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Anticultural Positions*

Jean Dubuffet


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 many persons.

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 worth.

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 does he 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 and logic.

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 ideas. 

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 to it.

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 surrounding it.

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 thought.


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 usual one.

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 not 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 also 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 of art?

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 the 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 expression.

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 them.

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 simultaneously.

In addition, 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 the painter.

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 yet perceived.

Here is, I think, for artists, a much more worthy job than creating assemblages of shapes and colors pleasing for the eyes.


*Lecture given by Jean Dubuffet at the "Arts Club of Chicago" Thursday December 20th 1951. This article appears courtesy of Jonas Mekas.

Jean Dubuffet (1901-1985) was one of the most important French painters and sculptors of the Twentieth Century.


Logos 5.2 - spring/summer 2006
© Logosonline 2006