The Art of the Insane
Art, in its infinite forms, has always had a voice apart from its creators. Its existence evokes certain dimensions of individual realities that are collectively implicit in the consciousness of the observer. Nonetheless, every effort to understand its subtleties entices one to consult the maker’s standpoint, even if it just scratches upon the surface.
Artworks of the past have mesmerized the common people with its inspiring rendition of everyday observances and for years, art critics and psychologists have wondered what motivates these artists to create something extraordinary out of a conceptual idea. This has led to development of categories that stipulates the characteristics found in each work of art. One of these types is Outsider art which are works created by people who have no prior artistic training, yet each is expressed in a remarkable tradition.
The curator of the Collection de l’Art Brut in Lausanne, Michel Thevoz, offered a simplistic definition for Outsider art, stating that such works do not follow the standards in artistic modalities and are usually drawn out from the depths of an artist’s personality. Outsider accounts for the raw and the pure – uninhibited and untainted (Hall ; Metcalf, 1994).
The recognition given to Outsider Art today is attributed to the French Artist, Jean Dubuffet, who had coined the phrase Art Brut or Raw Art, which is now commonly associated with Outsider Art works. It was said that Dr.Hans Prinzhorn’s book Bildernerei der Geisteskranken (Artistry of the Mentally Ill), had inspired Dubuffet to take a closer look at the artworks created by psychiatric patients who displayed an artitstic style.
This has led to the creation of the Compagnie de l’Art Brut in 1948 which sought to gather works that demonstrate extreme individuality and inventiveness by artists, who were not only untrained, but often had little comprehension of the standards art.. These works did not show any relations to the developments in contemporary art but in its own right, it exhibited the individual’s art expression with vigor and inventiveness (Zolberg & Cherbo, 1997).
As a result of this discovery among individuals with mental disabilities, psychologists and other medical experts subscribe to the benefits of Art therapy. According to the American Art Therapy Association, art therapy is rooted on the belief that the creative process that is inherent in making art produces both healing and life-enhancing effects. It is said to be a form of expressive therapy which employs the use of art materials in order to to improve or maintain the mental health and emotional well-being of the individual (American Art Therapy Association, 2008).
The medical program or treatment is carried out between the licensed practictioner or art therapist, and the client who experiences illness, trauma, or challenges in daily living. The program combines traditional psychotherapeutic theories and techniques in understanding the psychological aspects of the creative process when a patient creates a work of art (American Art Therapy Association, 2008).
The methods applied usally consist of drawing, painting, sculpture, photography, and other forms of visual art expression. Licensed art therapists are trained to recognize the nonverbal symbols and metaphors that are communicated within the creative process, symbols and metaphors which might be difficult to express in words or in other modalities (American Art Therapy Association, 2008).
Its affective properties determines the afflictions that undermines the individual’s personal growth and development and helps the individual to become more responsive to others and one’s own desires and fears and instilling a life-affirming perspective (American Art Therapy Association, 2008).
According to MacGregor, the process of art-making is seen as an invitation to immerse oneself in a trasnformational self-expression of one’s own individuality. This view also holds that undergoing such creative processes could encourage a healthy growth development (MacGregor, 1992).
Relations between art and the medical industry has spawned new discoveries in determining the factors that elucidates the correlation between the psychology and art as a medium. Medical experts in the field of Psychiatry such as Arnold Ludwig, Sigmund Freud and Cesare Lombroso attempted to make sense of the normative behaviors of artists that triggers them to produce a distorted view of their realities through art but concrete explanations on the vitality of the presence of madness still needs to be confirmed through more observations.
Ludwig’s conclusion on the studies conducted in mental health institutions indicate that though mental health and creativity does not mean an art genius, a dash of madness was said to have enhanced a remarkable creative streak that separates them from the other standards of art form. Sigmund Freud’s sexually-grounded explanation had determined that the works of Leonardo and Michaelangelo seemed to be rooted on the unacceptability of their sexual deviances. With regard to Lombroso’s expert opinion, he drew out a retrogression of personality as he had observed with mentally ill patients who had reverted back to their childhood days when inspired in creating art (MacGregor, 1992).
No matter which school of thought one would like to believe, it has been proven that people with mental disabilities have an uncanny ability to produce unique artworks. For instance, the notable Henry Darger was a solitary man who was orphaned and institutionalised as a child though he had produced 15,000 pages of text and hundreds of large scale illustrations, including maps, collaged photos and watercolors that depict his child heroes “the Vivian Girls” in the midst of battle scenes that combine imagery of the US Civil War with fanciful monsters (Zolberg & Cherbo, 1997).
Another example is Alexander Lobanov who was a deaf and autistically withdrawn Russian known for his detailed and self-aggrandizing self-portrait which usually includes images of large guns (Zolberg & Cherbo, 1997).
One of the most famous outsider artists to be recognized is Adolf Wölfli. Wölfli was a Swiss artist who was confined to a psychiatric hospital for most of his adult life, during which time he had produced a vast amount of drawings, text and musical compositions that detailed his solitary life (Hall & Metcalf, 1994).
Another outsider artist that is under the same vein is Friedrich Schröder-Sonnenstern who was a German born in Lithuania. His troubled youth had placed him in correctional institutions and mental asylums for years, affecting him until adulthood. After being caught impersonating to be a licensed doctor, he was detained in prison where he met an artist who inspired him to draw. His artwork mostly contains sharp and often sexually charged imagery that depicts his repressed sexuality (Hall & Metcalf, 1994).
Artworks have a way of telling the stories of the individuals who create them. It is in art that individuals express themselves wholly to their perspective realities. Art-making may seem like a personal endeavor for an individual but its significance carries an underlying notion of human frailty. Medical experts must tap into this so that people with psychological problems may benefit from the uninhibited processes of recreation that enhances the image of the self and the surrounding environment. Providing more facilities that supports troubled individuals in a creative environment might be able to unlock new discoveries in the medical field of mental health.
American Art Therapy Association. About Art Therapy. Retrieved on November 3, 2008 from http://www.arttherapy.org/
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Hall, M. D. & Metcalf, E. W. (1994). The Artist Outsider: Creativity & the Boundaries of Culture. New York: Smithsonian Institution Press.
MacGregor, J. M. (1992). The Discovery of the Art of the Insane. New York: The Princeton University Press.
Zolberg, V.L. & Cherbo, J.M. (1997). Outside Art: Contesting Boundaries in Contemporary Culture. New York: Cambridge University Press.