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Me, Headway, Dubuffet and art brut

Painting of a shirtless man standing on a large sea shell on the sea, with a bright blue sky background
16 Aug 2021
6 min read

Submit to Love Studios member Chris Miller shares the impact art has had on his life following his stroke, and reflects on the work of Dubuffet and art brut.  

After having a stroke nine years ago I started going to Headway East London, a charity for brain-injured people like me. I went into the art studio there and Michelle, the manager, said that I could come in any time. I replied that I didn’t do art, as I was told at secondary school that I wasn’t any good at it, but she is quite persuasive, and I still do art today. It has become an important part of how see myself. I am an artist - an outsider or art brut artist perhaps - but an artist nonetheless. Making art has been a key part of how I have come to terms with my new identity after having a stroke. It has been for me a physical and mental therapy, or a “discovery through art”, to quote the motto of Headway’s art studio, Submit to Love.

Very soon after the Second World War, the artist Jean Dubuffet started collecting art made by patients of mental health hospitals, prisoners, and others unconnected to the art world. He saw that some of the art they produced had not just a therapeutic value for the patient or prisoner, but had a value as works of art themselves. He called what he collected art brut – raw, uncooked art. My art has a therapeutic purpose too; it is an inner exploration of my changed identity. But it is also a way of expressing to my family, friends and wider society how I feel about this new identity. How I think about this category of untutored art brut then is not just an intellectual debate for me; it is about how I see and define myself. To use an ugly phrase (and Dubuffet celebrated the seemingly ugly) I have got some skin in the game.

‘How I think about this category of untutored art brut then is not just an intellectual debate for me; it is about how I see and define myself.‘

For me, art is a way of discovering and expressing myself. But Submit to Love Studios can take its members further, if they want to, through the process of exhibiting and selling their work. The purpose is partly to raise money for the studio and the artists themselves, but much more than just this, it enables members to start engaging with the sometimes challenging issue of interacting with the wider art world. Recognising your work has a commercial value, seeing it sell and hanging in a gallery can give you an intense thrill; indicating that somehow, despite all the bad things that have happened to you, your art, and therefore yourself are a valued part of wider society. 

For Dubuffet in the 1940s, the art establishment was full of what he saw as stifling conventions and rules. He broke these by making his own art from unusual raw materials such as dirt and chicken poo. He used his art, and the art brut he collected, as a battering-ram to demolish high art culture, and replace it with this raw, uncooked version. He saw himself as co-ordinating a kind of art-punk revolution – doing for the visual arts what, years later, Malcolm McClaren did for music. And Dubuffet’s revolution was a very successful one. Seventy-five years later graffiti art by Jean-Michel Basquiat, Keith Haring, and Banksy are all part of the art establishment, Tracy Emin’s unmade bed and Chris Ofili’s picture made from elephant dung were sold for seven figure sums, tattoo art is everywhere (even at Wimbledon), and Dubuffet has a painting in Tate Modern, hanging near a Picasso.  

In other ways though, he was less successful and even mistaken. We now see clearly that as well as high culture, there is also popular, street, advertising, and graffiti cultures, and everyone is to some extent influenced by the wider cultural world around them. For example, Phil is an artist from Submit to Love Studios. He makes collages that remind me a little of some of the works of Andy Warhol. Phil claims to not have seen his art, but he, like all of us, whether we are aware of it or not, has been drip-fed by a popular advertising culture that is greatly influenced by the art of Warhol. Phil’s art then is unconsciously influenced by a form of culture: not high culture, but street culture. Later even Dubuffet acknowledged that his quest to find in art brut, an art entirely free of culture was idealistic. For me, it is also a hopelessly romantic illusion.

Stephen is another Submit to Love artist who is much less aware of street and advertising culture than Phil. Stephen has never been able to talk and cannot understand most speech, but he takes great pleasure in making abstract paintings using blocks of colour. Stephen’s art seems to me similar to that by a very successful artist, Sean Scully, who has had exhibitions at the National Gallery and other famous places around the world. Scully, like Stephen, obsessively paints blocks of colour. The issue is not so much whether Scully and Stephen are both influenced by the same culture and society, because their influence on Stephen seems almost negligible. It becomes much more of a search for what they both have in common at the deep root of their creative process, humanity, and identity which causes them both to express themselves in similar ways (though if I was forced to choose between the two, I think I would choose Stephen’s art).

Vibrant painted grid of colours

Image: Untitled by Stephen Staunton

Dubuffet is undoubtably a greatly influential figure in how we think about our present world of art and culture, and the Barbican exhibition very much helps us think about this. A difficult question arises though. Is Dubuffet’s art great art? For me, great art must be achieved by trawling the depths of one’s own psyche. Dubuffet trawls these depths too, however the depths were not only his own, but also those of the art brut artists he collected. There is then, for me, something less than entirely personal about his own art. As he himself acknowledged, he could never be an art brut artist, free of culture - he was far too much of an intellectual for that. Try as I might, I cannot get away from the feeling that he was trying to attain (and never quite reaching) the heights of the more authentic art brut that inspired him.

Collection of four framed illustrations, brightly coloured figures on a white well

Image: Installation view of Jean Dubuffet: Brutal Beauty featuring a collection of works by Gaston Duf. 

For me, the exhibition does include two rooms of truly great art, however this is not by Dubuffet, but works by the art brut artists he so fervently collected. I look forward to the day when the Barbican mounts an exhibition of this art brut, alongside recent works by other artists outside the mainstream. 

About the author

Chris Miller is a retired teacher who became a member of Headway East London after a stroke eight years ago. Through the charity’s art studio Submit to Love, he began producing artwork exploring his new self and how it is viewed, and has developed an interest in the art produced by disabled and neurodivergent people. He has talked about his experiences & artistic practices at the Tate Modern, Turner Contemporary, and Royal Academy and is currently undertaking a Master's related to art, health and disability.   

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