Dieter De Vlieghere

Friedrich-Schiller-Universität Jena & LUCA School of Arts

Outsider Art and the Origins of the Curator as Author

Art Brut, in English referred to as Outsider Art, is a term invented by the French artist Jean Dubuffet (1901 – 1985) to designate works of art that are created outside of the established art scene. Unaffected by the suffocating rules of culture, Dubuffet found his ideal art works not in galleries or museums, but mainly in psychiatric hospitals and on flea markets. When art historians analyze what in the 1940s led to the creation of Dubuffet’s outsider art concept – the focus usually goes to the romantic and modernist preoccupation with insanity – combined with a need for new visual prototypes from beyond the walls of the art academy. This double desire created, in effect, a remarkable artistic interest in artworks of the mentally ill and psychiatric publications (such as Prinzhorn’s ‘Bildnerei der Geisteskranken’ from 1922) were able to fuel this interest with the right images at the right time. However, there are a few shortcomings when the history of outsider art is limited to this narrative.

First of all, Dubuffet explicitly wanted to avoid the confinement of art brut to art of the mentally ill. This specification should not only determine our present-day understanding of the outsider art concept, it also affects the historical reconstruction of the concept’s origins. But more importantly, the shift from being a strange bricolage hidden in a psychiatric collection to being an actual exhibit, hung in the art museum between the works of professional artists, required more than the modernist need for novel visual expressions or the preoccupation with insanity. A change in the perception of the exhibition itself and the discovery of its possibilities as a creative medium was necessary. The entrance of outsider art into the art exhibition seems to coincide with the emancipation of the curator: from custodian and archivist of cultural heritage to the more creative capacity of an exhibition author.