Anthropologists of the Mind
Madge Gill, Untitled, two sided drawing #2 Ink on paper, back graphite on paper–
And yet real art brut, that is to say individualistic creation against the force of winds and of tides and even at the cost of one’s own life, one’s health, one’s mental equilibrium, or which occurs as the consequence of previous disasters: the two sometimes being indivisible. The visceral art of these self-taught creators, often illiterate or on the edge of sanity, occasionally continues to surprise us.
So wrote Laurent Danchin in the first issue of Raw Vision, (which describes itself as a journal of Outsider Art, Art Brut, Contemporary Folk Art and Marginal Art) published in 1989. At a recent symposium on Outsider Art at Tate Modern, (an event to which there were far more subscribers than could be accommodated, such is the appeal it seems, of Outsider Art), it appeared to me that some experts in the field of “Outsider Art” have an ethos similar to that of the anthropologist with their voyeuristic gaze, appropriating the work of those they deem exciting, primitive and exotic.
In some ways one can understand the propensity to look to the “other” (the Outsider) for a more exhilarating model of cultural thought and consciousness, due it seems to dissatisfaction with the materiality and elitism of Western art practice and culture.
. . . bored by the interminable degeneracy of fine art, whose evolution has led to a series of even more vain and intellectualised performances which are hard to follow. A new public is becoming apparent, looking for something else: signs symbols, myths even rituals which can help it survive in this new hyper-sophisticated civilisation which has severed man’s links forever from his peasant ancestors. (Laurent Danchin. 1988.)
Working in a secure hospital with an innovative and perceptive group of artist-patients I was told by one man that he did not want to be marginalised, he did not want to be an “Outsider”. He just wanted to be accepted for what he was and he resented the implication that he was “other”.
I have to be honest; I too have an inclination towards the radical, the subversive gaze. It challenges the stasis of mediocrity and the illusory foreground of a reality hidden from the dominant paradigm, the prevailing model. It is, however, through my work in hospitals that I began to have concerns about “Outsider Art” and its field of occupation and criteria for authenticity. If there is a case to be answered by what seems to be a lucrative and flourishing genre for academics and dealers alike then what is that case, and where do we place the art of those in emotional or spiritual crisis, or who are defined as mentally ill or disabled? Trapped between encumbered medical connotations of the pathologising aspects of art therapy and the vagaries of “outsider art” with its elitist notions of authenticity, it seems that the pure creative process needs to be re-claimed by those creative persons who just want to create without being challenged to be authentic. A patient-artist in a secure hospital once said to me; “Art gives me a way of recreating spirit, mind and body”. Perhaps it is as simple as that.
In some ways I have to agree with David Mclagan in the previous edition of ASYLUM Magazine that there may be some value in the view that certain states of mind manifest certain types of art-making, but not to present a reductionist notion that types of drawing reveal a clear and indisputable pathological inclination on which a diagnosis can be based. Here, it seems we are moving into art therapy territory which does overlap in some aspects with the “Outsider” field. In such collections as the Prinzhorn Collection in Germany the work came initially from a desire to understand mental illness through the drawings of those who were defined as such. Again the notion of a search for “authenticity” rears its head:
During its search for authentic art at the beginning of the Twentieth Century, the Modern movement discovered not only ‘primitive art’ and children’s drawings, but also “psychotic art”. Simultaneous to this a number of psychiatrists began eagerly collecting their patients’ pictorial works, although this was principally in the hope that these could be used to assist diagnosis . . . They use aesthetic means to convey an understanding of extremes of human feeling and experience – often of a pre-linguistic nature, as is encountered in psychoses – and of how these are assimilated in madness, which has its own specific mental horizons. This ‘other’ view of life appears to be quite hermetic, yet we for our part are generally unaware of the relativity of our own thinking, as laid down and shared by the society we live in. These works enable us to experience an underlying dimension of humanity that is potentially present in us all.
It is on the level of sharing an experience, and an underlying dimension of humanity that is present in us all, that I can see the most significant enrichment in the artwork of those defined as mentally ill.
My most inspiring engagement with art and mental illness was at the “Living Museum” set within the vast complex of the Creedmoor Psychiatric Center in Queens New York, founded by Bolek Greczynski, a Polish artist, and Dr. Janos Marton, a trained artist and psychologist at Creedmoor. They colonized Building 75, a gigantic space that was formerly the kitchen and dining hall. Patients with a range of diagnoses ceased to identify themselves as mental patients and began to see themselves as artists. Director Dr. Janos Marton says:
Artists at the Living Museum don’t really care about the diagnoses: they ignore labels,” and Dr. Marton wrote in the catalog for a show of work at the Queens Museum in New York: “What counts is their behavior, the outcome of their labor. It’s not therapy. It’s art that matters.
And even though artists from the Living Museum sell their work from time to time in American Galleries, they do not define themselves or use the ticket of “Outsider Artists.” Dr. Marton wrote in the catalogue to their show:
“Outsider Art doesn’t apply to the artists at the Living Museum in the sense of a defined code, mainly because of the diversity of various styles that defy simple category”, he also wrote: “There is no common denominator amongst these artists. There is no common style defined by mental illness, by the brutality of confinement, or by the hope for healing.”
I too organized an exhibition of art from a secure hospital, work that would not be seen were it not for the co-operation of staff at the hospital. This exhibition was never proposed as an exhibition of “Outsider Art” but was interpreted in a published critique as such. What came through loud and clear in the public response to the work was the courage of the artists and its shared humanity, a gift indeed for anyone. I wrote an accompaniment to the exhibition entitled “Art and Mind”,
What you see here are a series of snapshots, of journeys through memories and inner experience, manifest in visual form by people who use art as a means of articulating states of mind, often via intuitive and spontaneous impulses, driven by an inner need and often a compulsion to understand. It is important for us not to sensationalise, or to interpret the work in a directly literal way. The symbolism within the work often reveals linguistic metaphors of recollections and memories in which the patient-artist is searching for a deeper understanding of her/his psychic experiences. In many ways this is, in an intense and concentrated way what all artists intend in constructing visual language as a means of discovering meaning and reality in their perception of the world.
Just as anthropology went through its crisis of identity, “antropologists of the mind” have their own territories of colonisation and exotic analysis. As such, I feel that “Outsider Art” should re-examine its premise in a more consultative and inclusive way with those upon whom the gaze falls.
This article was first published in ASYLUM Magazine (2003).
John Holt is an artist and writer and was a Fellow in Art and Design at Loughborough University and founder of A.I.M. (Artists in Mind) an organisation set up to promote and explore creativity in those in emotional and spiritual crisis within a safe environment.