The roots of the terms “art brut” and “outsider art” can be traced back to the writings of Prinzhorn, who studied the creative output of psychiatric patients, and then Dubuffet who believed such art was unadulterated by the socio-cultural environment.
(Painting by August Natterer at right.)
Dubuffet’s original art brut collection was ultimately housed in the Collection de L’Art Brut in Lausanne, Switzerland and remains there today. As Dubuffet’s collection grew, it became clear to him that some artwork did not quite “fit” into the narrowly defined category of art brut. Although the work was powerful and inventive, the artists’ contact with society and their awareness of their own work precluded their inclusion in the art brut category.
These artworks were moved to the Annex Collection, and re-named neuve invention. Dubuffet described these as works which, though not characterized by the same radical distancing of mind as art brut, are never the less sufficiently independent of the fine-art system to constitute a challenge to the cultural institutions.
It is said that Dubuffet created a paradox he hoped to avoid. In deciding what should be included in the art brut collection he had to exclude artists whom he admired. Without intending to do so, he created a new orthodoxy of inclusion. Beginning with a subversive attitude towards art, he ended up establishing a new set of rigid criteria. So, in respecting the parameters of art brut, he undermined its fundamental principles and housed it in a tight box.
Dubuffet added to the problems of taxonomy in setting up a two-tier and elitist distinction between first and second class outsiders. Some works have been moved back and forth between the art brut and neuve invention collections. The margins of art brut began to blur as soon as the genre was named.
Art brut continued to exist, for the most part recognizing the two categories that Dubuffet defined: art brut and neuve invention. In 1972, Roger Cardinal, a professor at the University of Kent, set out to write about art brut. His publisher insisted on a catchier title, and so Outsider Art went to press. Cardinal explains:
Well, it all happened when I produced this book. I wanted to call it ‘Art Brut’, and I had studied the Dubuffet collection, and had a lot of examples from the collection and some that I’d chosen myself, but fitting into the general rubric of Art Brut. And with that, with Dubuffet as the coiner of that particular concept, and his definitions fairly clearly in mind, I showed the publisher what I wanted to do, and I said, ‘Well, you’ve got Art Nouveau, and you’ve got Art Deco, now you’ve got Art Brut and everybody will get on with it.’ But the publisher was very worried about this particular title and wanted something more easy to get on with for the English ear and said, ‘Well, shouldn’t we call it something else?’ And we went through hundreds of titles: ‘The Art of the Artless’, I remember was one of them…
This was where the terminology problems started. Although the term “outsider art” was not used in the text of the book, Cardinal intended it to be synonymous with art brut, and from the outset it encompassed the categories of both art brut and neuve invention. Cardinal defined outsider art (and art brut) as strictly un-tutored and exists outside of the normal concept of art. “Not hooked up to galleries and certain expectations. It should be more or less inwards-turning and imaginative – self-contained as it were.”
At this point, the narrowly-defined and closely-guarded world of art brut was turned upside down. In the years that followed, European scholars loosened the parameters of art brut but Americans took the concept much further. The term “outsider” was taken literally and begged the question: outside of what?
The definition of outsider art unravelled from this point on.