How Has Art “On the Fringes” Been Referred to Historically?

Text : KANO Rena (Art Anthropologist Scholar)


[Illustrations]  OBATA Saki

[Editing]  SATO Emi

This article is a translated version, which was originally published in Japanese language on 11 April, 2017.

Reading time:9 minutes

(Date updated)07 June, 2019

(About this story)

Art Brut, Outsider Art, and so on, are terms that have come into regular use in Japan in recent years, emerged as concepts outside of the framework of modern and contemporary art history, but are nonetheless imbued with varying meanings. Differing slightly by region, historical context, and the founder’s sentiments, there are also some terms whose original meanings have transformed gradually over time. With commentary by art anthropologist scholar Rena Kano, we unravel the complexities of these terms’ original meanings


The Inner Turmoil and Yearning of Jean Dubuffet, Painter

Art Brut

“Art Brut” is a term coined by French painter Jean Dubuffet. “Brut” in French means “raw,” or “unvarnished.” It is a term often used to describe food or materials, like wine or wood, and in the realm of art means something like “art that has not been processed.” The year Dubuffet proposed this term, 1945, was an important year that marked the end of World War II, and brought with it significant changes to a variety of social values.

During the war in 1943, a 42-year old Dubuffet decided to quit the wine manufacturing business that had been in his family for generations, and make his living as an artist. After the war came to an end, he set out to collect non-Western art and literature pertaining to their history, folk art, and spiritualism, by those that had not previously been included in the modern art framework, like psychiatric patients, prisoners, and children, as well as the people of Africa and Oceania. “Art Brut” was what he named the collection to showcase the art pieces and literature he collected on this journey, among others. In order to display these pieces together, as a collection, he created the “Foyer de L’art Brut (House of Art Brut),” and the Compagnie de l’Art Brut (Art Brut Association). At Debuffet’s invitation, a number of prominent intellectuals, including the likes of Claude Levi-Strauss and artist André Breton, were involved in the association.

Dubuffet maintained strict control over his collection. At an Art Brut exhibition he held in Paris, a visitor who had seen the pieces in his collection said to him, “There’s an artist that fits the definition, and we want to refer to his work as art brut too.” To this he replied, “This is my collection, so I would prefer you not use that term.”

Meanwhile, Dubuffet himself was growing tired of the modern and contemporary art world he found himself in. In contrast to the career-oriented mimicry running rampant, he must surely have admired the integrity and sincerity of art brut artists, who saw “living” and “creating” as one and the same, inseparable from one another. Though he himself asserted that he was not influenced by art brut, it seems telling that he later created “Villa Falbala,” an outdoor sculpture meant for his own personal consumption. His stance on creating art, as evidenced in works like these, seems to reveal the influence art brut had on his work.

Outsider Art

In 1972, art brut was translated and introduced to the English-speaking world as “outsider art” by English art critic Roger Cardinal. In “Outsiders” (1963), American sociologist Howard S. Becker discusses the transgressive actions of artists and musicians. In this essay, Becker asserts that there is no such thing as a natural-born outsider, and that ‘deviants’ exist only as a result of society’s frameworks. In 1956, the novel Outsiders by English author Colin Wilson became a best-seller, and later during he 1960s to 1970s, the heyday of counterculture. This was a time of strict religious traditions and societal rules, and considerable prejudice against sexual minorities. Until all that had been obscured and suppressed exploded into society, bringing about student movements and Woodstock. “Outsiders,” as seen in the world of literature, movies, novels, and art, were heroes that broke through the norms of society.

Revolutions in Art, Always from Its Outside


What were the terms that were used in Europe before the introduction of art brut and outsider art? A term coined within the modern and contemporary art world was “Primitivism.” In the 19th century, the cultures of the Africa and Oceania regions were introduced to Europe through colonialism. European artists like Picasso and Braque, influenced by the masks and sculptures created by the colonized people, initiated a movement known later as Cubism. This phenomenon in its entirety is now known as “Primitivism.” The term, however, was coined by Western scholars, and therefore contains within it a one-sided Western perspective on African society as ‘primitive,’ and ‘uncivilized.’

Naïve Art

Around this same time, there was also “naïve art,” or art by ordinary people with no formal artistic training. The term “naïve,” which can mean something like ‘simple,’ ‘childish,’ or ‘ignorant,’ is often used with a negative connotation in the West. Indeed in Western art history, “naïve art” was seen as being ignorant of artistic elements, like perspective, that arose after the Renaissance. And yet Picasso and the other artists did not look down upon the artists of this movement, which began when they discovered Henri Rousseau, working as a customs officer at the time. Stunned by these artists, they imitated them, were inspired by them, and used this inspiration to express themselves in different ways. There was, indeed, definite respect there.


The term “automatism” also relates back to artists. It is a term derived from the Surrealism movement instigated in the 1920s by a group of artists, most notably André Breton, who created art inspired by madness, dreams, and the unconscious world, which they admired. One of their techniques was automatism (automatic writing), in which they would write and draw pictures in an unconscious  state as possible. It seems to be the fate of art history that the core of artistic revolution exists outside that era’s framework of art.

Art Irrégulier

“Art irrégulier” is a term that was coined to organize the literature written in various languages old and new throughout the world. “Irrégulier,” the name of a category established to organize the literature in the National Library of France, is French, meaning “against the norm.” It is from a book by author Jules Vallès published in Japan in 1965, and like the term “outsiders,” contains an ‘edgy’ nuance. Indeed in his book, Vallès refers to the artists, poets, and activists rebelling against the bourgeois, who create the norms, as “irrégulier.”

New World Identity

Folk Art / Self-Taught Art

We have thus far focused mainly on Europe. Meanwhile, in the New World of the United States, the people had been considering their identity as a country, in contrast to the modern and contemporary art originating from the West.

Through this thought process, two terms emerged that were unique to the United States—“folk art” and “self-taught art.” This includes works by African slaves, South American immigrants, blue collar workers, and rural peoples during America’s frontier era. New York is even home to an American Folk Art Museum, which is an art museum equivalent to Switzerland’s Collection de l’Art Brut.

In the United States, the land of the free, the people with their deeply rooted frontier mentality must have liked the term “self-taught,” if partly as a means to solidify their identity outside of the “history” of Old World (European) culture. A country in which anyone who tried hard enough could hope to achieve a higher position in society. This spirit was most likely the reason why “self-taught art” was the preferred term.

Japanese Terms, Borne of Welfare and Philosophy

Able Art

To conclude, I will introduce some terms unique to Japan. What were madness and the unconscious mind for France and folk for the United States, is largely welfare for Japan. Looking at the other countries, we see that there is some overlap between psychiatric care and the terms surrealism and art brut; psychiatry however, is “medical,” not “welfare.” Indeed, there are even some countries where “welfare” does not exist as a concept.

“Able Art” is a term borne of the activities within Japan’s welfare field, and is meant to describe “art of possibility.” Able Art was proposed by the Tanpopo-no-ye Foundation and Nippon Shōgaisha Geijutsu Bunka Kyōkai (‘Japan Arts and Culture Association for the Disabled’) in 1995, with the aim to facilitate the lives of people with disabilities within society.

It is important to note that Shozo Shimamoto, the very first chairman of the Nippon Shōgaisha Geijutsu Bunka Kyōkai, was an author in the Gutai Art movement. What Shozo Shimamoto saw in the art of those with disabilities was perhaps what Picasso saw in naïve art, and Dubufet in art brut. To move your gaze upon a different world is to upend your own norms. By attempting to know the unknown, all of these artists put their very own norms in harm’s way.

Marginal Art

After the Meiji Era, the “art” of modern times swept into Japan, and modern and contemporary works of art began to emerge domestically. In a time when Japanese society was ‘chasing after’ Western society, perhaps too much, “marginal art” was a term that scooped up the work that was left out of or did not fit neatly into the framework of “international art.” Coined by philosopher Shunsuke Tsurumi, it is a term that encompasses folk songs, Bon dance, manzai (Japanese stand-up comedy), folk crafts, and graffiti—culture that is rooted in everyday life.

The People’s Mentality in Every Era, Hidden in Words

As discussions on culture and art unfold, the original meanings and purpose of words can be muddled in translation. Even when speaking the same language we still ‘translate,’ in a sense, the things we hear and think about when communicating them to others. When we do so, we interpret them through the social frameworks of our societies, and the time periods or areas we belong to as groups, or individuals. Indeed the term “art brut,” once so carefully guarded by Dubuffet, is now widely used. In Japan especially, it has gained currency not as a term for scholars of art history, but as an accessible, friendly term intimately intertwined with the artistic expression of people with disabilities. Just like Band-Aid, Chapstick, and Kleenex, which were derived from brand names, art brut, following the death of Dubuffet, is becoming an increasingly common term in Japan. Usage of words spilling over into other eras, other areas, and becoming transformed in the process, is something that happens often in the course of history.

“Modern and contemporary art,” the art of highbrows that Dubuffet had so disliked, exists as a category on the premise that there is a worldwide, ‘universal’ art history. ‘Universal’ art history is, however, art history established by the West, by the force of its significant geopolitical advantage over other areas of the world. “Art brut” and “outsider art,” however, were terms that emerged in the Western world to describe work not included in this Western-centric “international art” framework.

Then, what about non-Western Japan? It may not be possible, when Japanese art history exists parallel with the West’s “modern and contemporary art,” to evaluate Japanese paintings and craftwork by the ‘universal’ standards of history—because, of course, there exists no such thing as a ‘universal’ standard. There are creators in African countries as well for whom it is unclear whether their work would be included in contemporary art at all, and even if it was not, whether it would be folk art, ethnic art, spiritual art, individualistic art, craftwork, or craftsmanship. In other words, it is natural that each region’s history of art differs from that dictated from the perspective of ‘universal’ art history.

Certain terms are preferred by particular regions, groups, and eras according to a variety of factors, and the meanings of these terms change too over time. There is always a context for the emergence of new terms, which contain, tucked away within them, the culture, history, social values, and thought processes of the people and their mentalities of that era. To understanda variety of perspectives and analyze their differences, instead of forcing history into a streamlined “universal,” “international” direction, is vital because it allows us to communicate nuances that cannot be translated, as well as re-affirm our understanding of our own thought processes and preconceptions.

Related people

KANO Rena (Art Anthropologist Scholar)

(Profile of KANO Rena (Art Anthropologist Scholar))
Born in Hyogo Prefecture. Art anthropologist at the Laboratory of Social Anthropology in EHESS (School for Advanced Studies in the Social Sciences). Received a Master’s degree in Art History from Paris-Sorbonne University. Received a Bachelor’s degree in Museology from École du Louvre. Involved with outsider art research and projects. Currently also a coordinator for “Pocorart National Open Call” at 3331 Arts Chiyoda. Contributes to a variety of publications including“ Bijitsu Techo” and “Eureka”.