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What Is Art Brut?

The Swiss city of Lausanne is home to a famous Art Brut museum.
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  • Written By: R. Bargar
  • Edited By: Jessica Seminara
  • Last Modified Date: 30 July 2014
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The French artist Jean Dubuffet devised the term "art brut" in the 1940s. Meaning raw art, the term indicates art done by untrained artists working completely outside the conventions of traditional art and society. Strongly influenced by books detailing art produced by patients in insane asylums, Dubuffet began collecting artworks by institutionalized mental patients, prisoners and others whose art was disconnected from the restraints of society. Dubuffet believed a pure form of art, springing straight from the depths of the artist’s psyche, existed in this raw art. By the end of the 1940s, he collaborated with other artists to create a compilation of examples that would become the “Collection de l’Art Brut,” now located in Lausanne, Switzerland.

Works of art brut studied and collected by Dubuffet expressed the deepest fears and dreams of institutionalized psychiatric patients and prisoners. Crude drawings of counterfeit money created on toilet paper and used by the hospitalized artist to try to pay her psychiatrist raise probing questions about symbolism and irony. This example of art brut typifies the individual nature and driving personal necessity behind the creation of these works. The concepts of marketability and acceptance in the art world, daily concerns of mainstream artists, simply do not exist for the creators of art brut.

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Although not exactly equivalent to art brut, the term "outsider art" is widely used in the English-speaking world to denote similar art. While Dubuffet concentrated mainly on collecting insane-asylum art and the work of prisoners, outsider art has a broader focus. In the strictest terms, creators of art brut lived on the very margins of society, having no interaction with academic institutions or galleries. On the other hand, outsider artists may have no technical training in art, but often live within society. Like the creators of raw art, outsider artists are driven by inner visions and their own sense of creativity, rather than by the conventions of academic or professional art.

Dubuffet believed that all new forms of art are eventually assimilated into mainstream art. This transformation causes the art to lose its power of original creativity. Some in the art world see this occurring with outsider art. Rather than being exclusively the realm of visionaries or artists working completely outside the traditional ideals of art, the term is now used to market the works of any untrained or unconventional artist. Many believe the increasing recognition and acceptance of art brut and outsider art has transformed it from raw art to popular art.

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