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<nettime> Re: madness and art
brian carroll on 9 Mar 2001 19:00:15 -0000

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<nettime> Re: madness and art

nn > where is madness in art +?
nn > + certainly must ask - where is madness in all this +?

bc > http://www.rawvision.com/back/madness/madness.html
bc > [requested the full article but received no response...]


David Maclagan looks at the links between creativity and psychosis.


Art and madness have such a long history, going all the way back to
Plato's ideas about the different forms of mania (one of which would today
be called poetic inspiration), that their association seems necessary and
inevitable. Artistic creativity, since the Renaissance at least, has a
long tradition of being linked to extremes of passion and eccentricity and
hence seen as dangerously close to a madness once thought to have a
passionate basis. With modern psychiatry and the medicalisation of
madness, a certain class of art-work has emerged, tying these strands
together: 'psychotic art', work of remarkable artistic power created by
patients designated as mad.

Psychotic art satisfies several fantasies about art and madness
simultaneously. It appears as something like the (il)logical conclusion to
all that is most wayward and idiosyncratic about artistic creativity, an
image of how originality can go over the top or over the edge: at once a
warning and a challenge. But it has also been seen from the other side, as
offering a window into what would otherwise be inaccessible: its
extraordinary images seeming to give on to the private worlds of delusion,
hallucination or delirium.

This association of 'art' and 'madness' conjures up the fantasy of
elaborations and investments in both form and content that are uncoupled
from normal constraints or inhibitions: works created out of a more
'inner' necessity than usual exist on the tantalising edge between public
and private. Part of the fascination of psychotic art is that we can
imagine that we are eavesdropping on some solitary monologue, allowed to
trespass on someone's inner world.

According to Deleuze and Guattari, such 'inner' worlds are seldom as
private or subjective as they are assumed to be: 'It is characteristic of
the libido to occupy the social field in unconscious forms, to rave about
civilisations, continents and races and to have an intense 'feeling' for
world futures.' (Anti-Oedipe p 117 my transl). Adolf Wolfli's work, with
its geographical, scientific and cosmic excursions, seems a perfect
illustration of this.

Another fantasy that psychotic art encourages is that someone has lost
control of the normal devices of expression or communication, so that what
is usually subordinated to some end or purpose (decoration or ornament,
for example) seems to behave as if it has a mind of their own. What was
originally a signature in the corner of the Voyager Francais' painting
develops into a complex pattern that completely takes over his work. How
can we tell whether the obsessive, relentless character of some psychotic
art is due to some overpowering internal pressure of thought, that bends
everything to its need, or whether the process works from the outside in,
prompted by accidental marks or the hypnotic effects of their repetition?

The actual art-work of madness, for all the obstacles it presents to
conventional modes of 'reading', is still on the edge of comprehension,
rather than beyond it (I think this is the meaning of Foucault's claim
that 'where there is a work, there is no madness').

But the fantasy remains that madness is an extreme, even more driven, form
of the inspiration that propels most artists (one thinks of Wolfli
grumbling that he had so much work to do that it would be enough to drive
him mad, if he were not mad already). On the contrary, deep inside many
'ordinary' experiences of art-making there are forms of 'madness', not
necessarily pathological, but involving the temporary dissolution of many
of the normal boundaries between inside and outside, real and imaginary,
that in a more permanent form are characteristic of psychosis. This
secret, invisible core of madness, affects any spectator open to it,
rather than its more spectacular institutionalised versions, that
constitutes the real link between art and madness.


Some features of the popular idea of links between art and madness:

We should reconsider some of these popular or habitual fantasies about art
and madness that continue to influence our thinking, images, rather than
facts or experience; but that does not diminish their power, indeed it
might be said to augment it.

First is the idea that artists are constitutionally abnormal or
exceptional: they see, feel, think more intensely than other people (the
Jackson Pollock syndrome). Then there is a darker, more judgemental
version of this: artists are neurasthenic, hyper-sensitive, unstable or
driven by a compulsion that over-rides commonsense, decency, or usual
consideration for others (the Gilbert and George syndrome). Then there is
the idea that artists live in worlds of their own, confuse inner and outer
realities, and find meaning in obscure things (the Tate pile of bricks
syndrome). Finally, there is the notion that artists suffer, not just
because of such internal or psychological factors, but through external
ones -- misunderstanding, lack of appreciation and financial hardship (the
Van Gogh syndrome). This suffering is often thought of as a kind of
stimulation for their art (the nightingale sings more sweetly when impaled
on a thorn).

In a slightly different form many of these fantasies also apply to
madness. Like the artist, the mad person is supposed to be a prey to
unusually strong feelings: sometimes joy, but usually rage, despair or
terror. These feelings are excessive and imaginary, and may be aggravated
by the fact that the mad person seems to have lost contact with (external)
reality and does not see the world as we do: behaviour or language is
abnormal, leading us to conclude that they suffer from distortions of
perception of thinking, or have delusions and hallucinations. Their world
of delusion is not only symbolised by their actual confinement in a
psychiatric institution, it may indeed be aggravated by it.

Artists are imagined heroically as being fuelled by a compulsion to
create, or more tragically, as preys to inspiration: driven in one way or
another to make art for reasons they can barely explain. Psychoanalysis
often gives a special twist to these peculiarities, suggesting that the
unconscious motive behind artistic creation is some trauma or deficit in
early life, whose effect can be detected in certain irregularities or
repetitions in the resulting imagery.

If psychosis is imagined to involve the overwhelming of ego-control by
unconscious forces, then it is no surprise that psychotic art is imagined
as being even more compulsive, driven by some instinctual or automatic
process, independent of conscious control.

In many ways the image of the psychotic artist is a mirror-image of the
artistic genius: someone who creates in a spontaneous, uninhibited way,
but who often appears tormented or crucified. So it is hardly surprising
that in the first half of this century psychiatry seized on psychotic art
as providing direct evidence of the typical processes of mental illness.
Yet even among officially designated psychotics, those who created art
were already a minority (in Prinzhorn's time (c.1920) he estimated perhaps
2 per cent). Whether creators such as Wolfli or Aloise were or were not
psychotic, to some extent their art-work could be subject to the same

There are a number of ways these links between art-works and mad mental
states may be thought of. First, they may be looked at from a symptomatic
perspective. In psychoanalytic readings of art the symptoms are usually
neurotic: they make themselves felt through interference with a work's
intentional aspects, rather than in an unadulterated form. But in
psychotic art stylistic features, such as distortion, overcrowding, sexual
symbolism or impenetrable obscurity are more directly aligned with the
psychiatric symptoms of mental illness. Prinzhorn, in his pioneer work
'Artistry of the Mentally Ill' (1922), elaborated the most sophisticated
version of this, although in the latter part of his book he effectively
undermines its clinical reliability. Other psychiatrists were less subtle:
a number of books from the same period in which features of early
Modernist art (Cezanne, Kandinsky) are bluntly diagnosed in psychiatric
terms (e.g. schizoid tendencies).

Significantly, the stumbling-block for both modern art and psychotic art,
according to Prinzhorn, was the attempt to depict a world of 'pure psychic
qualities' without recourse to any existing conventions. If such features
of the 'inner world' cannot be immediately expressed, then what tends to
take their place are 'instinctual mechanisms', such as rhythmic
repetition, physiognomic perception, or stylistic formalism.

Nevertheless, both expressive art and psychotic art still tend to be seen
as direct imprints of the artist's 'inner world': all the more so when
madness involves those spectacular contaminations of outer-world
perception labelled hallucination or delirium. At its most naive, this
'window on the mind' model assumes a facsimile identity between the art
imagery (presumably, but not necessarily, figurative) and the artist's
dream, vision or hallucination. Less dramatic versions concentrate on the
inflection of component features such as line, colour or composition, seen
as involuntary and expressive signatures of the artist's self.

Trained artists are supposed to have the skills to convey whatever mental
state they experience (hence their use in mescalin experiments such as
those carried out by Guttmann and Maclay in the 1930s), therefore they
might be expected to give the most vivid 'picture' of madness. A
celebrated example of this is William Kurelek's 'The Maze'; yet the more
one looks at the carefully staged vignettes inside the artist's head, the
more contrived they appear, and the more manipulative their effect feels

An art-work can also be seen as an exaggerated or distorted expression, in
terms of its departure from some kind of norm or expectation. Such
distortions may be accidental, or involuntary and thus symptomatic; or
they may be more deliberate, and thus ambiguous or ironic. Without
background or context it is difficult to decide on the balance between
these. The psychiatric use of art-works as diagnostic indicators seems to
depend on the dubious assumption that representations of the human figure
by patients without any art training will normally have regular shape and
proportions, and that any departure from these can be directly related to
disturbance or disorder.

Even if we shift the emphasis from examples predicated on deficit or
failure (for example Navratil's early diagnosis of Johann Hauser as
suffering from 'innate constructive apraxia' (1978)) to ones that involve
exaggeration or excess, we are still left with the question, whether the
sorts of disturbance at issue here are only to be comprehended within
psychiatry's framework of psychopathology. In their different ways,
Foucault, Deleuze and Hillman have each challenged any straightforward
identification of 'madness' in its creative manifestations with mental
disorder or psychopathology.


What kind of 'Madness'?

The 'madness' these features connect with is a much broader and more
diverse phenomenon than that categorised in modern psychopathology.
Plato's varieties of 'mania' are forms of divine visitation or enthusiasm,
connected with love, atonement, divination and poetry. True, they are
dangerous and may be both effect and cause of some injury to the liaison
between body and soul; but they are associated with excess, possession and
with something beyond the norm, whereas other forms of 'anoia' (un-reason)
stem from ignorance or deficiency.




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