brian carroll on 8 Mar 2001 06:54:06 -0000

[Date Prev] [Date Next] [Thread Prev] [Thread Next] [Date Index] [Thread Index]

[Nettime-bold] Re: madness and art

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

bc >
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 diagnosis.

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

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.




All enquiries to:

Nettime-bold mailing list