Jean Dubuffet is perhaps the one new painter of real importance to have appeared on the scene in Paris in the last decade. Though himself an erudite and sophisticated artist, he professes to despise cultivation, tradition, professional skill — all that which makes art “fine” — and to see genuine value only in the rawest forms of pictorial representation: graffiti, scrawlings on walls and sidewalks by untrained or impatient hands, the drawings of very young or untalented children, mudpies; “art brut,” “raw” art, art in its first and most rudimentary and least conscious stages. This is not at all the same thing as what is called “primitive” or naive art (Rousseau le Douanier, Alfred Wallis, Bombois, Vivin, Kane, Pickett, Bauchant, et al.), which is a relatively recent phenomenon and is in almost every case the result more or less of an untutored or visually innocent or only half-talented person’s attempt to approximate traditional easel painting. The “primitives” do not appear in force until the popular diffusion of museum art is made possible by reproductions and journeyman copies. Art brut, however, does not depend on history or culture as much as that. It is found essentially the same in all times and places, wherever anyone without training, interest, or artistic aspirations tries to communicate something graphically.
Jean Dubuffet, Grand Maitre of the Outsider, 1947 [image from WikiPaintings]
Dubuffet discovered art brut at a time when many advanced writers in France were beginning to question the premises of literature itself as a cultivated discipline and some among them were attempting — as they still are — to bring the novel and short story closer to actual contemporary experience by stripping the narrative of its acquired conventions and modelling their prose on colloquial, popular usage, as Hemingway has done. Like these writers, Dubuffet is reacting against a tradition so rich, mature, and recent that it still dominates the scene of its triumphs. Even though it is no longer adequately relevant to contemporary experience, the splendor and abundance of its achievements seem to threaten the originality of those who wish to make a fresh response to a fresh reality. In the face of such a situation, one is apt to decide that nothing less in principle than a radical rejection of the past will be enough to win the artist or writer his freedom. But a rejection of this sort is impossible in practice, however much it may be proclaimed in theory. It is not only that one cannot deliberately discard habits of culture instilled since childhood. Even if one could, the supposedly greater immediacy of the work of art or literature would be bought at the price of an even greater aesthetic impoverishment. New experience demands increased, not lessened, consciousness, and the anti-artistic artist or anti-literary writer can succeed only by transcending or suppressing the past, never by rejecting it. If he does so, he does so falsely, and the result is false. What, after all, is more false than the deliberately primitive?
Despite the appearance of his pictures, Dubuffet has not thrown off the past as he seems to think; he has, on the contrary, extended it by treating it selectively. To be sure, he has saved himself from the oppressive influence of Picasso and Matisse, which in its direct form paralyzes so many of the painters of his own generation in Paris. But he has not passed beyond culture and discipline and his art is not the raw, immediate expression that he himself advertises it as. What Dubuffet has actually done is to exchange one part of the modern tradition for another. Instead of Picasso and Matisse, he has chosen Klee. But Klee is not altogether the spontaneous, “state-of-nature” artist he is taken for. Like Dubuffet, he was stimulated by art brut, but he assimilated cubism first and took from the “raw” art of children and adults only what cubist discipline would permit. In effect, Dubuffet has absorbed cubism through Klee. (Aside from the fact that he probably also absorbed a good deal of it directly for he first started out as a painter, back in the twenties, under the influence of Picasso, and it was only when he returned to painting at the time of the Occupation, after a long absence, that he appears to have oriented his art toward Klee’s.)
Dubuffet borrowed from Klee the key with which to unlock the spontaneity in himself — Klee who by no means repudiated tradition and wanted only to create an ampler one for modern art and was able to do so only under the guidance of cubism. Dubuffet has shown the highest sophistication in using Klee’s influence as he has, making it the foundation of an art more monumental than that of any other of the Swiss master’s disciples. But in order to do this he had to possess the whole extant culture of painting and all that French art, in particular, had to give in the way of a sensuous and knowing manipulation of paint. I believe that this erudition is self-evident in Dubuffet’s art, as is also his very acute and civilized perception of what is and is not relevant to ambitious art in our time. Next to this his talk about art brut only confuses the issue.
Jean Dubuffet, The beautiful horned, 1954 [image from WikiPaintings]
Dubuffet’s case demonstrates once again that the “primitivism” of which modern art is so frequently accused is in reality something quite different from what it seems. Instead of being a return to a primitive state of mind (whatever that may be), it represents a new evaluation and opening up of the past such as only erudite artists are capable of. The whole surviving past of art, rather than that of Western Europe and classical antiquity alone, has now been made available to contemporary artists. As our painting and sculpture abandon naturalism they find more and more stimulating precedents outside the historical and social orbit of Western culture. They find these in Africa, Asia, Oceania — and here at home and in the present as well: in the impromptu, rudimentary art of novices, amateurs, children, and lunatics.