I think, not only in
the arts, but also in many other fields, an important change
is taking place, now, in our time, in the frame of mind of
It seems to me that
certain values, which had been considered for a long time as
very certain and beyond discussion, begin now to appear
doubtful, and even quite false to many persons. And that, on
the other hand, other values which were neglected, or held
in contempt, or even quite unknown, begin to appear of great
I have the impression
that a complete liquidation of all the ways of thinking
whose sum constituted what has been called humanism and has
been fundamental for our culture since the Renaissance, is
now taking place, or, at least, going to take place soon.
I think that the increasing
knowledge of the thinking of so called primitive peoples,
during the past fifty years has contributed a great deal to
this change, and especially the acquaintance with works of
art made by those peoples, which have much surprised and
interested the Occidental public.
It seems to me that
many people are beginning to ask themselves if the Occident
has not many very important things to learn from these
savages. Maybe in many cases their solutions and their ways
of doing, which first appeared to us very rough, are more
clever than ours. It may be that ours are the rough ones. It
may be that refinement, cerebrations, depth of mind are on
their side and not on ours.
Personally, I believe
very much in the values of savagery. I mean instinct,
passion, mood, violence, madness.
Now I must say I donít
mean to say that the Occident lacks savage values.
Even so, I think that
the values held up by our culture do not correspond to the real
frame of mind of the Occident - I think that the culture of
the Occident is a coat which doesnít fit him, which, in any
case, doesnít fit him anymore. I think this culture is very
much like a dead language, without anything in common with
the language spoken in the street. This culture drifts
further and further from daily life. It is confined to
certain small and dead circles as a culture of mandarins- it
no longer has real and living roots.
For myself, I aim for
an art which would be an immediate connection with daily
life, an art which would start from daily life, and which
would be a very direct and very sincere expression of our
real life and our real moods.
I am going to enumerate
several points concerning the Occidental culture with which
I donít agree.
ONE OF THE PRINCIPAL
CHARACTERISTICS OF Western culture is the belief that
the nature of man is very different from the nature of other
beings of the world. Custom has it that man cannot be
identified, or compared in the least, with elements such as
wind, trees, rivers- except humorously, of for poetic
rhetorical figures. The western man has, at least, a great
contempt for trees and rivers.
On the contrary, the so
called primitive man loves and admires trees and rivers. He
has a great pleasure to be like them.
The primitive man
believes the blossoming of the man is to be found by
developing what, in the man, is like trees and rivers, and
becoming something as a super-tree, a super-river.
He believes in a real
similitude between man and trees and rivers. He has a very
strong sense of the continuity of all things, especially
between man and the rest of the world. Those primitive
societies have surely much more respect than Western man for
every being of the world; they have a feeling that man is
not at all the owner of the beings but only one of them
among the others.
MY SECOND POINT OF
DISAGREEMENT with Occidental culture is the following one:
Western man believes that the things he thinks exist outside
exactly in the same way he thinks of them. He is convinced
that the shape of the world is the same shape as his reason.
He believes very strongly that the basis of his reason is
well founded and especially the basis of his logic.
But the primitive man
has neither an idea of weakness of reason and logic, nor
believe in other ways of thinking, that is why he has so
much esteem and so much admiration for the states of mind
which are called delirium and madness by us. I am
convinced art has much to do with madness and aberrations.
I think this
disposition of mind is also fairly characteristic of the so-called primitive societies.
NOW, THIRD POINT: I
want to talk about the great respect Occidental culture has
for elaborated ideas. I donít regard elaborated ideas as the
best part of human function. I think ideas are rather a
weakened rung in the ladder of mental function, something
like a landing where the mental processes become
impoverished, like an outside crust caused by cooling.
Ideas are like steam
condensed into water by the conflict with the evil of reason
I donít think the
greatest value of mental functioning is to be found at this
landing of ideas and it is not at this landing that they
interest me. I aim rather to capture the thought at a point
of its development prior to this landing of elaborated
The whole art, the
whole literature and the whole philosophy of the Occident rests
on the landing of elaborated ideas. But my own art, and my
own philosophy, lean entirely on stages more underground. I always
try to catch the mental process at a deeper point of
its roots, where, I am sure, the sap is much richer.
FOURTH: OCCIDENTAL CULTURE IS
VERY FOND of analysis. I have no taste for
analysis and no confidence in it. One thinks, everything can
be known by way of dismantling it or dissecting it into all
its parts, and studying separately each of these parts.
My own feeling is quite
different. I am more disposed on the contrary to always
recompose things. As soon as an object has only been cut in
two parts, I have the impression it is lost for my study. I
am further removed from this object instead of being nearer
I have a very strong
feeling that the sum of the parts does not equal the whole.
My inclination leads
me, when I want to see something really well, to regard it
with its surrounding whole. If I want to know this glass on
the table, I donít look straight at this glass; I look at
the middle of the room, trying to include in my glance as
many objects as possible.
If there is a tree in
the country, I donít bring it into my laboratory to look at
it under my microscope. I think the wind which flows through
its leaves is necessary for the knowledge of the tree and
cannot be separated from it, as well as the birds which
are in the branches, and even the song of these birds. My
turn of mind is to always join the tree with more things
I have been on this
point for a long time, because I think this turn of mind is
an important aspect of my art.
THE FIFTH POINT IS THAT OUR
CULTURE is based on an enormous confidence in
the language - especially the written language - and on a
belief in its ability to translate and elaborate thought.
That appears to me to be a misapprehension. I have the impression
that language is a very rough stenography, a system of
algebraic signs that are very rudimentary, which impairs thought
instead of helping it. Speech is more concrete, animated by
the sound of the voice, intonations, a cough, and even
making a face and mimicry, and it seems to me more
effective. Written language seems to me to be a bad
instrument. As an instrument of expression, it seems to
deliver only a dead remnant of thought, more or less as
clinkers from the fire. As an instrument of elaboration it overloads thought
and falsifies it.
I believe (and here I
am in accord with the so called primitive civilizations)
that painting is more concrete than written words and is a
much richer instrument than written words for the expression and
elaboration of thought.
What is interesting
about thought, is not the instant of transformation
into formal ideas, but the moments preceding that.
My painting can be
regarded as a tentative language fitted for these areas of
I NOW COME TO MY SIXTH AND
LAST POINT, which deals with the notion of
beauty adopted by Occidental culture.
I want to begin by
telling you how my own conception differs from the
The usual conception
states that there are beautiful objects and ugly objects,
beautiful persons and ugly persons, beautiful places and
ugly places, and so forth.
Not I. I believe beauty
is nowhere. I consider the usual notion of beauty to be completely
false - I refuse absolutely to assent to this idea, that
there are ugly persons and ugly objects. This idea is
stiffing and revolting to me.
I think the Greeks are
the ones who were first to purport this invention -
that certain objects are more beautiful than others.
The so-called savage
peoples do not believe in that conception at all and they do
understand when you speak to them of beauty.
This is the reason one
calls them savage. The western man gives the name of savage
to one who does not understand that beautiful things and ugly
things exist and who does not care for that at all.
It is strange
that for centuries and centuries, and now more than
ever, the men of the Occident dispute which things are
beautiful and which are ugly. All are certain that
beauty exists without doubt, but one cannot find two who
agree about the objects which are so endowed. And from one
century to the next it changes. In each century Occidental
culture declares beautiful what it declared ugly
in the preceding one.
The rationalization of
that is that beauty exists, but it is hidden from view for
many people. To perceive beauty requires a certain special
sense, and most people do not have this sense.
One believes that it is
possible to develop this sense, by doing exercises, and even
to make it appear in persons who are not gifted with this
sense. There are schools for that.
The teacher in these
schools states to his pupils that there is without doubt a
beauty of things, but he has to add that people dispute
which things are endowed with that, and that people have so far
never succeeded in establishing it firmly. He invites his
pupils to examine the question in their turn and so, from
generation to generation, the dispute continues.
This idea of beauty is,
however, one of the things our culture prizes most and it is
customary to consider this belief in beauty and the respect
for this beauty as the ultimate justification of Western
civilization. The principle of civilization itself is
involved with this notion of beauty.
I find this idea of
beauty a meager and not very ingenious invention, and
especially not very encouraging for man. It is distressing
to think about people being deprived of beauty because they
are too corpulent or too old. I find even this idea - that
the world we live in is made up of ninety percent ugly
things and ugly places, while things and places endowed with
beauty are very rare and very difficult to meet - I must say,
I find that idea not very exciting. It seems to me that the
Occident will not suffer a great loss if it loses this idea.
On the contrary, if it becomes aware that there is no ugly
object nor ugly person in this world and that beauty does
not exist anywhere, but that any object is able to become
fascinating and illuminating, it will
have made a great stride. I think such an idea will enrich
life more than the common idea of beauty.
And now what happens
with art? Art has been considered, since the Greeks, to have
as its goal the creation of beautiful lines and beautiful
color harmonies. If one abolishes this notion what becomes
I am going to tell you.
Art, then, returns to its real function, which is much more
significant than creating shapes and colors agreeable for
so-called pleasure of the eyes.
I do not find this
function, assembling colors in pleasing arrangements, very
noble. If painting was only that, I should not lose one hour
of my time to this activity.
Art addresses itself to
the mind, and not to the eyes. It has always been considered
in this way by primitive peoples, and they are right. Art is
a language, an instrument of knowledge, an instrument of
I think this enthusiasm
for the language of words, which I mentioned before,
has been the reason our culture started to regard painting
as a rough, rudimentary, and even contemptible language,
good only for illiterate people. From that, culture
invented, as a rationalization for art, this myth of plastic
beauty, which in my opinion, is an impostor.
I just said, and I
repeat now, painting is, in my opinion, a language much
richer than that of words. So it is quite unclear to look
for rationalizations in art.
Painting is a language
much more immediate and, at the same time, much more charged
with meaning. Painting operates through signs which are not
abstract and incorporeal like words. The signs of painting
are much closer to the objects themselves. Further, painting
manipulates materials which are themselves living
substances. That is why painting allows one to go much
further than words do in approaching things and conjuring
Painting can also - and
this is very remarkable - conjure things, which are not isolated, but
linked to all that surrounds them; a great many things
painting is much more immediate and much more direct than
language of words; much closer to the cry, or to the dance.
That is why painting is a way of expressing our inner
voices much more effectively than words.
I just said painting
allows, especially much better than words, one to express
the various stages of thought, including the deeper levels,
the underground stages of mental processes.
Painting has a double
advantage over the language of words. First, painting conjures
objects with greater strength and comes much closer to them.
Second, painting offers to the inner dance of the painterís
mind a larger door to the outside. These two qualities of
painting make it an extraordinary instrument of thought, or
if you will, an extraordinary instrument of clairvoyance,
and also an extraordinary instrument to exteriorize this
clairvoyance and to permit us to get it ourselves along with
Painting now can
illuminate the world with wonderful discoveries, can endow
man with new myths and new mystics, and reveal, in infinite
number, unsuspected aspects of things, and new values not
Here is, I think, for
artists, a much more worthy job than creating assemblages of
shapes and colors pleasing for the eyes.
given by Jean Dubuffet at the "Arts Club of Chicago"
Thursday December 20th 1951. This article appears courtesy
of Jonas Mekas.
Dubuffet (1901-1985) was one of the most important
French painters and sculptors of the Twentieth Century.