Brut Elegies

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University of New Brunswick


In 1922, German art critic and doctor Hans Prinzhorn published his landmark text Bildnerei der Geisteskranken. In this work, he presented groundbreaking analyses of visual art composed by the institutionalized and so-called mentally ill, raising provocative questions about the innate creative tendencies of humans and the correlation between neurodivergence and creativity. While Prinzhorn’s text represents a formative treatise in human cognition and psychology, its importance to the art world cannot be overstated. Prinzhorn’s analysis established the foundation for what French artist and critic Jean Dubuffet would later designate as art brut, loosely defined as works by untrained individuals isolated from the stultifying influences of popular culture and the mainstream art world. In Dubuffet’s estimation, such works comprise the closest humankind can come to pure expression: an art uncorrupted by social norms, peer pressure, and the artist’s own self-consciousness. In the following collection of poetry, titled Brut Elegies, I reflect upon and respond to the visual works of institutionalized artists whose pieces were collected and studied by Prinzhorn and which formed the foundation of Dubuffet’s analysis. The poems incorporate biography, traditional poetic forms, and ekphrasis to engage with the subject matter on multiple fronts and deliver a diverse representation of the works and their creators. This collection is accompanied by a critical introduction to art brut and my poetic process, as well as an essay that delves into the ekphrastic act, offering a close reading of three ekphrastic poems and exploring how ekphrasis lends itself especially well to the consideration of themes of marginalization, fetishization, and spectatorship.