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Mental illness, developmental disability, and
their relationship to the creation of art.
Examples of what we’re talking about:
Mental illness: schizophrenia, bipolar disorder, OCD,
clinical depression (ie, depression as a disorder)
Developmental disability: autism, Down syndrome,
What we’re not talking about.
(For this week.)
• There are many, many artists who have had their talent
attributed to mental illness. For this week, we’re only speaking
of artists who have been conclusively proven to suffer from an
illness, not those that we can just speculate about.
There are two distinct categories of artists we’ll
be talking about this week.
• Trained, “insider” artists who also happened
to have a disability or illness
• Untrained, “outsider” artists, who have/had a
disability or illness.
This becomes a very tricky point. Trained artists have inherited a whole history
of art and a vocabulary of creating that may or may not clash with their own
instincts as informed by their illness or disorder. Untrained artists, while
technically unschooled in art (perhaps in anything) have more than likely had
input from well-meaning doctors and social workers who have encouraged their
work in one way or another.
Nobody creates anything in a vacuum.
A brief history of the treatment of mental disorders
Treatment of mental disorders,
late 1700s, early 1800s.
• Primarily left to the family and church to care for them
• People who had disorders were seen any of the following:
An object of dread or fear
An eternal child
A holy innocent
While treatment of persons with these disorders has certainly improved,
the above list still informs contemporary opinion and treatment.
Rise of institutions and asylums.
• In the mid to late 1800s, Western Europe and the US
started to move to a system of institutions and
asylums for housing people with mental illnesses
and disorders. Children who showed symptoms were
generally separated from their families (with their
family’s consent and approval) and sent to live in
structured school environments, often alongside
children suffering from physical illnesses and
disabilities (ie, blindness, etc).
• Many of these institutions were rather progressive,
kind, and humane - at this point.
The Athens Mental Health Center,
aka, the Athens Lunatic Asylum
• Psychiatrist and art historian, 1886-1933
We can see his interest in the institutionalized as an example of humane and respectful
Example from Prinzhorn collection.
• Paul Goesch: Horus Dismembered, nd
The Prinzhorn Collection
of the Psychiatric University Hospital in Heidelberg
• Gathered between 1919-1922, this collection has ~ 5,000 pieces of art in it.
• “Discovered” by Dr. Walter Morgenthaler at the Waldau Hospital, who went on to publish a volume of
Adolf Wolfli: The Crucifixion of Jesus Christ, 1917
From quot;Books with Songs and Dancesquot;
Art Brut - Jean Dubuffet
• A search for “authentic art” - both primitive (inc. children’s drawings) and
(which also coincided with largest immigration to the US at that time)
Degenerate art show
• 1937, Nazi Germany: cast modern art as the result of “degenerate”
minds. At the time, artists were very interested in the work of those
with mental illness, but this show cast a chilling effect on that.
Shift in treatment of
(1930s - 1940s)
• What was once seen as a long-term but temporary sentence
now became permanent, with those with more severe forms of
disabilities essentially being locked up and abandoned.
• The Depression and the World Wars complicated matters,
draining money and resources away from the care of the ill and
towards other causes.
It wasn’t until the 1960s and
1970s that major changes
were made to help those in
Pharmaceuticals were phased in as inhumane treatments such as
lobotomy and ECT were phased out.
Today, art programs to work
with patients in both in-patient
and out-patient treatment
centers are quite common.
For instance, Creative Growth in Oakland, CA, which
runs a gallery for participants to show their work in. The
field of “outsider art” has grown to the point where
galleries aggressively comb such programs looking for
Insistent, almost nonsensical use of text.
• Wesley Willis: The Dust Brothers
These are of course traits that trained, not-ill artists often seek to add to
Picasso: Weeping Woman, 1937 Joseph Beuys: How to Explain Pictures to a Dead Hare
Distortion Conduit between heaven and earth
In fact, much of modern and contemporary art appears to bear the marks
of artists who are mimicking the insane.
Photograph of a bed of a man who was brought to be institutionalized
Regardless of its implications, there remains
the notion of the “artistic temperament”
• Being moody, depressed, withdrawn or high-strung are all traits
we associate with an “artistic disposition.”
• It bears noting that no more than 2% of the population of
committed people ever create what can be considered art, even
by a very open definition.
• How does knowing that an artist suffered from mental illness
affect your interpretation of their work?
* Trained artists
Depression, of course, ended the lives of a number of well-known artists.
• Diane Arbus: Identical Twins, 1967
* Trained artists
• Mark Rothko: Red, brown, white, 1957
• Knowing what how an artist died - specifically if he took his own life -
can often add a layer of interpretation to their life’s work that may or
may not be appropriate.
This is a painting painted by Van Gogh in 1890.
This is the last painting Van Gogh created before he
Ironically, during the time
when institutionalization was
at its worst, psychotherapy
would become faddish for the
general public, all while
treatment of those
institutionalized got worse
Especially among artists, writers, and the “intellectual class,” it was quite
common to at least experiment with psychotherapy and remains so today.
Lynn Hershman Leeson: Roberta in therapy, 1978
For some artists, mental illness is simply something to live with.
Afflictions such as bi-polar disorder and OCD are fairly common.
• Dale Chihuly
The same can be said of some artists with physical
• Chuck Close
The experience of having had or currently suffering from an illness can
add extra information for the viewer.
• Vanessa Beecroft: Piano Americano Beige, 1996