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March 31, 2002
Where Postmodern Art and Schizophrenia Intersect
By ELEANOR MUNROhe human mind, so fragile and so susceptible to trauma, pain and despair, also has wonderful recuperative powers and can find a kind of release through the processes of art.
That was the message of a recent conference at Cooper Union sponsored by the National Alliance of Research on Schizophrenia and Depression, or Narsad. The centerpiece of the event was "Mind Matters," an exhibition of paintings, drawings, prints and sculptures by artists with brain diseases.
At first look, there seemed little difference between these products of disordered mentality and work by postmodern artists. We are all, normal and abnormal alike, brain-centered, brain-driven. A half-century ago, the psychiatrist Karl Menninger proposed: "Gone forever is the notion that the mentally ill person is an exception. It is now accepted that most people have some degree of mental illness at some time."
Most of the artists in "Mind Matters" are integrated into society and its visual culture. All use their eyes to place themselves in the environment; each uses hands and mind to diagram the world, to make a home for consciousness in it, to stabilize themselves in space, perhaps to bring back ghosts of childhood.
The Narsad event began in Cooper Union's Great Hall with a trio of distinguished neurologists showing slides that illustrated, with melancholy objectivity, the many unknowns and relatively few knowns in brain science today. Oliver Sacks talked about the autistic artist Jessica Park, 40, who has endured a lifelong quest for "meaning" — the word was Sacks's — in paintings of fantasy architecture under color-flushed skies or stars. The autistic writer and animal expert Temple Grandin talked about panic states in cattle as they approach the slaughterhouse and her architectural strategies for dealing with them. In the exhibition gallery, her big architectural diagrams made a chill pendant to Ms. Parks's cool transcendent tropes.
Last, the author and chronic depressive Andrew Solomon spoke from experience when he deplored stigmatizing the ill. "Teach the recovered to forget," he urged. "Teach them to work; teach them to trust one another. And to find redemptive meaning in the experience." It was surprising, given the current art-world appetite for hype or nihilism, to hear that mellow, period word "meaning" spoken more than once.
One argument posed at the event was that artists with brain disorders should be regarded not as peripheral to the art world but as integral to it, making contributions on their own or from outpatient centers. One of the best known of these centers is the House of Artists at Gugging, Austria, a nation with a long history of work with the mentally ill. Among centers in this country are the Living Museum at Creedmore Psychiatric Center in Queens; the Fountain and Hope Houses in Manhattan, and the Creative Growth Art Center in Oakland, Calif. There is a growing need for this kind of shelter-workshop for patients whose art is sometimes used by their nonprofit guardians for raising money.
That circumstance is in itself a matter for debate. The profit motive, openly adopted by Narsad and other groups that sell, auction or otherwise use work by their constituents, is considered by some therapists and critics to deform the art by nudging it toward charm and marketability and away from expressive strangeness. But the deeper interest in art by the mentally ill lies beyond matters of commercial viability.
For nearly 100 years, a few psychiatrists and art historians have surveyed the art of the so-called insane and come up with mostly anecdotal readings of it. Between 1918 and 1921, the German psychiatrist Hans Prinzhorn gathered a huge collection of such work, now housed in a museum in Heidelberg, and wrote about it. The subject lost its appeal during the psychopolitical upheavals of the last century, but in recent years, the European and New York art markets have named and promoted what they call Outsider Art, including primitive, ethnic, folk, street and other marginal idioms. The embrace has pushed up prices while shaping a few celebrity profiles. But the issue of how really to interpret this private, burdened mode of expression by the mentally afflicted is no frivolous art-world matter.
The subject raises questions about the nature of the creative mind and its relationship to the world out of which it comes. How does the atypical brain experience the world we share? In what respects does art made by these individuals reflect the different realities they experience? To what extent, and in what aesthetic terms, do their works embody the fear and bewilderment they may endure?
Further, what insights about the normal brain's involvement with that world we call "real" might be gained if the art of the abnormal, in all its strangeness, could be decoded? Can the so-called normal mind hope to penetrate the symbolism and arcane graphic modes of brains whose very structure, it now appears, is anomalous? Even this: does the genetically unusual mind preserve information about the evolution of thought long lost to the mainstream?
Eventually the questions come down to the relationship these works bear to mainstream creations. In time, and armed with its phenomenal new technologies, neuroscience may penetrate the deep grammar of abstract aesthetic forms like lines, colors, structural metaphors for space and time employed by artists in the throes of their emotions or vision.
For example, what features are signs — perhaps in advance of breakdown or violence — of mental instability? Can tension in a graphic contour be read as a signal of rage or suicidal pain? The creative discipline of art therapy searches those signs for diagnostic and treatment purposes. But nontechnicians and people not proficient in abnormal psychology also respond to the pressure of another mind's struggle against its vulnerability. Moreover, aesthetic empathy — that is, visceral feeling for the shapes and actions of forms in all the arts — is so basic to the postmodern Western mind that no work should be entirely foreign to it.
"Sometimes I wonder how those who do not write, compose or paint can manage to escape the . . . panic fear which is inherent in the human condition," Graham Greene wrote, echoing other artists and writers and, no doubt, some mentally ill. The painter Alice Neel, once hospitalized for anxiety, made use of her drawn line to spell out the states of hysteria she shared with some of her subjects.
Similarly, obsessional markings, dots or little jiggles comparable to works by the Japanese obsessive-compulsive artist Yayoi Kusama can fill up a page to suffocation.
In the Narsad show were Melvin Way's tiny, cramped graphic works and Jonathan Stark's boundry-crowding one-line drawings. Michael Madore, a sufferer from autism, paints fermenting dashes and squiggles that conceal menacing fugitive faces, but he also makes maps and diagrams that serve, he said in an interview, to "dimensionalize" his being in the world.
Is shrill or cacophonous, saturated or somber color a cry of pain or grief? Kandinsky called his city scenes "yellow enough to cry," and Rothko's canvases darkened along with the condition of his mind. Elizabeth Hughes's black stains and splashes on white rag paper seemed heavy with night fears, and a painting of multiheaded figures by Bohil Wong, a sufferer from schizophrenia, made one's eyes sting with empathy for their oddity. But that is also a feature of work by Louise Bourgeois.
THE power of such works comes from our psychic identification with the process of their making. They are not made for art's sake but for the mind's relief. The end of the doing is the end of the work, when process has served to siphon off the restlessness or anxiety.
"When the works work, they work," said Margaret Bodell, who, with Caroline Kennedy, initiated the Outsider Art Fair 10 years ago. These two humane curators helped guide Narsad in shaping this one. "I love the success stories. When it comes to art, everyone is on a level playing field."
One success story is the formerly homeless artist Curtis Cuffie, who assembles works of street detritus. "It got my life together; got it out of being lost," he explained over a cup of coffee. "The things I find, they talk to me. I take them home. Spread them out. If the wind coming in through the screen blow them together, if I see two be touching when I wake up in the morning, then I have a work. You have to have an open mind."
When asked what he'd like to do now that his kind of art has been taken seriously, he said: "What more I'd like? To go in the back side of neighborhoods where people think it's their last hope, and I would make art to liven them. That's how people come to me and read my art. I was working day and night, all the time. It was a long sweet journey, a glorious trip through a time, past and future all combined in one. Now I understand Noah's Ark. Two of everything."
A Noah's Ark for the mind in a dangerous, restless world may be what this relatively new, fervent advocacy is all about.