en Sonia Wilk

head of the Non-Professional Visual Arts Department at Muzeum Śląskie in Katowice

Art brut, outsider art or perhaps rebels

Increasingly in discourse on art the concepts of art brut and outsider art are appearing, while simultaneously in ever wider spheres associated with the art world this phenomenon is beginning to be mentioned within the broader context of modern art. Reasons for this state of affairs can be found in the recent tendency to include within the notion of art a variety of phenomena related to creativity in the sense of the ability to create something new, as well as to creation in the sense of the act of creating something. Art brut is slowly being accepted in polite society, and over the course of the last few years curators have organised exhibitions in Polish museums and galleries which present the works of artists of this type. These include exhibitions such as “As You Can See: Polish Art Today” and “Why We Have Wars” at the Museum of Modern Art in Warsaw, or “Palindrome” at the State Art Gallery in Sopot, and “Krew-Werk” at the Foksal Gallery Foundation in Warsaw. This of course is not to say that we are discovering new spaces and phenomena, as not only in Europe but also in Poland many institutions and individuals have been involved for years in describing, collecting, and exhibiting art brut works. These include the State Ethnographic Museum in Warsaw, the Seweryn Udziela Museum of Ethnography in Kraków, the Tak Gallery in Poznań, the Galerie d’Art Naif in Kraków, as well as of course the Muzeum Śląskie in Katowice. But all of these institutions deal with art brut in its pure form – isolated, being not so much in opposition as running parallel to other artistic phenomena. This formula was used by, among others, exhibitions such as “Towards Authenticity” (2011) at the Ethnographic Museum in Kraków, and “The Grey Market of Art” presented by the State Ethnographic Museum in Warsaw in 2016. In the case of the previously mentioned exhibitions, a different formula was applied; a gesture of allowing outsider artists to sit at the table with ‘serious’ artists, of including the works of outsiders in the general awareness of curators.

In examining the various tendencies and strategies employed by curators, one wonders what exactly the essence of art brut is, and in what way the phenomenon has evolved. Perhaps due to a lack of understanding the phenomenon, rather than focusing on its open-ended character, it has been narrowed down to the creative expression of the mentally ill and the intellectually disabled. meanwhile, the phenomenon is much deeper than that. Of course, with reference to the original theoretical assumptions of Jean Dubuffet, we speak of “creations1” of individuals living outside of the culture which surrounds them, even outside of nature. This is a completely different space and time continuum. For these individuals, the most important factor is the driving internal imperative to create, commanding them to act without any attempt at discourse with the art world. This is “pure” art brut. Of course, among such works we find those that are of a purely aesthetic nature, such as the abstract cocoons of Judith Scott, and also works that make a statement about the condition of the modern world (see the works of Maria Wnęk or Edmund Monsiel), but it is often the case the we who give these works meaning, and as such we usurp the right, as viewers and critics, to place these works in the context of our own aesthetic sense, just as we do with objects belonging to exotic or long-since vanished cultures.

Since the first attempts to define art brut, more than 70 years has passed, and thus the concept has acquired many new meanings. In the face of the ubiquity, if not the overbearing insistence, of images of culture in the mass media, it is difficult to remain untouched, difficult to escape the influence of such images in one’s work. Indeed, it seems possible only in the case of individuals who are mentally ill or profoundly disabled intellectually. This, however, does not extend to individuals who are excluded or isolated, such as prisoners, who were also objects of interest to Dubuffet. This dissonance was already visible in the 1970s, and a wider concept, that of outsider art, arose as a complement to Dubuffet’s original standpoint. Outsiders, by definition on the peripheries, view many cultural phenomena from a different perspective, which is why it sometimes happen that they remain in opposition to reality, to the external world, or to the art mainstream. And it is precisely such outsiders, due to their uncompromising stance, that are most often noticed by curators and included in exhibition scenarios. But does this always happen on a basis of full equality?

Recently, a tendency has become very popular to group the works of outsiders together with works by artists from official circles. This is explained as a desire to bring art brut out of the enclave which it has enclosed in, to rehabilitate it to the rank of high art, to blur boundaries, and so on. This may be so, by equally often these works become elements of a particular kind of collage. The creator and creation cease to be relevant, they are sacrificed for the sake of the meta-construct. Integrity and autonomy are violated. A similar problem is presented by the baring of the intimacy of the author. In the post-modern world, in which everything is on display, no one seems bothered by invading an area which may be difficult for the author, which the author may not wish to publicise. At times, this attention even amounts to manipulation; the works of a given author are interpreted in such a way as to find a justification for placing him or her in a given context, or to create a defined relation between the work of art and the life of the author. Certain behaviours, preferences, and even pathological states are assigned to the author. And in this case, the author loses his or her identity as a subjective actor.

One result to the exposition of these works in galleries and museums is that we see a change in character of the object created by the artist, it becomes an artefact, an exhibit. In the spirit of the institutional conception which exists in the world of art, it becomes a work of art and begins to exist in the mainstream. The question remains whether this takes place in accord with the wishes of the author. By “extracting” a given object from its natural environment, do we not deprive it of its essential context? It was exactly due to this question that Dubuffet did not apply terminology borrowed from art history, and completely separated art brut from any connotations of official art.

There is, however, yet another more ambiguous relation: that between the curator and creator. In observing contemporary trends in exhibitions, we see that the artist (provided that he or she is not also the curator) is subjected to curatorial strategies, and the exhibition market becomes a curatorial market. This situation may imply treatment of both the artist and the work as an object; the author and the work become a means to realise the vision of the curator and of the project, depriving the artist of autonomy. Art brut and outsider art have not escaped this fate. In this case, however, the situation is complicated by the person and condition of the author. Though the creator may be capable of agreeing or disagreeing with full awareness to such a context and not another, oftentimes these artists are not aware of the general implication of the exhibition, with the naïveté of a child simply experiencing joy that their works are being exhibited and admired. This state of affairs leaves us with ample room for reflection.

Is therefore the participation of outsiders in the world of art on an equal footing possible? This may be the case for the art of rebels who are consciously in opposition to the world of the media, traditional aesthetics, political and religious systems. Rebels who reject the mainstream both in social and artistic life. Those who do not require the institutionalisation and formalisation of what they do. Those who, like the avant-gardists of the early 20th century, are disappointed with the legacy of modern civilisation, and who cry out “The emperor has no clothes!”. Their cry rings out much louder than that of creators in the aestheticized confines of the gallery.