Interest in the art of insane asylum inmates had begun to grow in the 1920s. In 1921 Dr. Walter Morgenthaler published his book Ein Geisteskranker als Künstler (A Psychiatric Patient as Artist) on Adolf Wölfli, a psychotic mental patient in his care. Wölfli had spontaneously taken up drawing, and this activity seemed to calm him. His most outstanding work is an illustrated epic of 45 volumes in which he narrates his own imaginary life story. With 25,000 pages, 1,600 illustrations, and 1,500 collages, it is a monumental work. He also produced a large number of smaller works, some of which were sold or given as gifts. His work is on display at the Adolf Wölfli Foundation in the Museum of Fine Art, Bern. A defining moment was the publication of Bildnerei der Geisteskranken(Artistry of the mentally ill) in 1922, by Dr Hans Prinzhorn.
People with some artistic training and well-established artists are not immune from mental illness and may also be institutionalised. For example, William Kurelek, later awarded the Order of Canadafor his artistic life work, as a young man was admitted to the Maudsley Psychiatric Hospital where he was treated for schizophrenia. In hospital he painted, producing "The Maze", a dark depiction of his tortured youth. This 1953 work was used as the cover of the 1981 Van Halen rock album Fair Warning. His experience in the hospital was documented in the LIFE Science Library book The Mind, published in 1965.
A French artist by the name of Jean Dubuffet became interested in these works and went on to coin our term of the day:
French artist Jean Dubuffet was particularly struck by Bildnerei der Geisteskranken and began his own collection of such art, which he called art brut or raw art. In 1948 he formed the Compagnie de l'Art Brut along with other artists, including André Breton. The collection he established became known as the Collection de l'Art Brut. It contains thousands of works and is now permanently housed in Lausanne, Switzerland.
Dubuffet characterized art brut as:
"Those works created from solitude and from pure and authentic creative impulses – where the worries of competition, acclaim and social promotion do not interfere – are, because of these very facts, more precious than the productions of professionals. After a certain familiarity with these flourishings of an exalted feverishness, lived so fully and so intensely by their authors, we cannot avoid the feeling that in relation to these works, cultural art in its entirety appears to be the game of a futile society, a fallacious parade." - Jean Dubuffet. Place à l'incivisme (Make way for Incivism). Art and Text no.27 (December 1987 - February 1988). p.36 Dubuffet's writing on art brut was the subject of a noted program at the Art Club of Chicago in the early 1950s.
Dubuffet argued that 'culture', that is mainstream culture, managed to assimilate every new development in art, and by doing so took away whatever power it might have had. The result was to asphyxiate genuine expression. Art brut was his solution to this problem – only art brut was immune to the influences of culture, immune to being absorbed and assimilated, because the artists themselves were not willing or able to be assimilated
In deference to the origins of art brut, let's take a look at a few works from that initially discussed monumental collection created by Adolf Wolfli (images from Katy Elliot):
Part of hipster culture is latching onto things one largely deems ironic. This is why we see hipsters wearing clothes that are largely outside mainstream fashion, while also appearing largely sloppy, drinking PBR or Schlitz in an ironic revolt against both the rise of more expensive craft beers, and the commercialism of Miller and Budweiser, or riding single speed bikes. Mostly their dedication to irony and their disheveled nature make them laughably annoying to me. I'm really just a t-shirt and jeans kind of guy, and I prefer my craft beer. So when a friend of mine introduced me to the band Art Brut, I was more than confident I would hate them. They are, almost by their very definition, a hipster band. Born out of hipster-punk culture, they even name their songs ironically after old pop songs, such as "Pump Up the Volume," "I Will Survive," and "Blame it on the Trains."
But then I listened, and like John Cusack and Jack Black in High Fidelity realizing the demo tape from the skate punks who tried to rob their store (the Kinky Wizards) is amazing, I could do nothing but sit with a blank stare on my face as I absorbed how good Art Brut really is. I hate myself for loving you, Art Brut. And now, that you may begin your own self-loathing journey into the odyssey that is this band, I give you "I Will Survive" and "Emily Kane."
Art brut, as a term, is one that I had not been taught in my art classes during my education, but even with a limited knowledge of art history, it is easy to see how its concepts have driven the art world in general away from one of rules and structure, and toward one of the far more free form and sometimes deconstructive types of art we are familiar with calling modern and postmodern art today. As artists fought to break free from the rules of realism in art, the concept of raw art has been a driving factor in creation over the years, from Cubism to Dada, Constructivism to Futurism.