The sudden popularity of art brut has triggered a frenzy that is spilling into the contemporary art market. As demand rises, experts and collectors debate on whether art brut, produced by individuals immune to reward, has any reason to survive.
“First of all, art brut is not an art movement, with a beginning and an end,” explains Sarah Lombardi, who heads the Collection de l’Art Brut, the first of its kind and the largest in the world.
The Lausanne museum was founded in 1976 on the basis of the collection of French painter Jean Dubuffet, who coined the term art brut to define “an artistic operation that is completely pure, raw, reinvented in all its phases by its author, based solely on its own impulses”.
“What is new is that art brut is no longer confined to the shadows of the art world,” said Lombardi, admitting with a smile that Jean Dubuffet had not foreseen the current trend.
Numerous prestigious venues, including the 2013 Venice Biennale, have recently organised events around art brut. But the novelty is a new focus that highlights not the eccentricity, but the creativity of art brut, also known as outsider or raw art. The frontiers with mainstream art are being dissolved.
Art brut, also referred to as outsider or raw art, is created by individuals who work outside the art mainstream because they are untrained and culturally isolated, whether physically or psychologically.
There are very few women art brut artists.
Digital art is a new area of investigation, although it is feared that many hard drives with art brut treasures are being lost.
“Dubuffet believed that art brut would overturn traditional museums, acting like a counter-power, but, in fact, the opposite has occurred: art brut is being swallowed up by the art world, including by the contemporary art market,” Lombardi said.
She mentioned the outsider art fairs that now take place alongside large commercial fairs, like FIAC in Paris and the London and New York editions of Frieze.
In Zurich, the newly opened Musée Visionnaire, the offshoot of a former commercial gallery, aims to show art brut within the context of related art forms such as urban and street art.
Outside market forces
The paradox, Lombardi pointed out, is that art brut artists, whom she prefers to refer to as ‘authors’, never work for recognition or money and cannot therefore respond to market expectations. Whole bodies of work are often only discovered after the artists die, she added.
It’s the role of experts to repeat these truths, she said. “That is our motor.”
The Biennale recently launched by Lombardi (see gallery)is precisely a reminder of the role of the Lausanne collection, as well as a way of revealing the extraordinary wealth of a collection that already contains 60,000 pieces, up from the 5,000 originally donated by Dubuffet.
Of course, the museum cannot work outside the art market, Lombardi acknowledged, “but we prefer to get there ahead of it when we can”.
Asked why the sudden recognition, Lombardi answered: “Art brut has a spiritual dimension that contemporary art often lacks.”
Art brut museums often include folk or naive art. The following list does not pretend to be exhaustive, but intends to demonstrate the wide variety of institutions and their specificities.
Collection de l’Art Brut, Lausanne is exclusively devoted to art brut.
Musée Visionnaire, a recent offshoot of the Susi Brunner gallery in Zurich, extends to art that is considered visionary, as its name indicates.
Museum im Lagerhaus Stiftung für schweizerische Naive Kunst und Art Brut near St Gallen is dedicated as much to Swiss naïve art, as it is to art brut.
Lille Métropole Museum of Modern, Contemporary and Outsider Art in northern France is one of the only museums that brazenly mixes all genres.
GAIA Museum of Outsider Art in Randers, north Denmark
Safnasafnið, the Icelandic Folk and Outsider Art Museum is located in northern Iceland.
The beleaguered American Folk Art Museum in New York has downsized to new premises.
The American Visionary Art Museum in Baltimore is inspired by the Collection de l’Art brut in Lausanne.
Intuit: The Center for Intuitive and Outsider Art, Chicago
Moscow Museum of Outsider Art is dedicated exclusively to collecting and exhibiting Outsider Art in Russia.
Whereas art brut museums dotted throughout many countries (see infobox) tend to remain outside the art mainstream, galleries are doing everything they can to get in. They need to sell, after all.
For the past 25 years, Cologne gallery owner Susanne Zander has been a tireless discoverer of art brut, which she believes should be appreciated alongside contemporary art.
She likes to borrow the term “conceptual outsiders” from New York Times critic Roberta Smith to describe the conceptual mono-manias of artists who work obsessively in single mediums, creating a complete world of their own with their art.
Zander suggested in a phone interview that outsider art is gaining ground in response to the virtualisation of the world. “In a digital era, people are searching for roots, for authenticity,” she said, adding that she spends more than half her time searching for new conceptual outsiders.
“You can show me 1,000 works, and I’ll immediately be able to single out the important ones,” she said.
“The stranger the work, the greater the possibility for me to step inside and see the world from the perspective of the artist, even if only for a few moments,” Zander said.
Judging by the artists she shows, Zander has a penchant that goes beyond the common definition of art brut, although an intense solitude is perhaps the thread between the individuals who used artistic expression to escape into the worlds they created.
She mentioned Horst Ademeit’s “secret universe”, which is revealed through the obsessive documenting of his surroundings, or the Polaroids of TV stars by the mysteriously identified Type 42 (Anonymous), whose work has just been acquired by the Elysée museum.
Photography, she ventured, is appealing to outsiders “because it makes things look real”.
In Zander’s view, there hasn’t been a significant shift in the art market; her collectors are still the same as before. She notes, however, “that the public is much more interested”.
Outsider art should not be treated differently, she insists: “It doesn’t belong on dark walls.”
Everything for everyone
“Jean Dubuffet was brilliant, but deceptive and something of a Fascist,” announces maverick James Brett, a UK film producer by trade. Brett has turned his passion for outsider art (a term he avoids) into an adventure that now dominates his life.
The Museum for Everythingwas created in 2009 on the premise of Brett’s interest for “the untrained, unintentional, undiscovered and unclassifiable artists of modern times”.
His nomadic museum, comprising works drawn essentially from his own collection, has been shown successively in London, Turin, Paris, Moscow and Venice to popular acclaim, drawing an entirely new audience to the art he defends, albeit with a larger focus than dictated by Dubuffet.
Brett is convinced that the conspicuous consumption of modern and contemporary art during economic recessions has helped buoy his venture. “People need to reconnect with creativity,” he said.
Asked how he went about finding new artists, Brett pointed out that he tended to find them in non-egalitarian societies, surprisingly naming the US as one of his sources.
The term “folk art” tends to be used in the US, which to Brett sounds apologetic.
Brett considers that 10% of the artists are good, 5% are great and only 1% are amazing.
“It’s my job to create a truthfulness by presenting only the amazing art,” he said.
In 2013 alone, groundbreaking art brut exhibitions took place in many prestigious venues:
In London, the Hayward Gallery presented The Alternative Guide to the Universe, while the Wellcome Collection showed Outsider Art from Japan.
In Berlin, the Hamburger Bahnhof Museum organised the Secret Universe series, as well as an exhibition by the visionary Hilma af Klint, a Pioneer of Abstraction.
The theme of the 55th 2013 Venice Biennale was based on the Encyclopedic Palace of Marino Auriti, a working class self-taught artist, and expanded to include 20th Century healers and thinkers.
In the wake of art brut’s notoriety, Lombardi pointed out that the term was often used abusively, when, for instance, Paris City Hall exhibited works produced in disabled workshops in November 2013 under the title Art Brut: absolument excentrique, a trend that is common in art therapy classes.
There is a common misconception, including among numerous galleries and merchants, that any art produced by marginal individuals falls into this category, but according to Lombardi this is very far from the truth.
Only when a body of work reflects a strong and complex system of representation – one that is powerfully unique – can it be considered art brut, the museum director insisted, and even then, there must be talent.
She then added pointedly that there is no more talent or creativity among marginal individuals than there is in any population at large. “The phenomenon is very rare,” she said.
The emotional impact of a work of art, the way it makes the onlooker vibrate, remains in her eyes the ultimate criteria.
“One does not become an art brut expert overnight,” Lombardi cautions.