Left: André Bauchant. Exotic Flowers. 1933. Oil on canvas. 39 1/4" x 25 1/2" (99.7 x 64.8 cm).

Right: Morris Hirshfield. View. 1945. Oil on canvas. 24" x 18" (61 x 45.7 cm). Private collection.

Self-Taught Art in the 20th Century

A Brief History

Although self-taught art per se has always existed, the field of self-taught art is essentially a modernist construct. At the beginning of the 20th century, as the European avant-garde attempted to break free of the academic traditions which had heretofore separated "high" art from everything else, people began for the first time to look seriously at the work of a number of artists who, for various reasons, had been denied formal training. Interest in self-taught art was one segment of a much larger anti-academic trend that also encompassed non-Western exemplars (such as Japanese prints and tribal art), indigenous folk crafts and the work of children. The first contemporary self-taught painter to capture the attention of the avant-garde was the French toll collector Henri Rousseau, who was discovered by Picasso and his circle in the early years of the 20th century and featured in the German Expressionist manifesto, Der blaue Reiter Almanach, in 1912.


After World War I, as the European avant-garde began to develop a broader popular following, champions of modernism naturally developed a concomitant interest in self-taught creators. Initially, Rousseau had seemed an isolated case, but it was not long before other painters of similar inclinations were unearthed. Commonly dubbed "naives" (based on a pejorative misreading of Rousseau's personality), these self-taught painters popped up in almost every country affected by modern art, but they were particularly numerous in France, where the art dealer and writer Wilhelm Uhde established a sort of movement under the rubric "Painters of the Sacred Heart."


Artists and curators familiar with European modernism brought an awareness of self-taught art to the United States in the 1920s and '30s. Again here, initial interest in the genre was quite far-ranging, and included a fascination with earlier American folk artifacts. However, the search for a contemporary "American Rousseau" soon yielded results: in 1927, a Pittsburgh housepainter named John Kane was admitted to the prestigious Carnegie International Exhibition. No less an institution than the fledgling Museum of Modern Art pledged its support to self-taught art, and the genre rapidly became a relative commonplace in the nation's more forward-thinking galleries and museums. As in Europe, there was no short supply of artists to fill the new demand.


Nonetheless, over the course of the 1940s, the American art establishment gradually withdrew from the field of self-taught art, choosing instead to throw its full weight behind the emerging movement that became known as Abstract Expressionism. Rightly or wrongly, the arbiters of taste came to perceive a rift between "naive art" (which was eminently accessible to a broad range of people) and the nascent American avant garde (whose work was difficult, and hence judged artistically superior). The mass appeal of Grandma Moses--surely the most popular self-taught artist of the century, and also one of the most successful artists of her time--only served to confirm this prejudice. Moses was, in fact, so successful that she spawned a host of imitators, who persist to this day. This proliferation of "faux naives" has cast a lasting pall on the entire "naive" branch of self-taught art.


In Europe, the genre of naive art developed along lines that were roughly parallel to those prevalent in the United States. By the 1960s and '70s, naive paintings were routinely turning up on calendars and dinnerware, and the style had emerged as a staple of children's book illustration. Once this genre became a received style instead of a self-invented one, it was essentially dead. Rampant commercialization called into question the very viability of naive art in the postwar era. How, one might rightly ask, could anyone in this age of mass-market periodicals, television and radio, remain truly remote from culture? Even if an artist had not gone to art school and hence was "self-taught" in the most literal sense of the phrase, how could any visually sentient person avoid being saturated by a plethora of pictorial matter? How could he or she fail to have heard of Grandma Moses? The strict division which Picasso and his generation had perceived between the academically educated and the self-taught no longer seemed to hold.


The first generation of naives--from Rousseau through Grandma Moses--consisted of people who might well have become professional artists, had fate dealt them different hands. It was for the most part economic circumstance that prevented these people from pursuing artistic careers and forced them instead into more practical pursuits. The vast majority began painting only late in life, after retirement, and their artistic goals remained relatively conventional. The first-generation naives were essentially picture-makers out to record their external surroundings, and their work tends to fall into the orthodox categories of landscape, portraiture and still life. Nevertheless, this early contingent of self-taught artists was sufficiently remote from mainstream culture to develop startlingly original technical and pictorial solutions.


In the second half of the 20th century, it became evident that economic circumstances alone could no longer generate the cultural isolation required to produce a genuine "naive." And this, in turn, led to a focus on the more extreme aspects of lifestyle embodied in the currently popular (if controversial) designation "outsider." Outsider Art is the English counterpart to the French term Art Brut (literally "raw art"), a concept invented in 1945 by the artist Jean Dubuffet as a catch-all for work created by artists who operate at the furthest remove from received culture. Dubuffet began by collecting art made by mental patients, and Art Brut is still largely associated (some would say wrongly) with the work of the mentally ill. In Dubuffet's schema, mental illness was only one of a number of possible factors that might position an artist on the margins of culture and thereby set up the circumstances requisite to the production of Art Brut.


In Art Brut, Dubuffet had invented a concept that was both compelling and fundamentally unworkable. He would spend the rest of his life honing definitions without ever arriving at an entirely satisfactory solution. As Dubuffet's collection of Art Brut grew--eventually to the point where it commanded an entire museum--Dubuffet was forced to recognize that an art totally divorced from culture was an ideal that never could exist in reality. He determined that it would be more practical to define Art Brut by placing it on a continuum somewhere between the acultural and the fully cultured (the "raw" and the "cooked," as it were). Yet the question of how and where to draw the boundaries along this continuum remained a problem. Eventually, Dubuffet coined the phrase "Neuve Invention" (new invention) to cover those artists whose work, though somewhat brut, was not quite pure enough to qualify as Art Brut. These artists would occupy a separate annex within Dubuffet's Musée de l'Art Brut (located in Lausanne, Switzerland).


From the start, it seemed clear that whatever it was, Art Brut was inherently different from naive art. The naive artists, with their conventional notions of picture-making, were far too clued-in to received culture to qualify as brut. Where the naives looked outward, to their surroundings, the brut artists tended to look inward, recording visions and obsessions that were on some level meaningful only to themselves. Their distance from received culture was not only aesthetic, it was personal. And this posed a logistical dilemma for connoisseurs of Art Brut: at a certain point, aesthetic judgments would have to defer to judgments involving creative authenticity. An artist might create something that looked brut, but if the artist was too savvy about cultural issues, the work would nevertheless have to be disqualified. Ignorance of wider cultural issues, on the other hand, generally demanded an extreme degree of marginalization in the artist's lifestyle. Much as Dubuffet might protest that there is no such thing as an art of the mentally ill (any more, he said, than there is such as thing as an art of people with bad knees), Art Brut came to be defined at least partly in terms of the artist's biography.


The problem of definition and the uneasy reliance on artists' biographies only grew worse when Art Brut became translated into English and, eventually, traveled to the United States as Outsider Art. "Outsider Art" was, as it happens, a rather arbitrary coinage, selected by the British art historian Roger Cardinal as the title for his 1972 survey of Art Brut from a list of possible names proposed by his editor. The British definition of Outsider Art did not, at first, differ markedly from Dubuffet's admittedly nebulous definition of Art Brut. However, as Outsider Art began to gain currency in the United States, the definition started to blur. The sharp divide that Dubuffet had seen between the naive and the brut, difficult enough to sustain in Europe, proved even more untenable in America.


The United States did not establish art schools until the late 19th century, and so the distinction between academic and non-academic art was less meaningful here than it had been to the European avant-garde in the early years of the 20th century. Due to America's distance from the European academies, our young nation had a much richer tradition of historical folk and self-taught art than was common in the Old World. It was therefore never clear whether our modern self-taught artists were simply extending the practices of their 19th-century predecessors, or belonged in an entirely different category. Nor, for the most part, did American connoisseurs respond as strongly to the art of mental patients as did their European counterparts. Americans instead tended to lump all self-taught art together as expressions of the stereotypical rugged individualism that is so much a part of our national myth. The kind of theoretical hair-splitting so dear to the Europeans--between naive and brut, between true brut and Neuve Invention--never had much appeal in the United States.


Without this theoretical rigor, the term "outsider" became increasingly meaningless; applied sloppily, it also had the potential to be profoundly offensive. On the one hand, there were those who used the word "outsider" as though it were a synonym for "self-taught," casually throwing together artists such as John Kane (who in Europe would be classified as a naïve) with the likes of Martin Ramirez (a mental patient who falls more logically into the Art Brut camp). On the other hand, as the "outsider" label began to gain advocates among collectors and dealers, there were those who focused on biography almost to the exclusion of all else. Autism, schizophrenia, mental retardation and the like became, in the crudest hands, marketing tools. When the designation "outsider" was applied to African-American artists--who because of their intrinsically marginal status were prime targets for the new trend--the label acquired covertly racist connotations. "Outside of what?" members of the African-American community might rightly ask. These artists were operating outside of mainstream white culture to be sure, but still very much within their own legitimate communities.


Mainstream artists are, by definition, active participants in an ongoing art-world dialogue conducted in partnership with dealers, collectors, critics, curators, art historians and other artists. Self-taught or Outsider artists, however, are incapable of taking part in that dialogue, and therefore enter the discussion not of their own volition, but solely at the election of the other participants. Whereas in mainstream art, there is always a conscious exchange between the artists and the art-world players who do the choosing, in the field of self-taught art, the choosers are in total control. And very often the selection criteria used by these choosers has more to do with the choosers' own agenda than with the maker's original intentions.


Self-taught art has thus far always been a field defined in the negative: it is everything that mainstream art is not. However, the individual works and their makers do have their specific histories, both in and of themselves and within the art world that anointed them and gave their work a larger meaning. If and when self-taught art becomes a fully mature field of scholarly study, the various different types of work that have been lumped together in the non-academic category will have to be untangled and restored to their original contexts. It will probably turn out that self-taught art is not one field at all, but a mass of different fields, each with a distinctive trajectory of its own.