Arno Böhler

Art Brut: The Philosophical Viewpoint

In Anti-Oedipus (1972; English edition 1983), Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari analysed the structures of that hidden art in the depths of the human soul as being responsible for the unconscious production of our desires: desiring machines, producing a wild kind of thought which works in an associatively pictorial way by producing hybrid connections between colours, shapes, images, between emotions and thoughts, inorganic and organic life etc. Quite as if the primary wish of desiring machines was the linking of each and everybody.

Incessantly the libido factory of the unconscious provides facts with new nexuses, it invents new interfaces and points of connection between things, as if its only interest was in endless production, in productivity as such. “The rule of continually producing production, of grafting producing onto the product, is a characteristic of desiringmachines” (Deleuze-Guattari 1983, p. 7). A wishing factor knows neither end nor break. It works incessantly. Endlessly. Always the streams of our desires are lurking, to associatively connect to this or that object. Thus, when it comes to wishing, the subject of desire and the stream of desires cannot be separated. “The Cahiers de l’art brut* are a striking confirmation of this principle” (Deleuze-Guattari 1983, p. 6).

For Deleuze and Guattari Art Brut demonstrates the existence of a kind of art that makes the driving forces of the id plainly obvious. There affection-images are created, coming from uninhibited thought; an art of the id often showing serial features because libido always tells us to say “and”, “and then” (Deleuze-Guattari 1983, p. 5). Thus, what is demonstrated by the images and records of Art Brut is desire itself, becoming obvious by passive, connective syntheses – auto-matos, as the ancient philosophers called it: automatically, unconsciously, machine-driven, mostly out of control of our personal ego. “You are innocent when you dream”, Tom Waits sings in the song of the same title …

For Deleuze and Guattari an art of the id such as Art Brut is necessarily outsider art, precisely in the sense of the ego not being master in its own house, but rather the medium of anonymous driving forces haunting the art-creating individual, most of all in the cellars of his or her bodiliness. Thus in those regions of our corporeal being-inthe-world where we are exposed to the forces of a quasi inorganic life – the digestive system, breathing, the elementary forces of air, water, earth, fire and light we are all made of.

These, as one would almost like to have it, sub-tropical zones of our bodiliness are not governed by any volitional, strategically acting ego centre. Rather, there we encounter that trans-personal life of immanence which electrifies all bodies, by including them into one single stream of life which unconsciously connects everybody, and everything, all over the world. And indeed not in order to create a personally controlled ego where the id is but rather to give testimony to that delirium (de-lirare) of unravelled life which in the factory of the unconscious, indeed happens auto-matos, almost by itself.

Already in the 19th century, in Beyond Good and Evil, Nietzsche did not get tired of pointing out the modern “superstition of the logicians” who, he said, had up to then overlooked the simple fact that “a thought comes when ‘it’ wants to, and not when ‘I’ want it to; so it is falsifying the facts to say that the subject ‘I’ is the condition of the predicate ‘think’.” (Nietzsche 1998, p. 17)

Probably this is the factual reason why often Art Brut shows a spiritistic, medial nature. One is not oneself the immanent cause of the ideas coming to oneself when thinking, feeling, wishing or desiring. Rather, sensorily one dives into subterranean streams of life by which one is grasped when intensively feeling, thinking or desiring something. Accordingly, about Robert Gie, an excellent cartoonist drawing paranoid electronic machines, the following story is told: “‘Since he was unable to free himself of these currents that were tormenting him, he gives every appearance of having finally joined forces with them, taking passionate pride in portraying them in their total victory, in their triumph.’” (L’art brut, No. 3, p. 63, quoted after Deleuze-Guattari 1983, p. 17)

Obviously the electric currents by which Robert Gie is grasped while experiencing them with his own body are not affective currents of transcendence but of immanence, as by them the self-aware ego does not transcend itself towards heavenly heights but towards those earthly depths flooding Art Brut artists so that they are capable of depicting them, these fields of intensity. Thus, with Art Brut there is no subject initiating the production of wishes which might be above or outside yarn-spinning desiring machines, but there are only subjects emerged into the production of wishes, linked to them, being connected to a fabrication of wishes. “Desire constantly couples continuous flows and partial objects that are by nature fragmentary and fragmented.” (Deleuze-Guattari 1983, p. 5). Wishing and thinking, wishing and wanting, but also wishing and digesting, wishing and loving, wishing and musing. Nothing can evade the connective synthesis at work in the production of wishes.

Art Brut is an outsider art because with it the state of exception of one‘s own subjective constitution has become the rule. Perhaps this is exactly where Art Brut coincides with the societal reality we are globally exposed to these days. The processes of globalisation are mostly escaping the control of those people attempting to control them. It seems as if the dignity of globalised man is less in the freedom of the will than in man being exposed, unprotected and vulnerable to globally acting forces which mostly evade his/her personal control.

Thus, whereas by the moral image of thought we encounter that figure of man to which we attribute full sanity and thus also moral responsibility, with Art Brut we often encounter a figure of being-human and humanity incorporating naked life. A kind of life in which the acting individuals constantly lose their grip on life, so that they are moving towards that state of exception when every nerve is laid bare, when a body is just fighting for the naked self-preservation of its own being-in-the-world. In contrast to the moral image of thought, an ethics of the id – like already in the Ethics of that great Jewish thinker Baruch de Spinoza – is an ethics of bodies. Bodies, not as separate objects but as centres of the condensing of worldwide fields by which they are not only surrounded but tightly approached and concerned: as wounded, vulnerable bodies exposed to the worldwide of a world.

Nietzsche, when writing in Beyond Good and Evil that his new image of thought assumes that thinking does not contradict the instincts, as in most cases conscious thought is “secretly guided and channelled into particular tracks by his (the philosopher’s) instincts” (Nietzsche 1998, p. 7), just articulates precisely what characterises any wild kind of thought, what characterises Art Brut in general: one thinks by and out of experiences of intensity. One is in a state of delirium. One dives sensorily into electrifying fields of intensity by which one is grasped and flooded. Art Brut is authentic exactly in this precise sense. Not in the sense of an authentic ego revealing naked life by its images but in the sense of an intensive experience of that transpersonal id all of us are flooded by all over the world, which makes itself felt from time to time, from occasion to occasion, and which makes itself artistically depicted. Art Brut is therefore not oedipal but cosmic art.


Arno Böhler

Arno Böhler was born in 1963 in Dornbirn, in Vorarlberg, Austria. He studied philosophy at the University of Vienna and Bangalore University in India, graduating with distinction. Following a research fellowship at the University of Heidelberg and a Schrödinger international fellowship at New York University and Princeton University, in 2002 he habilitated in philosophy at the University of Vienna, where he has already been teaching and researching for twenty years now.

His research focuses on intercultural philosophy, the history of philosophy and aesthetics. Within the scope of three research projects funded by the Austrian Science Fund (FWF), and working with his wife Susanne Valerie Granzer, actor and professor of performing arts at the University of Music and Performing Arts in Vienna (Max Reinhardt Seminar), Böhler founded the research festival “Philosophy on Stage”, and the research concept of “arts-based philosophy”, which has gained international recognition as role model for artistic research. In this context it was a logical development that in 2013, together with Susanne Valerie Granzer, he set up a residential programme for arts-based research//arts-based philosophy at the Tamil Nadu research centre in Southern India which they helped to found – BASE art philosophy ecology. He is currently leading the research project “Artist philosophers. Philosophy as arts-based research” (AR275-G21) at the University of Applied Arts Vienna, sponsored by the Austrian Science Fund. He was a visiting professor at the University of Vienna, the University of Music and Performing Arts Vienna, the University of the Arts in Bremen and the University of Applied Arts Vienna.