Self-Taught & Outsider Art

Gugging in the Context of Art Brut, America and the World

Lecture by Jane Kallir [Gugging Museum of Art Brut, Spring 2006]

The recognition of Art Brut and “outsider” art as distinct genres of expression derived from an obsession with “otherness” that first came into focus around the turn of the last century. Although a broad array of non-academic art—folk craft, amateur painting and art by the mentally ill—existed in earlier eras, the arbiters of high culture paid such lowly creations no mind. The “noble savage” existed as a concept in philosophy but not in art, which was the unchallenged purview of the hereditary aristocracy and, in democratic America, of the educated moneyed classes. During the nineteenth century, however, the readjustment of class boundaries occasioned by industrialization and the mingling of disparate populations through migration and imperialism sparked heretofore unknown confrontations between dominant and subservient peoples. The simultaneous need and inability to deal with the “other” became a leitmotif of twentieth-century history, contributing to its many genocides. The crumbling of once stable aristocratic empires touched off World War I, which in turn triggered Hitler’s retaliatory quest for European domination and World War II. And for each world war, there was a concomitant surge of interest in self-taught art, the art of the “other,” on the part of the cultural elite.


The waves of interest in self-taught art that recurred throughout the twentieth century tended to emphasize differing aspects of the “other.” The first “outsider” to be brought “inside” was the famous painting toll collector Henri Rousseau. Embraced by Picasso in France and Kandinsky in Germany, Rousseau was the original “naïf,” a paragon of childlike innocence. It was Kandinsky, a prolific theorist, who promulgated the notion that artists without formal training are better able to capture the “inner resonance” of their subjects than those whose spontaneity has been dulled by rote schooling. After World War I, this ideal of artistic purity would find broader commercial acceptance through the intervention of the art historian and dealer Wilhelm Uhde, who cobbled together a whole group of untrained “Painters of the Sacred Heart.”


However, in the 1920s another, darker view of the “outsider” emerged, courtesy of the psychiatrists Hans Prinzhorn and Walter Morgenthaler. Working, respectively, at the Heidelberg Psychiatric Clinic and the Waldau Clinic in Bern, these two doctors sought access to the creative depths by studying the art of mental patients. The harnessing of unconscious impulses became a primary goal of the Surrealists, many of whom were familiar with Prinzhorn’s and Morgenthaler’s research.


Surrealism spawned the preeminent post-World-War-II champion of “outsiders,” the artist Jean Dubuffet. Art Brut (raw art), the term he coined to describe art untainted by received culture, was a direct response to the insanity of global war. Despairing of civilization, Dubuffet looked to its margins for hope and inspiration, which he found in the work of mental patients, spiritual mediums and extreme outcasts. In effect, Dubuffet melded the two pre-war conceptions of self-taught art, ascribing primordial innocence and purity to the work of social deviants.


Art Brut in turn spawned “outsider” art, the title chosen by the British art historian Roger Cardinal for the first English-language book on the subject. However, something was literally lost in translation and in the transplantation of the genre from Europe to the United States.


Mainstream recognition of non-academic art was a European import that was welcomed to the U.S. rather belatedly and, in the process, given a uniquely American interpretation. As in Europe, America’s early modernists used “naïve” art to ratify their own unorthodox formal experiments. But in the depths of the Depression, when America’s first homegrown self-taught painters were “discovered,” the genre quickly became a repository for all sorts of notions about national identity. Like the contemporary Regionalists, self-taught artists of the 1930s represented the strength of the heartland as against the corrupt big city. They represented native ingenuity, freedom and individualism. In America, where class divisions are more commonly denied than is the case in Europe, self-taught artists bolstered the myth of egalitarianism. Just as the art-world elite lauded working-class artists during the Depression, that same elite promoted African-American creators in the 1980s and ‘90s, when America was struggling to overcome its legacy of entrenched racism.


Whereas in Europe, a sharp rift developed between proponents of “naïve” art and avatars of Art Brut, Americans were far less inclined to engage in such theoretical hair-splitting. To them, folk art, “naïve” art and “outsider” art were all different expressions of pretty much the same thing. The term Art Brut is used rarely in the United States, and then chiefly to denote foreign phenomena. Those who have a serious professional commitment to what is amorphously referred to as “the field” also attempt to distance themselves from the term “outsider,” preferring the more neutral, if also problematical, adjective “self-taught.”


Given the connection between America’s interest in self-taught art and the affirmation of national identity, it is not surprising that American collectors, dealers and museums have always tended to favor domestic exemplars of the genre. This phenomenon is by no means unique to the United States; Germans, for example, are the foremost collectors of German “naives,” and the Swiss evince an affinity to “cow parades” that stretch back to nineteenth-century Appenzell. Recently, the popularity of “outsider” art and Art Brut has created a handful of international superstars, such as the Swiss Adolf Wölfli and the American Henry Darger. Nevertheless, self-taught art, with its oblique ties to parochial folk traditions and its specific locus in place and persona, has proved more resistant to internationalization than mainstream art.


Since taking over Leo Navratil’s position as Director of the Gugging Haus der Künstler in 1986, Johann Feilacher has tried diligently to raise the profile of “his” artists outside of Austria. Rosa Esman, working together with the collector Sam Farber, mounted the first American exhibition of the Gugging artists at her New York gallery in 1986. In 1988, Gugging artists were included in the exhibition “Outsider Art from Europe,” which traveled to the University of Connecticut, Northern Illinois University in Chicago and the Massachusetts College of Art. The Parsons School of Design in New York featured several Gugging artists in its 1990 show “Portraits from the Outside.” Shows focusing exclusively on Gugging followed: at Moore College of Art in Philadelphia in 1991, and at the Phyllis Kind Gallery in Chicago in 1992. That same year, some of the Gugging artists were included in the groundbreaking survey “Parallel Visions: Mainstream Artists and Outsider Art” at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art. Impressive though this exhibition history may seem, however, it hardly made “Gugging” a household name in the U.S. Of all the shows, only “Parallel Visions” took place at a major museum, and it clearly subordinated the “outsiders” to mainstream modernists.


By 1993, “outsider” art had become sufficiently entrenched in the American consciousness and marketplace to justify the establishment of the Outsider Art Fair, which since then has been held every January in New York City. Over the ensuing years, many dealers have brought Gugging works to the Fair, among them Heike Curtze from Vienna, Susanne Zander from Cologne, Judy Saslow from Chicago, and my own Galerie St. Etienne. As is the case with any area of collecting, buyers of Gugging work tend to vary in their approach. Many lack a sustained commitment to the field, and simply select a single piece because it moves them. Among those who do have an-in-depth focus on “outsider” art, Gugging work has featured most prominently in the collections of Americans who already have an international orientation, such as Sam Farber, Robert Greenberg, Anthony Petullo and Bob Roth. Gugging has never become a “must” for all American “outsider” collectors, in the way that artists such as James Castle, Henry Darger, Martin Ramirez or Bill Traylor seem to have. Nor are Gugging artists anywhere near as widely collected in the U.S. as the stars of the Corcoran Museum’s trendsetting 1982 exhibition “Black Folk Art in America” (Sam Doyle, Sister Gertrude Morgan, Elijah Pierce, Nellie Mae Rowe, Mose Tolliver, Joseph Yoakum, etc.).


In the mid 1990s, the Galerie St. Etienne began representing the Gugging artists in New York, and we have since included them in many group exhibitions as well as in two feature presentations, “That Way Madness Lies: Expressionism and the Art of Gugging” (1997) and “’Our Beautiful and Tormented Austria’: Art Brut in the Land of Freud” (2001). Although both shows were well received, some of the criticism points to the inherent difficulty many Americans have with the European concept of Art Brut. Dubuffet’s idea of singling out mental patients as exemplars of creative purity makes Americans profoundly uncomfortable. “Notions of a continuum from madness to genius are a crock,” wrote Peter Schjeldahl in the Village Voice (February 11, 1997). “In . . . psychosis, we confront a closed loop, an inside of hermetic association from which we are utterly excluded. To be charmed by psychotic art is possible but trivial, like enjoying the sound of a language we do not understand.” Americans love “outsider” artists for their deviant biographies: the homeless ex-slave discovered on the streets of Montgomery, Alabama; the prisoner who embroiders miniature pictures from the threads of unraveled socks; the recluse who collects string and creates a secret trove of drawings in his filthy rented room. But the American dream requires that we domesticate these deviants, and so even as we bask in their biographies, we deny the seriousness of their problems. Psychosis, understandably, scares us.


By comparison, the psychiatrists at the Landeskrankenhaus Maria Gugging have always had a straightforward, professional relationship to psychotics. Like many psychiatrists, Leo Navratil originally used drawings for diagnostic purposes, but in the 1950s he noticed that some of his patients were doing work of exceptional quality. He sent samples to Dubuffet, and the drawings were promptly anointed as genuine Art Brut. Hereafter, Navratil began to single out talented patients and to work more intensively with them. From the outset, the Gugging project differed from conventional art therapy programs in that the artists were specifically chosen for their talent. Johann Feilacher has placed even more emphasis on this aspect of the program than did his predecessor. Talent, he observes, is as rare among mental patients as it is among the general population. Without the Haus der Künstler, the Gugging artists would never have access to the mainstream art world: they are far too ill, too poor and too uneducated. Gugging, then, provides a vital conduit for these artists, giving professional meaning to their lives and encouraging them to develop their talent. Nonetheless, they have been acclaimed internationally not because of their illnesses, but because of the quality of their work. The Haus der Künstler has helped lead the way in encouraging the public to see the art of the mentally ill as art, rather than as the product of an inferior, ghettoized “other.” Although indebted to Dubuffet’s pioneering work, Gugging in fact embodies a conceptual break with conventional notions of Art Brut.


Art Brut and all the other approaches to self-taught art that emerged during the twentieth century suffered from similar inherent contradictions. For one thing, the ascription of intrinsic purity to self-taught artists was neither objectively verifiable nor true. It is, after all, no more possible to determine whether an artist has a “sacred heart” than it is to X-ray his or her soul. And the paradigm of purity clashed head-on with the fact of external influence. As it turns out, many self-taught artists teach themselves in exactly the same way that trained artists do: they look at things and then poach from an array of preexisting sources. Only for self-taught artists, those sources are ad hoc, rather than selected by the art-world’s educational superstructure. There was also something insidious about the mainstream’s idealization of the self-taught artist’s ostensible purity. A self-taught artist could be disqualified, driven from the temple of Art Brut and back into the no-man’s land of inept anonymity, for being too knowing or too ambitious. The whole point was that self-taught artists were accidental modernists, creating works that looked like sophisticated art without deliberately intending to. By denying the self-taught artist’s intentionality, the art-world mainstream denied these artists the right to be taken seriously. Insofar as the discipline of art history has traditionally treated art works as texts, the purpose of which is to communicate an artist’s conscious or unconscious intent, the doctrine of “purity” made it impossible to properly study self-taught artists and therefore impossible to admit them to the canon. The “other” was acknowledged, even petted and pampered, but at the same time safely ensconced in a position subordinate to that of the mainstream elite.


Most of the attributes—purity, innocence, iconoclasm, individualism—ascribed to “outsiders” had less to do with them than with the projected needs of the mainstream. In practice, the mainstream’s relationship to self-taught artists was largely formal, as though by claiming a similar pictorial language, trained artists could appropriate those self-same projected values. This formal relationship was double-edged: the mainstream singled out self-taught artists who unwittingly confirmed its own preexisting aesthetic proclivities, and trained artists also borrowed specific stylistic tropes from their uneducated colleagues. Formalism became the primary way in which modernism was explained and sold to the broader public, especially in the U.S. In the years immediately after World War II, the histories of diverse modernist movements in places like Russia, Italy, Germany and Austria were pruned in order to present a clean, linear developmental trajectory from prewar Paris to postwar New York. The whole idea of a single international art “center” presupposed a high degree of coordination and unity of intent. Modernism’s subsidiary “isms” were seen to comprise cohesive teams of artists engaged in a joint mission to advance the global cause of art. Tastemakers such as the Museum of Modern Art’s founding director Alfred Barr wielded immense influence through their ability to channel the messy products of artistic enterprise into neat formalist schemes.


Today, the formalist linearity once ascribed to modernist development has been generally discredited, both as art history and as a prescriptive mandate for aspiring artists. Artists are encouraged to take their inspiration from anything and everything that moves them, reaching back in time through all of art history, and absorbing more recent visual phenomena like cartoons, comics and film as well. Contemporary artists give all cultural sources equal weight, drawing no distinction between “high” and “low” art. There are no rules or restrictions regarding the use of materials, either. “New media” such as video and computers are welcomed into an arena once dominated by painting and sculpture, as are formerly “inferior” modes of expression like photography. This diversity has created a confusing welter of objects and styles. There are no longer any gatekeepers comparable to Barr controlling access to the citadel of high art. For the most part, curators and critics now follow paths blazed in an increasingly freewheeling and decentralized marketplace. Globalization has for the first time created a true “art world,” assimilating collectors and artists from all over. Although many dealers are still based in New York, the art scene has become a moveable feast, decamping regularly to Basel, Miami, London or wherever in accordance with art-fair schedules. Globalization has forced a new confrontation with the “other,” both in terms of individual players and in terms of diverse traditions.


The current approach to self-taught art is in many respects an extension of the heterogeneity born of globalization, and as such differs decisively from earlier, modernist attitudes to the genre. Mainstream contemporary art and self-taught art are joined not merely by formal similarities, but by a kinship of content. Common themes include war, violence, abuse and the exploitation of the weak by the strong. Children’s-book iconography is employed both within and beyond the mainstream to explore adult issues of sexual aggression. The idea of mapping the unconscious—either through semi-abstract images or though literal maps—is another unifying motif. Many artists, trained as well as self-taught, see art-making as a devotional act with redemptive potential, or attempt to harness the spiritual powers perceived in found objects. Debased, non-art materials—pipe-cleaners, feathers, beads, mailing tubes and the like—are proliferating in all quarters. Ritual, counting and formal repetition are no longer seen merely as the hallmarks of obsessive disorder, but rather can suggest a connection with the divine by revealing the patterns underlying the visible world.


The conceptual links between the work of “insiders” and “outsiders” suggest that today the most substantive difference between the two may be the way they are labeled and marketed. After all, to the extent that they exist outside the nine-to-five job grind that preoccupies most people, all artists are economic “outsiders.” And all artists, if they are any good, are passionate and driven. The act of segregating “outsiders” according to their biographies is becoming increasingly shallow and pointless. The minor detail of having gone, or not gone, to art school seems similarly irrelevant when all the world’s a school.


In the future, we may hope for an environment in which all art is judged on its merits, irrespective of superficial labels. Terms such as Art Brut, “outsider,” “naïve” and self-taught have little scholarly utility, in that they designate artists who have nothing in common except their deviance from a mainstream norm. There are, of course, subgroups within these catchall categories that do share meaningful attributes. Some self-taught African-American artists, for example, have kindred ties to certain local and historical traditions. However, labeling such artists as “outsiders” does nothing to help us understand their work, and is in fact inherently disrespectful of the artists’ original context and influences. To truly absorb the “other” into the mainstream, we must honor the artist’s intentions and judge the art by its success in fulfilling those intentions—just as we have always judged mainstream art. A lot of inferior “outsider” art will not pass this test and will as a result fall by the wayside. However, the best examples of self-taught art will not only survive, they will for the first time be fully understood and appreciated. Institutions such as the Haus der Künstler will be important in the future not because they segregate differently abled artists from the mainstream, but because they give those artists a chance to shine as equals within a mainstream context. Globalization has produced many ill effects, from economic exploitation and environmental degradation to terrorism, but it has also helped to break down the barriers separating us from the “other.” It is encouraging to think that, at least in some quarters, the divisions between disparate peoples are diminishing in the face of our common humanity.