BREAKING BOUNDARIES:

ON ART & MENTAL ILLNESS TODAY

Clara Bolle, July 2020 

‘Mental illness and modern art almost completely overlap each other’, Janos Marton says. Marton is the sole staff member of the Living Museum, part of the Creedmoor psychiatric centre in New York state. Marton started the Living Museum thirty years ago, but it is run almost entirely by patients with mental illnesses. ‘It’s not therapy’, Marton explains, ‘We don’t worry about mental illness here’. To Marton, it is more important ‘to change your identity: think of yourself as an artist instead of a mentally ill patient’. However, if there is no notable difference between art created by professional artists and art created by psychiatric patients, then why do we still speak of ‘outsider art’? 

The Tate defines outsider art as ‘art that has a naïve quality, often produced by people who have not trained as artists or worked within the conventional structures of art production’. What is the difference between art therapy and artists who use their work to express their feelings? It seems artificial to draw up a distinction between outsider art and professional art. We do not think of friendship and love as either professional or amateur. When it comes to life we are all radical amateurs. So why do we still use the phrase ‘outsider art?’

The push and pull between the arts and psychiatry is embedded in our collective memory. Traces of the fascination about the link between creativity and mental illness can be found in the writings of the Greek philosopher Aristotle. In his writings on melancholia, Aristotle wonders why the most brilliant of men, like Socrates and Plato, were also very troubled. 

Tim A Shaw, Jasmine Lodge. Courtesy of Hospital Rooms. Photography by Damian Griffiths

Aristotle concludes that these men were so brilliant despite their melancholia (a general term for all kinds of mental health problems in ancient times). Melancholia itself does not fire the creative spirit, said Aristotle. On the other hand, philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche argued that mental illnesses (which he described as ‘madness’ at the time) can be conductive to creativity.

 

During the 20th century, the relation between psychiatry and the arts started to shift. Inspired by the writings of Nietzsche, the French philosopher Michel Foucault asked himself who decides what is normal and what is deemed to be deviant. According to Foucault, ‘normalcy’ is made up by those who are in power to supress those who are seen as threats to society, including people with mental health problems. Foucault fought against this by leading an anti-psychiatric wave calling for more rights for psychiatric patients and for patients to have a voice on the boards of hospitals. During the seventies, this was a small revolution and to this day patients staying in mental health hospitals have their voice protected by law. In the art world, there was a similar revolution going on at the same time: outsider art or l’art brut.

Nicola Bealing, Greenfields Unit. Courtesy of Hospital Rooms. Photography by Damian Griffiths

It could be argued that the outsider art movement, in this case art made by psychiatric patients, took off with the work by the German psychiatrist Hans Prinzhorn. In 1922, Prinzhorn published Bildnerei der Geisteskranken, or in English: Artistry of the Mentally Ill. It is an interesting book in this setting because Prinzhorn was not only a psychiatrist but also an art historian. In his book, Prinzhorn analyses the mental health of his patients based on their work but, crucially, regards them as artworks in themselves. The book influenced a lot of artists, particularly Jean Dubuffet. Dubuffet coined the name ‘l’art brut’. To Dubuffet, ‘outsider art’ was the truest form of art. ‘These artists derive everything (…) from their own depths, and not from the conventions of classical or fashionable art’, Dubuffet writes in his statement L’art brut préféré aux arts culturels. Outsider art was an anti-movement: anti-bourgeois and anti-academic. Most of all, outsider art was regarded as a form of emancipation.

 

Fast-forward to the year 2013, when the Venice Biennale dedicated most of its pavilions to outsider art. The title of the Venice Biennale was The Encyclopedic Palace, a kind of school of life, where all experiences and knowledge were on display without any hierarchy in an imaginary museum. For a brief moment, outsider art was trendy. Much like Dubuffet wrote, ‘outsider art’ is widely deemed to be authentic, honest and pure, since there is no capitalist purpose involved. However, the inclusion of ‘outsider art’ in the Venice Biennale represented a turning point where ‘outsider’ art became absorbed into the capitalist realm. It’s now used to frame and sell art as authentic whilst continuing to perpetuate the notion that those who made the work are ‘outsiders’.

There are other ways to examine the relationship between art and psychiatry aside from ‘outsider art’. In the UK, there are different art projects dealing with mental health from a fresh perspective. Ben Wakeling started Outsider Gallery after his own experience staying in psychiatric hospital.

Lothar Gotz, Hellingly Centre. Courtesy of Hospital Rooms. Photography by Damian Griffiths

‘Even when I was low I only wanted to draw, no surface was safe from my markers’, Wakeling says. Initially, he wanted to give back to the NHS by working for them, but in his first couple of weeks as a care worker, he got in trouble as he says he couldn’t control his compulsion to draw. However, something interesting happened and Wakeling found that patients started to take an interest and engage with him. He found himself going from nearly being fired to demonstrating that art can make a real difference in patients’ lives. ‘At the Outsider Gallery, we don’t really care if we create art or not. We make images because that is what comes natural to us. Being part of a community and learning to communicate in different ways is paramount to work with this specific group. It’s ethics over aesthetics’, Wakeling explains.  

 

For Tim Shaw from Hospital Rooms, the term ‘outsider art’ is not what springs to mind right away when he speaks about his grassroots project. Shaw and Niamh White started Hospital Rooms when one of their friends was hospitalised at an inpatient ward. They were shocked when they visited their friend: ‘Any attempts at having art on the walls lacked care and thought. We work specifically in locked wards because these are the places and people that often have very little access to art and culture and to projects like ours. Over the years, we have commissioned hundreds of ambitious artworks for mental health units around the country. All patients in the units (and staff) can take part in all our workshops and we make sure that we spend as much time as possible in the units, visiting and making the artworks.’

Nina Royle, Jasmine Lodge. Courtesy of Hospital Rooms. Photography by Damian Griffiths

Richard Wentworth, Hellingly Centre. Courtesy of Hospital Rooms.

Photography by Damian Griffiths

When speaking to the initiators of these different art projects, it seems as if ‘outsider art’ as a term is no longer relevant. Another commonality is that all of the projects began out of a personal need. The same goes for Boys Don’t Cry UK, an organisation run by Marcus Nelson. ‘I am personally a big supporter of outsider art. I have always felt like an outsider myself in a lot of ways. The art world, particularly in London, can be very snobby and elitist, so I have always been drawn to both artists and artwork that is accessible and open for all to engage with.’ Nelson started the community Boys Don’t Cry UK during his student years at Central Saint Martins to bring more attention to the alarming rise of male suicides in the country. ‘We decided that we wanted to create a community of artists who could not only have a platform to express themselves and their mental health, but also provide them with a community where they could collaborate with and support each other.’

 

One of the participants of Boys Don’t Cry UK is the artist Harry Hugo Little. Last summer, Little was invited by Nelson to join his community after his brother, also a student at Central Saint Martins, committed suicide. With the rest of his family, Little also decided to create the Julius Little Foundation in honour of his late brother. The foundation is in its early days but he has high hopes for it: ‘We want to reach out and provide mental health services for those who need it the most. Thanks to budget cuts, the NHS mental health units are severely understaffed. This means that a lot of people don’t get much needed care. When asked about providing art therapy, Little says: ‘Art therapy would be lovely, of course, but right now basic mental health care is needed’. 

 

The intersection between mental health and the arts has been a topic of discussion throughout history. Only since the beginning of the twentieth century has art history taken notice of the images created by people with mental illnesses. It took another several decades to coin the term ‘outsider art’. ‘Outsider art’ as a movement changed the way we view mental health, art therapy and patients’ rights for good. Today, ‘outsider art’ as an art movement might not be as relevant as it was during the seventies and eighties. However, the healing quality of art is clear and access to mental health services vital. I would argue that the term ‘outsider art’ itself is unhelpful in creating boundaries and perpetuating the stigma of people with mental illnesses as ‘outsiders’. Let’s keep breaking boundaries.

Julian Opie, Jasmine Lodge. Courtesy of Hospital Rooms. Photography by Damian Griffiths 

© 2020 by Assemblage Magazine.

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