Showcase Sunday: Art through the prism of Madness - Beauty, Suffering and Medical Science

in OCD2 years ago


Madness. We think of it as a mental illness or somebody’s abnormal behavior. It is not only the obviously trashy but mainly the falsely important, the falsely beautiful, the falsely clever, the falsely attractive. Madness is suffering for mad, but it resulted in beautiful creations that others enjoy. Throughout the history of human beings, we have witnessed the beauty of art created through the suffering of mental illness.

All creative art is magic, is evocation of the unseen in forms persuasive, enlightening, familiar and surprising, for the edification of mankind, pinned down by the conditions of its existence to the earnest consideration of the most insignificant tides of reality.
(An Appreciation, 1905. Joseph Conrad, Henry James)

Reality. It isn't easy and simple to understand the creations of artists and writers who suffered mental illness. People look at it through the prism of our reality, our real world. There has always been the shadow of another world for artists, one that was only attainable through art, fiction, and imagination. It is this world that prevents their heroes and heroines from utter despair that becomes their refuge in a life that is consistently brutal.

For it was through his artistic perspectives that Henry James saw reality. In his portrait of Lambert Strether, the man from Woollett, he created one of his finest frames.
(The Madness of Art, 1982 p-81. Walter Wright)

In the arena of mental illness the battle rages on, partly because the stigma is so great that people don’t come forward, partly because its sufferers are sometimes unable, as a result of their disabilities, to come forward, partly because society rationalizes that people with mental illness simply are different and deserve to be treated differently.
(Refusing Care: forced treatment and the rights of the mentally ill, 2002 p-2. Elyn Saks)

They who will the truth always will to depreciate the high power of the false: they make life an error and this world and appearance. They therefore oppose the knowledge of life and the world, they oppose the world, a world beyond, the truthful world. The truthful world is inseparable from this will to treat this world as an appearance. Thus the opposition of knowledge and life, the distinction between worlds, reveals its true character: it is a distinction of moral origin, an opposition of moral origin.

Madness, the Phaedrus suggests, offers the original glimpse of a truth that is both unmediated and uncontaminated by and inaccessible to language. For Socrates, the metaphysical order of the eternal ideas precedes language, and language, as a medium that always both over- and under-represents the idea must necessarily distort it.

To question the value of truth is not only a great, perhaps the greatest daring – it seems that it is a no more important undertaking. Nietzsche pretends to wonder that he is the first to ask the question about the value of truth, but his own work suggests that it did not have to be asked earlier since it was never before a matter of truth alone since there never was any truth independent of moral imperatives, imperatives always stronger than the imperative to know.

Only beauty exists both for the soul’s and the body’s eye; as the only concept that is equally powerful as an idea and as an image, it crosses the philosophical line between the intelligible and the perceptible that Socrates draws in the Republic. The sight of beauty, therefore, can lead to a flash of insight into the realm of truth that in its unmediated suddenness will drive the beholder mad.

Philosophical desire springs from this wordless moment of madness, which it needs to overcome in order to become philosophy. Perhaps, in the end, the language of philosophy relates to its truth as the ugly Socrates relates to the beautiful boy, and as a human reason to divine madness.
(The Abyss Above: Philosophy and Poetic Madness in Plato, Holderlin and Nietzsche, p-13, 2002. Wilke-Maria Weineck.)

The painting of the mentally ill has fascinated artists and their public throughout the 20th century. Yet the psychological, as well as an art-historically interesting topic can be traced back over a long period in the history of Western culture. Aristotle emphasizes that all humans who create great works, such as artists, philosophers, poets, and politicians, are prone to melancholy, that excess of black gall which is characteristic of artists and depressive. Although Plato distinguished between creative and clinical mania, the topos of "genius and madness" prevails up to our century. The cult of melancholy is taken up by Marsilio Ficino and becomes fashionable among the artists of the 16th and 17th centuries.

During the Romantic period of the early 19th century, the psychologically unstable or even sick intellectual and artist becomes the focus of attention. Artistic madness is glorified in an almost mystical fashion. However, disillusionment was soon to follow. Schopenhauer, Lombroso and many physicians stress the close relationship between genius and madness. However, they judge madness to be merely morbid and negative. During the 20th century, the artists of the avant-garde show much interest in psychoanalysis and in the art of the mentally ill. The rise of National Socialism brought about a drastic break in the appraisal of the art of the mentally ill, which today is an acknowledged factor in contemporary art.

In most societies, mental illness carries a substantial stigma or mark of shame. The mentally ill are often blamed for bringing on their own illnesses, and others may see them as victims of bad fate, religious and moral transgression, or witchcraft. Such stigma may keep families from acknowledging that a family member is ill. Some families may hide or overprotect a member with mental illness—keeping the person from receiving potentially effective care—or they may reject the person from the family. When magnified from individuals to a whole society, such attitudes lead to the underfunding of mental health services and terribly inadequate care. In much of the world, even today, the mentally ill are chained, caged, or hospitalized in filthy, brutal institutions. Yet attitudes toward mental illness have improved in many areas, especially owing to health education and advocacy for the mentally ill.

The symptoms of mental illness can be very distressing. People who develop schizophrenia may hear voices inside their heads that say nasty things about them or command them to act in strange or unpredictable ways. Or they may be paralyzed by paranoia—the deep conviction that everyone, including their closest family members, wants to injure or destroy them.

People with major depression may feel that nothing brings pleasure and that life is so dreary and unhappy that it is better to be dead. People with panic disorder may experience heart palpitations, rapid breathing, and anxiety so extreme that they may not be able to leave home. People who experience episodes of mania may engage in reckless sexual behavior or may spend money indiscriminately, acts that later cause them to feel guilt, shame, and desperation.
(Saints, Scholars, and Schizophrenics: Mental Illness in rural Ireland, 2001 p-136. Nancy Scheper-Hughes)

Even in the early part of the 20th century, mental illness was almost a sentence of doom, and mentally ill persons were handled with cruel confinement and little medical aid. In the latter half of the century, successful therapy for some mental illnesses has greatly improved the prognosis for these diseases and has partly removed their stigma.

Dr. Kogan has combined his professional pursuits by giving lectures and performances that explore how the psychiatric illnesses of the great composers influenced their creative output. He answered that there is an intimate connection between mental illness and creativity, especially with bipolar disorder.

High with mania, people with bipolar experience increased energy, imagination, and rapidity of thought.
(Creativity and Mental Illness, April/June 2004. Daniel Frey)

It is customary to define psychiatry as a medical specialty concerned with the study, diagnosis, and treatment of mental illnesses. This is a worthless and misleading definition. Mental illness is a myth. Psychiatrists are not concerned with mental illnesses and their treatment. In actual practice, they deal with personal, social, and ethical problems in living.
(The Myth of Mental Illness: Foundation of Theory of Personal Conduct, p-262, 1974. Thomas Szasz)

Although powerful institutional forces lend their massive weight to the tradition of keeping psychiatric problems within the conceptual framework of medicine, the moral and scientific challenge is clear: we must recast and redefine the problem of mental illness so that it may be encompassed in a morally explicit science of man.

Human behavior is fundamentally moral behavior. Attempts to describe and alter such behavior without, at the same time, coming to grips with the issue of ethical values are therefore doomed to failure. Hence, so long as the moral dimensions of psychiatric theories and therapies remain hidden and inexplicit, their scientific worth will be seriously limited.

Artists, good ones that are, mirror the world for us. Theirs is a necessary gift - feeding our souls - because they seek out little flints of light in an essentially unhappy world and light us up. And a selfless one - scraping out that creativity takes its toll, whole patches of skin may come off with one poem, or a play. Theirs is the gift of premonitions, and we should judge them in this context. They may be bad artists with attitudes. But the real geniuses we should defend and show the utmost respect because to them we owe innumerable truths and laughter and a sense of the absurd and intelligence - the very breath of the human soul. Their gifts to us are precious and immeasurable.


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