It was not until he was in his forties that Jean Dubuffet devoted himself to his art. An art school dropout, Dubuffet had devoted time to his family’s wine business between stints of sculpting marionettes and painting portraits, but in 1942 he quit his job to paint full-time and in 1944 he received his first show. His work from the ‘40s and ‘50s flouts every rule he learned during his brief stint at the Academie Julian: his figures are disproportionate, childish; the textures of the paint and canvas are highlighted at the expense of the composition; he painted faces that were barely recognizeable as human. Something had happened to Jean Dubuffet, something he thought wonderful. He had discovered that he admired the work of madmen. Dubuffet coined the term art brut, "raw art", to describe his work. He had read Bildnerei der Geisteskranken (The Artistry of the Mentally Insane), by Hans Prinzhorn, a German art historian and psychiatrist who believed both that encouraging mental patients to create art was therapeutic and that these creations were of legitimate artistic interest. Prinzhorn collected the works of asylum inmates with an eye towards creating a museum, but died in 1933; it was not until 1971, when Dubuffet donated his personal collection to the Swiss town of Lausanne to form the Collection de l’Art Brut (translated here if your French is no better than mine) that the world got its first museum dedicated to outsider artists. Today there are the Haus der Künstler, the House of Artists, at the Lower Austrian Psychiatric Hospital outside Vienna (link via MetaFilter), the absolutely wonderful American Visionary Arts Museum in Baltimore (my single favorite museum), the new American Folk Art Museum in Manhattan, and more, all devoted to artists whose training, interests, and motivations lie outside the norm of commercial and academic art. (I will gratuitously combine various terms — visionary art, folk art, outsider art, art brut — although they can provide useful nuance for distinguishing how exactly Adolf Wölfli (also at Graham’s), the subject of a groundbreaking 1921 monograph who obsessively wrote and illustrated in his notebooks after being committed to an asylum for attacking several young girls, differs from Grandma Moses, the self-taught and hugely popular painter of Americana and the American rural landscape.)
Most outsider artists are not very good, but neither (per Sturgeon’s law) are most artists of any sort. Even those whose work is undeniably compelling often don’t really seem to have much to them; the celebrated Henry Darger, a Chicago hospital janitor and dishwasher whose 15,000 page illustrated opus was discovered upon his death by his landlord, photographer and designer Nathan Lerner, is probably the single most famous American outsider artist. His art sells for tens of thousands of dollars; his magnum opus, The Story of the Vivian Girls, in What is known as the Realms of the Unreal, of the Glandeco-Angelinnian War Storm, Caused by the Child Slave Rebellion, has been adapted as a poem by John Ashbery. His work is fascinating for its use of color and composition, it deserves every bit of critical praise it receives. But how much more of the appeal lies the freakshow of Darger’s work (fifteen thousand pages of naked little figures traced and Xeroxed, most dying in horrible ways) and the cracked physiology of his figures (which is oddly comforting; it makes it seem much less likely that Darger was a pedophile or child murderer when his drawings seem to demonstrate that he never saw a naked woman in his life)?
Would anyone know the Watts Tower or the Coral Castle if they weren’t products of magnificent obsession? Maybe yes, maybe no. The Romantics built upon the work of Jean-Jacques Rousseau and his noble-savage-espousing Discourse on the Sciences and the Arts. If, as Wordsworth wrote, the poetic ideal was the contemplation and communication of high emotion, the "spontaneous overflow of powerful feelings", why not turn to those uneducated in the poetic tradition, the naive country folk whose
manners of rural life germinate from those elementary feelings, and, from the necessary character of rural occupations, are more easily comprehended, and are more durable… The language, too, of these men has been adopted…because such men hourly communicate with the best objects from which the best part of language is originally derived; and because, from their rank in society and the sameness and narrow circle of their intercourse, being less under the influence of social vanity, they convey their feelings and notions in simple and unelaborated expressions. Accordingly, such a language, arising out of repeated experience and regular feelings, is a more permanent, and a far more philosophical language, than that which is frequently substituted for it by Poets, who think that they are communicating honor upon themselves and their art…
Thus girded, the Romantics set off in search of a rustic whose plain speech would set their hearts to soar, and they found him in John Clare, whose poems of the simple rural life were briefly the toast of literary London.
Art is not solely a means by which reality is duplicated, and it hasn’t been since the invention of photography (if not longer; how many thousands of years ago did a portrait sitter first ask an artist to shave a few years off a painting?). Art is not solely a means by which to communicate ideas. Robert Hayden denigrated "newspaper poetry", in which the poetic life had been sucked out in favor of poltical didactics. Art is not solely a means by which to communicate emotions. Andrew Lloyd Weber can spackle on the melodrama, but that doesn’t mean his work will succeed as art. If a term as sweeping as "art" can be defined, I think it is that art attempts to create a response in its viewer or reader or listener that transcends what is being directly conveyed. The very best art may attempt to mimic reality, transmit ideas, make naked political pleas, or wrench tears from its audience. Artistic success is a bolt from the blue and can be found in the strangest places. If naivité or madness or a vision from God can produce work that is more stirring, more fascinating, more interesting to its recipients, then outsider art has value. I never leave the AVAM without seeing at least one breathtaking piece of art and one that gives me a case of the whim-whams.
Even so, much of it, devoid of the context of the artist’s life and a morbid fascination with mental illness, is no more or less valid than any interesting untrained artist’s work would be. Is mediocrity the worst fate? The Romantics’ artistic criteria changed in the mid-nineteenth century; partially as a response to Napoleon and in opposition to post-Revolution France, it moved away from the Rousseaun ideal and towards a more mannered vision. John Clare’s later work was a colossal flop. Crushed, Clare had a mental breakdown and never fully recovered. In 1841, he was certified insane and committed to Northampton Asylum. As one capsule biography puts it, he "lived there until his death in 1864, writing occasionally."