Tucked away at the foot of the Butte de Montmartre, the Halle Saint Pierre art gallery remains something of a hidden treasure in Paris. Formerly a covered market place, this unusual space was converted into an art museum in 1986 but rarely finds its way onto lists of must-see galleries. The collections exhibited here are refreshingly different to those displayed at the gallery’s better known counterparts, and its eclectic mix of outsider art, art brut, and art singulier has led Time Out Paris to describe the space as a ‘UFO of Parisian cultural life.’A peculiarity of the space is that you’re unlikely to recognise a single artist’s name in the collection at any given time. With no permanent exhibition, the gallery acts as a temporary home for the waifs and strays of the art world who are often overlooked by traditional exhibition spaces. To coincide with the launch of the gallery’s new exhibition, ART BRUT JAPONAIS II, Colette Griffin provides us with brief introduction to the world of outsider art.
The definitions for outsider art, art brut and naïve art all vary slightly. A reworded but echoed sentiment they all share is ‘made outside the academic tradition of fine art’, be that work made by someone who is ‘untrained’, or work made in a way that does not fit into the parameters of what art history defines as ‘fine art’. A fine artist is a skilled maker or practitioner who has benefitted from an academic orientation, is versed in the tradition of Western art and is responding to the ‘art world’ through an awareness of the fine art realm.
But it’s important to consider more than one definition: a second describes fine art as being made to be appreciated primarily or solely for its imaginative, aesthetic, or intellectual content. The work should have no practical purpose, therefore applied or decorative art forms, such as pottery, are excluded. A third definition, which is the institutional theory of art, holds that an object can only be(come) fine art when in the context of the institution known as ‘the art world’. All three present contradictions, and offer up more questions than answers when considering the so called ‘parameters’ of fine art and their impact on our understanding of outsider art.
Often the art of children, psychiatric patients, homeless people and prisoners is deemed to be outsider art. Naïve art is characterised by childlike simplicity of execution and vision, a vision that would come naturally or more easily perhaps to those falling into the categories outlined above. They exist in an environment that allows them to produce work undiluted by conventional structures of art production, art school training, copious amounts of artist research and the glare or support of a gallery or critic.
As such, their work has been valued by modernists seeking to get away from what they see as the insincere sophistication of art created within the traditional system. For Jean Dubuffet, founder of the art brut ‘movement’, art brut – translated as ‘raw art’ or ‘rough art’ – was the raw expression of a vision or emotions, untrammeled by convention. To some, the term outsider art can seems rather romantic; we may imagine an artist working without social constraints, with the freedom to produce artwork undiluted by others or the outside world, where art was understood to be born purely of the individual’s imagination.
Outsider art was originally defined as being made apart from the dialogue and marketplace of contemporary art (art of the present day and of the relatively recent past), and outsider artists were isolated, working in prison cells, psychiatric wards or rural towns and city streets. However, the rigid conditions that allowed outsider art to flourish are now almost unimaginable thanks to globalisation and the internet. It is now virtually impossible to make art outside of some sort of dialogue. Perhaps outsider art is a rigid movement like the Renaissance, which existed only within a set timeframe and is now no longer practiced, or perhaps it is responsive like Futurism or Cubism, reacting to changes in modern life such as technology, violence and speed. Both of these movements are now shelved in art history.
Alternatively, outsider art may be better understood as a method of making, a style of expression, like abstraction, minimalism or dematerialization. If this is the case, then we can understand the term as something that is expanding and changing, requiring constant redefinition. This would also ensure that artists are not seen exclusively and perhaps unfairly as being outsider artists, a term many of these artists disapprove of. It is more important to consider how outsider art is seen by the viewing public: what can it bring to our understanding, or more importantly, to our experience of art? To summarise: outsider art should not be shackled so rigidly to the terminology that is too often used to define it. Such rigidity can mislead the viewing public, and create a distorted understanding of the work and more importantly of the artists who make it.