From the artistry of the mentally ill to raw art

Işıl Ezgi Çelik

Art of madness, which is known by a variety of names such as art of the mentally ill, art of the insane, pathological art, psychiatric art and so on, indicates aesthetic productions that are made by inmates of psychiatric institutions. These productions which were born in psychiatric hospitals started to draw attention at the beginning of the 20th century, first within psychiatric circles and later within the art scene.

In 1921, Dr. Walter Morgenthaler’s monograph about one of today’s most well-known Art Brut artists, Adolf Wölfli and his works, entitled A Mentally Ill Artist (Ein Geisteskranker als Künstler) was published. Just one year later, in 1922, psychiatrist and art historian Hans Prinzhorn pointed out the aesthetic dimension of some of the imagery produced by psychiatric patients in his work Artistry of the Mentally Ill (Bildnerei der Geisteskranken). His collection of works and their analysis are considered as the first known systematical study that preceded art of madness. Yet, although his work opened the way for the denomination of art of madness, Prinzhorn (1972) considered the creations in question as produced images (Bildnerei) rather than art works (Kunstwerk). In his study, Prinzhorn presented his collection of works of psychiatric patients and he defined very clearly the works which constituted his collection according to three characteristics: 1. The images presented in his collection consisted of almost exclusively visual creations of patients with ‘doubtless’ mental illness. 2. The patients involved did not have any specific art education, thus their creations were not taught according to any artistic canon. 3. The images exhibited were spontaneous and sourced from the inner needs of the patients, not from external inspirations (Prinzhorn, 1972:1-3). Hence, Prinzhorn summarized the content of his collection, today the Prinzhorn Collection of the University Hospital Heidelberg in Germany, as “spontaneously created pictures by untrained mental patients” (1972:3). The impetus of his collection was Prinzhorn’s interest in cognitive processes of image production and his aesthetic sensibility as an art historian who was frequenting art circles. His collection was standing on the controversial border line between art and psychiatry, and due to the legacy of the 18th century European Romanticism his work on his collection was not only recognized within psychiatric circles but also within the art scene, influencing especially the surrealists of the time who were deeply interested in madness as an unconscious source of creativity.

In 1949, 27 years later after the publication of Prinzhorn’s book, French wine merchant and artist Jean Dubuffet started his essay entitled Art Brut Preferred to Cultural Art, written in the manner of a manifesto of a newly conceptualized kind of creation, with the following words:

Whoever looks at the works of IRREGULARS, like we do, would have a completely different idea of the homologue art of the museums, galleries and art spaces – let’s call it cultural art. This production will not seem to be any more representative of the artistic activity in general, but merely an activity of a very particular clan: a clan of careerist intellectuals. (1949: para-1)

Dubuffet started by pointing out a category of people who he called Irregulars and continued by opposing their creations to what he named cultural art. He accused cultural art of being fake art of intellectuals which is recognized as art only through the approval of the cultural network of museum and galleries. Dubuffet formed a group called the Compagnie de l’Art Brut together with his colleagues, some of whom were surrealists, in order to collect the works of ‘the Irregulars’ and he extracted an early sketch of the elusive notion of Art Brut. The kind of creation which was presented as Art Brut was an uneducated sensuous art expressing visions, not ideas, because according to Dubuffet the authentic artistic operation was about sensations not concepts. Seemingly allergic to the intellectuals of his time, Dubuffet was also promoting Art Brut as raw creations by ‘the Irregulars’ and by people who were not art professionals, who were untrained or uneducated artistically. In Dubuffet’s own terms:

We mean by [Art Brut] the works produced by persons who are unscathed by artistic culture; in which mimicry, unlike in works of intellectuals, does not really take part so that there the authors take everything (subjects, choice of materials used, mediums of transposition, rhythms, way of writing, etc.) from their own depths, not from the cliches of classical art or fashionable art. There we witness an artistic operation which is completely pure, raw, totally reinvented in its all stages only according to creator’s own drives. Thus, an art where only the invention is manifested, not the constants of cultural art of the chameleon and of the monkey. (1949:para-21)

Dubuffet suggested the term Art Brut in order to refer to a kind of ‘raw creation’ produced by ‘common people’ who were strangers to the artistic culture and to the educated cultural art of intellectuals. Thus, from the very beginning, he put common people against intellectual people and   the raw art of common people against educated cultural art of intellectual people. Dubuffet was critical of the institutionalized art world to the extent that he carried his argument to deny the invention, subjectivity and impulsiveness therein all together. Besides, Dubuffet launched into the difficult task to distinguish Art Brut from other art forms created by people who lack an art education like naive art, self-taught art, primitive art, folk art, art of children, prisoner art, art of Sunday painters and especially from art of madness, although his frame of Art Brut seemed quite similar to the frame of Prinzhorn’s collection. Prinzhorn had pointed out that his collection consisted of works of people who were untrained artistically, the same as Art Brut creators. Again, Prinzhorn had indicated a sort of impulsive and visionary creation which was coming from the creator’s inner needs that Dubuffet, too, considered as a characteristic of Art Brut works. Yet, whereas Prinzhorn’s collection exclusively consisted of works of psychiatric patients, Art Brut denoted works created by ‘the Irregular’ people who did not take part in the art scene. Nonetheless, most of the works Dubuffet collected for his collection as examples of Art Brut were made by inmates of psychiatric institutions. Being aware of this fact, at the end of his manifesto Dubuffet took a stand against art of madness, arguing that the mechanisms of artistic creation were the same in so-called normal people and in so-called mad people, thus there was no reason to segregate them (1949:para-24).

Dubuffet’s primary hesitation and further criticism of psychiatrically defined madness, especially as it takes place in his work Anti-cultural Positions (1951), recalls the anti-psychiatric movement led primarily by French philosopher Michel Foucault and later worked out by another French philosopher, Gilles Deleuze, and psychiatrist Félix Guattari. Whereas Prinzhorn was giving attention to the artistic creativity among people with mental disorders, Dubuffet, who was critical of the institutionalized art scene, was giving attention to the artistic creativity among common people who were not filtered by art institutions, including the creative works of people with mental disorders. The difference in framing was sourced from their occupational interest. Although, unlike the majority of his colleagues, Prinzhorn did not consider the works in his collection as symptomatic but as artistically creative, his scope was limited to his patients. Dubuffet, in turn, aimed to free the artistic creation from art institutions, but he also rejected the idea that a major segment of artistic production created outside art institutions was caught up by the discourse of psychiatric institutions. In this sense, he pointed out the ‘other’ of art and of psychiatry who quickly and necessarily turned out to be the ‘other’ of Western society and of culture. Hence, Art Brut appeared originally as an attempt to point out a kind of creation which was left outside of the institutional framework of Western culture. Thus, the kind of creation in question was created by the Irregulars who were the other of the Western mind. Dubuffet wrote:

Western man believes that the things he thinks exist outside exactly in the same way he thinks of them. He is convinced that the shape of the world is the same shape as his reason. He believes very strongly the basis of his reason is well founded, and especially the basis of his logic. But the primitive man has rather an idea of weakness of reason and logic, and believes rather in other ways of getting knowledge of things. That is why he has so much esteem and so much admiration for the states of mind which we call madness. I must declare I have a great interest for madness; and I am convinced art has much to do with madness. (1960:194)

Dubuffet’s critique of the Western mind is overshadowed by Occidentalism that seemingly opposes the primitive mind of the outsiders of Western culture to the logical Western mind. Yet, Dubuffet fairly points out the importance given to Reason within Western culture and how it affects the perception of madness as well as the artistically creative potential of the ‘different states of mind’ which come in terms with madness in the West.

In 1967, French poet and medical doctor Gaston Ferdière in his work entitled A Psychopathologist’s point of view insisted on the roots of Art Brut being strongly connected to Surrealism. He supported his argument with the fact that one of the founders of Surrealism, Andre Breton, was also a member of the Compagnie de lArt Brut. He was speaking up for those who were criticizing Dubuffet because of arbitrarily and unjustly cutting Art Brut off from then-contemporary art that Jean Dubuffet claimed was cultural. Ferdière’s critique was based on the idea that instead of devaluing the status of contemporary art, Art Brut artists should have been evaluated at a higher status, an argument that survived into the contemporary world. According to Ferdière, who himself was a surrealist, Dubuffet distinguished Art Brut from contemporary art and especially from Surrealism arbitrarily. Ferdière considered the works of Art Brut creators like Wölfli, Aloïse, Lesage, and Crépin as echoes of modern artists like Kandinsky, Miro, Klee, and Matta. By doing so he aimed to eliminate the artificial distinctions that served the particular interest of those who created them. Thus, Ferdière’s main criticism was against the idea of Art Brut versus cultural art. Ferdière pointed to Van Gogh and Tanguy as examples of artists unscathed by artistic culture yet who were considered cultural artists. It is difficult to agree that Van Gogh and Tanguy were unscathed by artistic culture. It is also difficult to define Art Brut artists as those who are unscathed by artistic culture, since it is difficult, if not impossible, to draw the borders between artistic culture and culture in general. Yet, the distinction between Surrealism and Art Burt was clear for Dubuffet. Whereas Surrealism was a cultural art form inspired by unconsciousness and in particular by art of madness, Art Brut denoted creations made by people outside the art circles, including inmates of psychiatric circles. Yet, the distinction between art of madness and Art Brut was not clear for the surrealists, especially for Andre Breton, the leading figure of Surrealism and a short-term member of the Compagnie de lArt Brut. Since Breton considered Art Brut in close relation to art of madness, Dubuffet, who denied such a relationship, fundamentally parted company with Breton and Surrealism in general (Peiry, 2016:35).

In 1968, around 20 years after his first denomination of Art Brut, Dubuffet in his work Asphyxiating Culture recognized the impossibility of a man without a culture and he clarified his standpoint as being critical of his contemporary Western culture, which according to Dubuffet was nothing more than a product of the bourgeoisie. It seems that under the influence of the revolutionary atmosphere of that time, Dubuffet was holding an anti-colonialist, anti-capitalist, anti-psychiatric and anti-cultural discourse and re-promoting Art Brut as an anti-category, something that was resisting categorization.

In 1972, Deleuze and Guattari, being prolific philosophers who covered a large spectrum of human knowledge in their work, mentioned Art Brut in Anti-Oedipus, the first volume of Capitalism and Schizophrenia, as an example of schizophrenic production that they conceptualized as an alternative of capitalistic production. They pointed out the philosophical potential of madness and of creativity as it was revealed in schizophrenic experience. Similarly, Dubuffet said: “For me, insanity is super sanity. The normal is psychotic. Normal means the lack of imagination, lack of creativity.” (quoted in Weiss, 1992:136). Deleuze and Guattari conceptualized the ‘schizophrenic’ experience as the natural state of human before the human/nature dichotomy was set, preferable to that of the ‘neurotic’ subject of the capitalist society whose desire was coded in terms of capital and thus whose creativity was limited and yet had become the norm (2000:2). Moreover, Deleuze explicitly related his philosophical occupation to the activity of an Art Brut creator. He wrote:

I haven’t approached things through structure, or linguistics or psychoanalysis, through science or even through history, because I think philosophy has its own raw material that allows it to enter into more fundamental external relations with these other disciplines. Maybe that’s what Foucault meant: I wasn’t better than the others, but more naive, producing a kind of art brut, so to speak, not the most profound but the most innocent (the one who felt the least guilty about ‘doing philosophy’). (1995:89)

This brief comparison seems to send us to the occupation of the creator, the ‘naivety’ that the work comes from. Being radically critical of capitalism and the way it creates subjects, Deleuze and Guattari pointed out the socio-political dimension of the works addressed as Art Brut and their ‘naive’ creators as what indicate an alternative way of production in which the process, the product and the producer cannot be separated. In 1980, in A Thousand Plateau, the second and the last volume of Capitalism and Schizophrenia, they again discussed Art Brut in terms of territory and expression. They considered artistic activity as a vital occupation of living rather than being a privilege of humans. In this context, Art Brut creators were coming out as naive creators whose activity, which was not oriented to a finality in forms or function, was undermining the understanding of expression as an idealistic category separated from the process of production.

The year 1972 was a decisive moment for the perception of the kind of creation as it was revealed in Art Brut works. British art critic Roger Cardinal wrote the first book on Art Brut in English and translated the French term l’art brut, which literally means raw art, into English as Outsider Art. Cardinal pointed to Dubuffet’s remark on the lack of objectivity in the realm of art and the importance of cultural and educational determinations and conditioning for art appreciation. Cardinal emphasized Dubuffet’s argument that human was originally creative but this creativity was strictly formed by societal codes and art perception was limited within an elitist circle that consisted of ruling intellectuals and art professionals. He explained: “[T]he art system is sustained at the center by a cultural ideal that is untouchable and inalterable, based as it is on the unshakeable belief in such things as our ‘cultural heritage,’ the legacy of the past, and the fetish of the ‘great masterpiece’” (1972:9). On the other hand, the works which were untouched by societal codes were expressing a naive and raw creativity. However, different from the term Art Brut, which was addressing the aesthetic quality of the kind of creation as being ‘raw’, the term Outsider Art mainly emphasized the social position of the kind of creation and its creators. More importantly, when the term Outsider Art was introduced to the English-speaking Western world 27 years after it appeared in France, not only the regional differences influenced the perception of Art Brut but also the art historical events, such as popularization of Pop Art in the English- speaking West before the appearance of Art Brut as Outsider Art. The Pop Art movement, which aimed to carry what was popular and common into the art scene, certainly preceded the perception of Outsider Art.


Cardinal, R. (1972). Outsider Art. London: Studio Vista and New York: Praeger.

Cardinal, R. (1994). Toward an Outsider Aesthetic, in The Artist Outsider: Creativity and the Boundaries of Culture. Edited by Michael D. Hall, Eugene W., Jr. Metcalf, Roger Cardinal. Washington: Smithsonian Institution Press.

Deleuze, G.; Guattari F. (2000). Anti-Oedipus: Capitalism and Schizophrenia. Translated by Robert Hurley, Mark Seem, Helen R. Lane. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.

Deleuze, G. (1995). Negotiations. Translated by Martin Joughin. New York: Columbia University Press.

Dubuffet, J. (1949). L’Art Brut Préféré Aux Arts Culturels. Exhibition Catalogue by the Compagnie de l’Art Brut. Translated by author. Gallery Rene Drouin.

Dubuffet, J. (1960). Anti-cultural Positions. Lecture presented at the Arts Club, Chicago in 1951. Reprinted in J. Dubuffet. New York: World House Gallery.

Weiss, S. A. (1992). Shattered forms: art brut, phantasms, modernism. New York: Albany State University of New York Press.

Peiry, L. (2016). L’Art Brut. Translated by author. Paris: Éditions Flammarion.

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