Madness and Art: Is The Artist a Holy Madman?

Societies, wherever they are, need someone to articulate the unspoken feelings of the community, and help to resolve conflict and confusion. In the Old Testament, for example, priests offered sacrifice to reconcile the community with each other and with their deity. Artists have to some extent taken on this role in the 20th century. Especially in the shocked and appalled aftermath of World War II, people had many terrifying feelings to deal with. The members of the movement known as l’Art Brut, and others, drew a connection between art and madness, art and mysticism, and art and outsider status for whatever reason.

Jean Dubuffet draws a parallel between artistic and feverish frenzy. Tapie saw artists as some sort of modern-day mystics. Artaud saw the artist as compelled to appear mad In order to preserve productivity. Every community must find ways to get along with each other and deal with the inevitable disagreements and frictions that arise. Communities also find ways of dealing with toxic fears, hostilities, and betrayal.

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This can take the form of, for example, religious observances, or accusations of witchcraft, or shamanistic activity. The artist, as an individual, set apart by his gift and craft, can also express ideas that are too difficult for the community to put into words, or that need to be preserved. Consider the caves at Lascaux, where the fears of the community about the dangers and the success of the hunt are displayed on the walls. Thus, the role of the artist as a lightning rod for inexpressible feelings is well established. In many communities over time, those with mental illness (or physical deformity) have given form to difficult ideas.

Conversely, those who gave voice to unwelcome ideas or just very different ideas have been have also been labeled as mentally ill. From the Romantic era in the 1800s onward, the link between art and a diagnosis of mental illness was made explicit[1]. World War II was horrifying in many ways, from the treatment of Jews and others by the Nazis, to the destruction of the atomic bomb. It is reasonable to infer that that, after all these horrors, people in Europe must have been filled with painful and difficult feelings. However, how might they express them? How might they heal? There were no shamans anymore in Europe, and organized religion had done little to prevent the awful actions of the war. Art was one way that painful thoughts could perhaps be safely expressed.

Artaud makes this quite explicit. He was an actor and playwright who promoted a type of drama he called Theatre of Cruelty. He himself had issues that caused him to be treated for mental illness[2]. He was also somewhat obsessed with Vincent Van Gogh[3].

He used Van Gogh’s experience as a metaphor for the artist’s relationship to the larger society. In discussing the experience of Van Gogh, he asserts that society labels people as mad who utter “intolerable truths” [4]. These are the difficult ideas noted previously. He also suggests that society makes the artist mad.

He asserts that going mad is an artist’s adaptive response to the pressures of society, by preserving his, “superior idea of human honor”[5]. Artaud lays out his idea as follows: And what is an authentic madman? It is a man who preferred to become mad in the socially accepted sense of the word, rather than forfeit a certain superior idea of human honor. SO society has strangled in its asylums all those it wanted to get rid of or protect itself from, because they refuse to become its accomplices in certain great nastinesses.

For a madman is also a man whom society did not want to hear and whom it wanted to prevent from uttering certain intolerable truths. … There are great sessions of worldwide spell-casting in which all alerted consciousnesses participated…Thus, on the occasion of a war, a revolution, or a social upheaval still in the bud, the collective unconsciousness is questioned and questions itself[6]. This statement by Artaud reflects his knowledge of Jungian psychology and his sense of drama. Jean Dubuffet, a founder of a movement that he called l’Art Brut, seems to have agreed that the reasons that some people were labeled mad were hardly well defined. L’Art Brut has impact even today[7]. This movement focused attention on the art of residents in mental institutions, self-taught artists, and others not from the ‘academy’[8]. Today we call such art ‘outsider art’.

Dubuffet also asserts that there is not much difference between the supposedly mad and the supposedly sane, especially for artists. He draws on the tradition of linkage of art and altered states. Dubuffet makes a rather confused connection between the feverish state of artistic creation and the feverish state of mental disorder[9]. He says, “This distinction between normal and abnormal seems to us to be quite far-fetched: Who is normal? Where is he, your normal man? Show him to us! The artistic act, with the extreme tension that it implies, the high fever that accompanies it, can it ever be considered normal? Finally, mental illnesses are very diverse – there are almost as many of them as there are sick people, and it seems quite arbitrary to label them all in the same way. Our point of view is that art is the same in all cases, and there is not more an art of the mad than there is an art of the dyspeptic, an art for those with bad knees. [10] He seems to be trying to say that art should be viewed as art, without reference to the mental stability of the artist.

Nonetheless, he encouraged the display of the art of people whose credibility was questionable. He thereby may have strengthened the connection in people’s minds, including, perhaps, in the minds of artists themselves, between being ‘different’ and being creative. Michel Tapie, in his essay entitled An Other Art[11], refers to the 16th century mysticism of St. John of the Cross[12]. He seems to be suggesting that the artist is the modern equivalent of a religious mystic, or can be, or should be. He speaks of vast issues that the artist should confront[13]. He describes his ambition for the artistic individual as follows: The individual only remains himself in collective experience in so far as he takes these experiences in hand, by using them to develop his personal potential.

This supposes a total confidence, as well as faith, in something incommensurable and undiscussable.”[14] Here, Tapie is referring back to the notion of the artist as one who can articulate those things that no one else can. All these ideas fit together with the mood of the time in post-war Europe. The artist is the victim of the ills of society.

The artist is also the ‘canary in the mine’ of society’s ills. The artist faces and deals with concerns that are beyond fashion in art. These ideas set the artist apart and in some sense above the rest of the population. These ideas also make art a barometer of the state of the world, and a mystical interpreter of truth. Beveridge, Allan. “A Disquieting Feeling of Strangeness?: the Art of the Mentally Ill”.

J R Soc Med. 94(11): pages 595–599. Archived in http://www.ncbi. Accessed April 2011. New World Encyclopedia. “Antonin Artaud”.

2011. http://www.newworldencyclopedia.

org/entry/Antonin_Artaud (Newworldencyclopedia 2011) Artaud, Antonin. “The Artist Suicided by Society” In Harrison C. and Wood, P. Art in Theory: 1900-2000.

(Oxford, Wiley-Blackwell, 2002). Page 608. (Artaud 2002, 608) ibid Abcd gallerie.

“l”Art Brut”. 2011. Abcd Gallerie.

com. 2011. Accessed April 2011.

(abcd gallerie 2011) (abcd gallerie 2011) (Beveridge 2001) Dubuffet, Jean. “Crude Art Preferred to Cultural Art”, in Harrison C. and Wood, P. Art in Theory:1900-2000.

(Oxford, Wiley-Blackwell, 2002). Pages 605-608. Tapie, Michel. “An Other Art”.

In Harrison C. and Wood, P. Art in Theory: 1900-2000.

(Oxford, Wiley-Blackwell, 2002). Page 630. Merton, Thomas. “St. John of the Cross”. Biographicon.


Accessed April 2011. Tapie, Michel. “An Other Art”. In Harrison C. and Wood, P.

Art in Theory: 1900-2000. (Oxford, Wiley-Blackwell, 2002). Page 630 Ibid.


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