Art and the Discovery of Sanity Through Madness

What is madness? How can madness be defined? Banned from all psychological practice, madness is a concept that still lurks in the literature and in the public consciousness, having lost none of its potency. It is no longer a clinical term for pathological condition, but even the origin of the word, stemming from the Latin “non compos mentis”, goes beyond physiology, implying a defect in reasoning rather than simply a defective brain. Madness is therefore not merely a “disease”, but a “state of mind” that breaks away from the commonly accepted state of normality, carrying with it connotations of fear, mystique, and fascination. I will argue that this very madness exists everywhere around us, in a form that has been accepted since the beginning of time and that has from the onset of modernism become even more prominent and important, namely madness in the form of art. I shall further argue that the reason for such a quiet acceptance is that this madness serves a very important purpose in our lives and that it is in fact absolutely indispensable ‘” that it is in many ways a guardian of our individual sanity.

Across time public attitudes have been shown to consistently characterize the mentally ill as unpredictable, dangerous, and not responsible for their actions. In literature the mentally ill are rebellious free spirits, enlightened outsiders, homicidal maniacs, narcissistic parasites, or dehumanized asylum inmates ‘” all of them being merely the stereotypes of the “sane” general public rather than the reality of such conditions. Therefore in considering madness, this essay will focus primarily on schizophrenia, not only because it is considered to be one of the most severe psychopathological conditions, but also because it is a condition that produces most art works, compared to other psychopathologies.

One common view of symptomology in general is that it is completely alien to the “normal” human being, who simply cannot fathom or process this experience. This view, which is still imbued in several areas of modern psychiatry, was most explicitly stated by Jaspers (cited by Saas, 1990), who claimed that “schizophrenic symptoms defy any attempt at empathic comprehension”, being “otherworldly”. However, it is the opinion of this author that this is not the case.

In fact, if the above stated views are indeed correct, all artists should be committed to their nearest mental facility immediately, and so should anyone who are empathetic to their work. Anyone of us who have seen the paintings of van Gogh, who allegedly suffered from schizophrenia, would agree that the world portrayed in his artworks is strikingly different from the one we inhabit, and yet eerily familiar. We find that his work speaks to us on a distinctly different level; it seeps into our “inner space”, corresponding somehow our “inner world”, reflecting a particular mood or feeling that is beyond words to describe. Such is the nature of art. In fact, according to Frank Barron the very essence of the creative personality is the “ability to transcend the ordinary boundaries of consciousness, to break through the regularities of perception, to go beyond the given world, [and to] create a private universe of meaning”. In other words, in order to create we need to disregard the world “as it is” and instead see it as it “seems to be” to us personally.

One of the clearest examples of this attitude is to be found in surrealism, an art form solely preoccupied with the internal human state as a measure of “true reality” ‘” reality as it is seen or rather as it is felt by a particular artist. While the naturalists desperately try to approximate their work to the objectivity of the natural world, the surrealists disregard it completely. Instead create a sense of “super reality”, where life is more real than real, and where there are as many worlds as people. It is in fact within the surrealist tradition that images and objects most reminiscent of the schizophrenic condition can be found ‘” art of unrecognizable shapes scattered in unfamiliar landscapes yet evoking a burning, and deeply personal feeling of familiarity. It is the visions of the almost forbidden world of sudden parallels and petrifying coincidences, a description that could be taken straight out of a journal of a person suffering from schizophrenia.

Another artistic attitude, spawned by the writings of the Russian Formalists, the avant garde critics who inspired by poetic experimentation, defined art as “defamiliarization”(otstranenie), while Mukarovsky, called it deautimatization, whereby art is in its essence a way of overcoming the numbing of perception that accompanies the automatizing of actions frequently performed. This by definition requires to “step out of oneself”, to somehow willfully induce a sense of madness, of “Stimmung”, forcing oneself to perceive the world differently, seeing even the most mundane actions and objects in a different light. It is as if being born again. In fact, there are many peculiar parallels between the artworks of young children, schizophrenic patients, and the formalist painters, suggesting that “Stimmung” is not a unique attribute of the “mad”, but is instead present from the very beginning and plays an important role in normal human development.

However, the acceptance of madness extends far beyond art. It governs the very epitome of collective spiritual expression, namely religion. Miracles, supernatural beings, strange visions, and divine missions dictated by the Creator of All Things sound like a textbook case of a schizophrenic condition, yet they are commonly accepted, embraced and aggressively defended by religious communities all around the world. Comforted by the principle that “billions of people can’t be wrong”, the religious communities (of every denomination) prove that madness is a point of view. What is commonly accepted is sane by definition, making the disbelief in the Secret Plan of the Unseen Creator absolutely mad in a stringent religious population.

Ultimately, both the above mentioned forms of artistic expression, as well as the expression of genius and madness itself can be viewed as abandonment of “normality”, of the uniformly accepted worldview, a voyage in search of the True Self or the True World, thus allowing the unconventional to emerge. Art gives voice to our inner world, a world that cannot be expressed with words, and that remains uncharted for most of us. However, what this essay hopefully demonstrated is that madness is not the brand of the damned, nor is it a unique category for the mentally ill. It is instead an umbrella term for extremity, where we are all on a continuum.

It should therefore come as no surprise that when presented with an array of artworks produced by formalist, and surrealist artists, alongside the works of mad artists such as van Gogh and Munch alongside the paintings of their sub-clinical artistic peers, neither laypersons nor mental health professionals could distinguish the works that were the products of troubled psyches. Certain psychology textbooks however, seem to give the impression that such a distinction is possible, suggesting perhaps that all “nonrealistic styles” of art are products of disordered minds.

Summary, Final Thoughts and Conclusion

Psychology after all is a science, and as such it is bound to confine itself to certain objective criteria. It is concerned with the greater good, and as such it reduces the multiplicity of life and complexity of the human psyche to a few neat and manageable averages, calling them objective and generalizing the knowledge deduced from them to the entire population. However, art remains a constant warning against such simplification, because the world of art is a colorful and vibrant world, full of contrasts and contradictions and where no two artists are alike. It reminds us of the uniqueness of the individual, and the need for an individual psychological approach, which would be specifically tailored for each and everyone. Naturally certain basic constructs remain intact in all of us ‘” love, hate, fear, envy, and desperation bind us all together, but they are all experienced and expressed in a different way and are often outside of our awareness. The “mad artist” can reflect this collective sub-consciousness perhaps more effectively because of the lack of conventions in his approach, because of the extremity of his experiences, and because of his alienation from the rest of the world as a result of such experiences. One might argue that this is the purest form of artistic expression, whereby art is an inevitable product of self-expression. Such art also becomes a powerful barometer, signaling the ills and concerns of our time.

By searching for the “objective”, we will ultimately find ourselves in a cold and alien world, lacking in emotion and instinct, populated by individuals completely detached from life, from themselves and from each other ‘” a place that is no longer suited for human beings. Only by acknowledging that reality comes from within and that “madness” is a subjective experience of a world we all perceive differently, can we hope to progress, mend, and understand ourselves.

During the process of creation the meaning of the piece might be unknown to the artist, but on reflection it might be revealed, thus summarizing the very purpose of Freudian therapy, namely to bring the unconscious into the conscious realm. This can be painful. Enlightenment comes at a price, yet those of us standing in art galleries, sitting in concert halls or dark movie theatres can reap the fruits of the Land of Madness without such sacrifice ‘” for a price of a post-modern Big Mac meal or two. Perhaps it is thus, through the madness of others, through these extreme and exaggerated manifestations of emotions and thoughts, that we acknowledge our own, and ultimately retain our sanity.


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