Jean Dubuffet and the Anti-Cultural Attitude

“The greatest art is created by outsiders who risk everything, while insiders concentrate on making money within the comfort and beauty of established mainstream systems.” (Phil Nicks)

“Real art is always where you do not expect it to be, where nobody is thinking of it or pronouncing its name.” (Jean Dubuffet)

You like Jean Dubuffet? His early work was a little too New Wave for my taste. But when the Holocaust happened, I think he really came into his own, commercially and artistically. He’s been compared to Francis Bacon and Alberto Giacometti, but I think Jean has a far more bitter, cynical sense of humor.

Unlike Bacon and Giacometti, Dubuffet’s artistic characters project no weakness or victimhood. They are antic, aggressive and, most importantly, stood apart, in an almost Nietzschean way, from the historical context.

Dubuffet himself was a wine merchant from Le Havre. His experiments with art started in the 20’s but he blossomed later in age. He became a known artist in 1942 after he was discharged from drafted service for failure to “conform to military discipline”. While enjoying the fruitful profits he made from selling wine to the Wehrmacht he developed his unique take on culture and art.

Dubuffet was formulating an existential and artistic position quite apart from the events and conventions of the day. His ideas emerged by aggressively disrupting the past and transgressing many deeply held ideals. He was the Joker of the era; transcending through the drama of WW2 and its aftermath by creating the reality of the average dirty and hapless human through sheer material.

During France’s reconstruction and baby boom Dubuffet realized his exquisite urban imagination by using materials of the infrastructure that surrounded him at the time. His rabid paintings and ethereal sculptures would often be made out of materials such as concrete, Styrofoam, Sherwin-Williams house paint, Spot putty, oil wood chips and metal. His artwork mirrored the drastic changes of Post-war Paris (where he lived and worked) and its new compact buildings for the growing population.

The idea of the structure of the city with the impact that it has on its population moved him. He developed an almost sardonic romanticism from it. For the educated, one can see Dubuffet’s work as profoundly abstract if not, for what it’s worth, unsettling. And for the uneducated his work is fierce and brutal yet humorous. Here we had a merchant/businessman (rare for an artist) which is the essential bourgeoisie yelling at the bourgeoisie by interpreting the proletarian and their happenstance. For as with the Symbolist and decadent liberal anarchist Octave Mirbeau and his Torture Garden, a large amount of Romantic rhetoric was bourgeois anti-bourgeois. In other words, it was so radical it soon began to take leave of the class, namely the middle class, which had given it birth. Almost like medieval artists Dubuffet was able to send a meaningful message to both the bourgeoisie and the proletarian while remaining beholden to neither.

The primacy and savagery of his work often portray a sincere masculinity and a certain sympathy for our sexes proclivity towards madness. This is because Dubuffet went Foucaultian before there was even a Foucault by attempting to pioneer a new unconventional vision based on such models as the insane. In 1923, Dubuffet read and subsequently made use of the book Artistry of the Mentally Ill, by Dr. Hans Prinzhorn. Instead of the gay social analysis of Foucault, Dubuffet related to the insane’s intense convictions and irrationalism with a certain heterosexuality that is obviously missing from Foucault. He admired the crazies for their essentialism. Their indifference and brutality. He saw this in himself and in man more generally. Instead of despairing about it he exalted it.

Dubuffet’s interest in the art of the mentally ill adds more support to the idea of modernism not only as an outsider/insider art but also as a psychopathological one. Artist and orator Jonathan Bowden put it to Greg Johnson in his last interview, “Yes, it’s partly an outsider’s vision. It’s partly a psycho-pathological vision which is re-routed and made to suit insiders. It’s also the fact that it’s one of the first aesthetics since high Christian art where ugliness is part of the picture. In Christian art of course the ugliness is demonic and it’s the depictions of the devil and his realm and is the depiction of the hellish in a Hieronymus Bosch sort of way, or in a way of Bruegel or Grünewald.” Is it a coincidence that Patrick Bateman from American Psycho is made use of so much in our memes? No. We see in Bateman the unfortunate realities of man expressed in a comical yet brutal way. The feminist director of that movie hoped to poke fun at masculinity but like Dubuffet we just exalt it.

Dubuffet was not scared of the barbarian. The 2014 presentation of his work in Marseille was aptly titled “Jean Dubuffet, un barbare en Europe”. This exhibition, amongst other things, showed the certain neo-pagan and European ethnographic tendencies in his work. For example he was influenced by the tribal monster masks of the Lötschental area in Switzerland. Dubuffet was not the only modernist to draw influence from the savagery of indigenous European art. Again self-described modernist Jonathan Bowden (who described his art as “a heterosexual Francis Bacon”) also admitted to such influence in his work.

— SCOWL is a writer and artist working on his own content. He is on Twitter.

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