dropped from British aircraft all across Nazi-occupied France. Hiding out in the hospital, Éluard discovered among the institution’s permanent residents Auguste Forestier, the creator of the Azteckian statuettes, who—in addition to having set up a makeshift craft studio in a hospital corridor—was wont to strut the halls wearing military-style “medals” that he had made himself. Forestier’s completed statuettes were displayed for sale atop the exterior wall of the hospital yard. Éluard promptly recommended the odd work to Dubuffet, who began to study Forestier’s work in May 1945, eight months after the liberation of France, just at the time of Germany’s surrender.

Now, it seemed, Dubuffet’s vision of a global art brut community began to stir into fruition. Two months later, he traveled to Switzerland, accompanied by another writer friend and, more notably, the architect Le Corbusier, to document the productions of psychiatric patients and prison inmates. Psychiatrists in Bern and Geneva had already begun gathering the work of their more remarkable patients in modest museums. Soon, Dubuffet was not content simply to record the works’ existence. He began to collect.

He opened a small museum of his own in 1947, in the basement of the home of an art-dealer friend, and the following year Dubuffet formed the short-lived Compagnie de l’Art Brut, whose members would number in the dozens and include artists and writers ranging from André Breton to Wallace Stevens. Soon, however, the group was beset by the usual organizational difficulties of limited financial resources, disagreements over its mission and vision, and accusations that Dubuffet’s managerial style was more like that of a dictator than that of an equal member of a society of like-minded thinkers. Dubuffet disbanded the group in 1951.

Art brut might have died then and there, if not for a peculiar Gatsby-like figure—wealthy, mysterious, tragic, and installed in a vast Long Island estate that had become a common meeting place for the most famous artists of mid-twentieth-century America. Alfonso Ossorio was heir to a Philippine sugar fortune. Art was his Daisy Buchanan. (Dubuffet and Ossorio died more than a quarter-century ago now, but Ossorio’s long-time partner, Ted Dragon, died only in 2011.) A painter and something of an auteur himself, Ossorio had independently developed an interest in works produced by untrained artists. His acquisition of unusual pieces predated his introduction to Dubuffet, which came at the suggestion of Jackson Pollock, in Paris, in November 1949.

Dubuffet and Ossorio hit it off at once. Ossorio purchased several of Dubuffet’s paintings. Years later, a number of Ossorio’s own canvases would be included in the exhibition at the American Folk Art Museum (and Dubuffet would eventually write a book about Ossorio’s work), but the truth is that Ossorio’s role in the story of art brut is that of a benefactor, one whose longing to be accepted as an artist led to great acts of generosity, but whose own work, at least to my eye, doesn’t quite fit with the inspired works of crazed geniuses. It’s all too intentionally random, too Cy Twombly.

Ossorio was a timely savior. Just at the moment when Dubuffet didn’t know what to do with the art brut collection, Ossorio turned up as conveniently as a deus ex machina, sporting a collector’s enthusiasm and the resources of a magnate. The courtship lasted a couple years, a period that included a vast correspondence, more meetings in Paris, and once, a joint trip to a nudist colony with Ted Dragon and Dubuffet’s wife, Lili Carlu. In late 1951, fifteen cases containing 1,200 art brut works were shipped from Paris, embarking on a circuitous voyage that would end at Ossorio’s fifty-seven-acre East Hampton estate, known as The Creeks. During Ossorio’s lifetime, the Long Island compound would become a work of art itself, the main villa stuffed with prized works, the grounds littered with valuable sculptures. (Today, on Google Earth, you can spot a couple Richard Serras on the grounds of The Creeks, but after Ossorio’s death the estate was sold to Revlon zillionaire Ron Perelman, who vacuumed up many of the grounds’ sculptures, prompting one commentator to observe that Ossorio’s collection had been so valuable that the addition of New York’s richest man only cheapened it.)

Expert Tease

The Creeks was brand new in 1951, and there were delays before the art brut collection could be displayed in a few rooms on an upper floor of the house. Photographs of the eventual installation suggest a nose-thumbing of the high-art past in both content and form. Unlike the well-lit but curatorially anodyne presentations of museums, this collection was pointedly ad hoc: pieces cluttered Ossorio’s walls and crowded his shelves. It seemed like nothing so much as an effort to embrace—and thereby own—the Nazi madman’s didactic bid, in the Degenerate Art campaign, to dismiss all modern art as a haphazard miasma of raw, untutored expression.

Dubuffet followed the art brut collection abroad—in fact, he made scouting trips to prepare for the works’ arrival. He delivered “Anticultural Positions” before his Chicago audience at just about the same time the works were being hung in the Hamptons. The reaction was mixed and curious: the artists whose work most closely resembled the work of the art brut auteurs (e.g., Pollock) were the ones most likely to kick back against it—to argue that, even at The Creeks, the productions of auteurs should be presented separately from the works of, I guess, “true” artists.

And this approaches the heart of what this entirely unschooled essay is trying to get at. Because it seems to be the case that those old conceptual artists, or abstract artists, or avant-garde artists, or whatever they wanted to call themselves, relied on an unarticulated definition of art emphasizing that, despite how random or rambling or unschooled their work was trying to appear, true artists really knew what they were doing. The similarity between the work of these artists and the works created by wackos who had never studied anything, who never read art history, who never apprenticed in some artist’s studio, who never got a degree or drank whiskey with Pollock or Duchamp—well, too much emphasis on that vague similarity suggested that artists weren’t really expert in anything. So how could the true artists sign on to Dubuffet’s wild claims just at the moment when people were beginning to pay vast sums for the product of their vision and expertise? It’s perhaps for this reason that the art brut collection stayed only a decade in Osorrio’s storied chambers before retreating back across the Atlantic to Paris, where it remained until 1976, when the Collection de l’Art Brut museum opened in Lausanne, Switzerland. At that time, there were five thousand works in the Collection de l’Art Brut. Today, the collection boasts seventy thousand pieces.

Furthermore, shortly after the art brut show at the American Folk Art Museum closed this past January, the New York Outsider Art Fair celebrated its twenty-fourth consecutive year in operation. “It might seem paradoxical,” one art magazine wrote of the fair, “but Art Brut (or Outsider Art) is increasingly moving from the art world’s margins to become an emerging segment of the art market in its own right.” 2016 marks the first Christie’s auction of “vernacular art” held in conjunction with the Outsider Art Fair. This sale included a piece by one of Dubuffet’s original discoveries, Adolf Wölfli, who had been included in the American Folk Art Museum show. Wölfli had been sexually abused as a child, was himself imprisoned for attempted child abuse, and was then committed to the Waldau Clinic, where he spent the rest of his life. He produced thousands of works, trading finished pieces for paper and pencils to produce yet more works. Christie’s sold Wölfli’s Lagerfeuer, which resembles no tradition or school of art that I know of, for $12,500.

School’s Out

The history of art brut is a history of contradictions. The greatest contradiction of all is that it’s almost impossible to look at Dubuffet’s own paintings and fail to conclude that he had worked in the thrall of his auteurs, quite as if art brut was itself a school of art.

To backtrack: It’s not inaccurate to say that Auguste Forestier seems a bit Aztec, or that Augustin Lesage seems a bit Buddhist, because Dubuffet’s real suggestion, it seems to me, is not that it’s possible to shed influence completely, but that what every artist should attempt to do is shovel down into their own minds, excavate past the sediment of Western civilization that amounts to yet another, larger, school of art, and keep scraping deeper and deeper, all the way back to the beginning. In this view of things, each and every artist crafts a unique creation narrative, chronicles the birth of his or her own private aesthetic. Hence, the best work is not adult, intellectual, and informed; it is primitive, and childish, and raw.

I have a hard time looking at the work of Maurice Charrieau and not seeing a rough draft of Popeye the Sailor.

Carlo Zinelli
© Olivier Laffely Pascal-Désir Maisonneuve

Perhaps that’s why it’s easy to recognize the influence of art brut in the images that have been created for children’s literature and cartoons ever since Dubuffet began showing his art brut collection. I have a hard time looking at the work of Maurice Charrieau (identified only as a “common man”) and not seeing a rough draft of Popeye the Sailor. One of the few works of actual children in Dubuffet’s original collection, by Annie Chaissac, is a dead ringer for early sketches of Charlie Brown. (During World War Two, Charles Schulz passed through Europe with the 20th Armored Division, just as the art brut collection was beginning to take shape.) The work of Albino Braz (schizophrenic, institutionalized in Brazil) is deeply evocative of Where the Wild Things Are and appeared in international shows just a few years before Maurice Sendak began publishing. And the peculiar figures of Carlo Zinelli (a butcher and soldier, committed to the San Giacomo Hospital in Verona at age thirty-one) bear a more than passing resemblance to the odd creatures that populate Matt Groening’s early comic strip, Life in Hell.

Regardless of whether this influence is direct or indirect, the fact that these men—Schulz, Sendak, and Groening—made millions from their work suggests that whatever happened to art brut long ago, and whatever is happening now as those same original works begin to sell for tidy sums, isn’t anything so simple as another “school of art.” To be sure, Dubuffet’s attempts to organize and promote art brut look, at a remove, a whole lot like someone trying to create a movement, a school. The movement fell apart, but even so—and ironically—those original works now hang in the very museums that epitomize the Western civilization Dubuffet had hoped to undermine. In the end, it may be impossible to identify a trend, to suggest that a trend has a value, without that value sooner or later coming to correspond to economic currency—to a dollar value that is sure to corrupt what was valuable about the trend in the first place. In other words, the coffers overflow with gold as the mystic dies, the vision gets lost, and the mechanism designed to record it evolves into something diabolical.

Heinrich Anton Müller
© Claude Bornand Heinrich Anton Müller

Speaking of dollars and mechanisms, consider, in conclusion, the case of Heinrich Anton Müller, who was born in 1869 in Versailles but emigrated to Switzerland to marry a Swiss woman and make wine. In 1903, Müller patented a clever grapevine-pruning machine, but forgot to pay the annual dues to keep the patent enforced. His invention was stolen. He fell into a depression and was committed to a psychiatric hospital in Münsingen, where he remained until he died in 1930. He began creating art in 1914. His output included a veritable bestiary of creatures in pencil and white chalk on cardboard and wrapping paper. One of his images on display in New York, an odd figure allegorically harassed by insects and a snake, served as the cover of the book of the show, Art Brut in America: The Incursion of Jean Dubuffet.

But more to my point, Müller also called on his skills as a handyman, the same skills that had resulted in his patent, to create many fanciful mechanical devices during his institutionalization, machines of perpetual motion that he built from rags, branches, and wire. He fashioned tangled gears and ingenious cogs, lubricating them with his own excrement. But here’s the thing: The mechanisms can’t be viewed today. They were never sold. They are not in any museum. Müller destroyed them all.