PRINT Summer 1990


The Art of the Insane

The Discovery of the Art of the Insane, by John M. MacGregor. Princeton: at the University Press, 1989, 390 pp., 29 color and 168 black and white illustrations.

THIS BOOK IS A treasure trove of information, a masterpiece of detective work and intellectual archaeology: John M. MacGregor has undoubtedly succeeded in his “historical reconstruction of the process” whereby the art of the insane “entered consciousness for the first time as a reality of scientific and aesthetic significance.” Of special interest to an art audience is MacGregor’s theory of the psychiatrist Etienne Georget’s influence on Géricault’s paintings of psychotic patients, and the meaning of these pictures; his comparison of the relationship of the popular 19th-century British painter John Martin’s works to those of his insane brother, Jonathan Martin; and his account of “insanity in the context of Romanticism” and, later, of Expressionism and Surrealism. And MacGregor’s evaluation of the intense interest of Hans Prinzhorn and Walter Morgenthaler, among other psychiatrists, in the art of the insane, an interest at once investigative and therapeutic—Adolf Wölfli, perhaps the most famous of modern psychotic artists, was Morgenthaler’s patient—should attract psychiatrists concerned about the humanistic as well as the scientific import of their field.

But the not-too-hidden ulterior motive of MacGregor’s research is to secure a major place for the art of the insane in the temple of art. The psychiatric and connoisseur fascination with art made by patients certifiably insane has mushroomed lately into a celebratory excitement, as though this justified art as such, and were the royal road to the understanding of creativity. MacGregor’s book is thus an important step in the campaign to move the art of the insane out of the asylum and into the museum, not to speak of the market. The question is whether the move from the first of these institutions to the second makes such art more credible, and how its presence in the museum reflects on the other works there. MacGregor wants to do for the art of the insane what has been done for naive art, namely to show, in Bernard Dorival’s words, that it is “equal in dignity, in quality, even in financial value” (the clincher) to the art of the ostensibly sane artist. His position is that the muse of irrationality is more formidable than the muse of rationality. Indeed, he means to give the art of the insane not just parity with that of the sane but a kind of priority to it: the art of the insane, he believes, is qualitatively superior by reason of its profounder “human voice, that, in moments of freedom and silence, we recognize as our own.” Without quite realizing it, MacGregor implies that in the last two centuries there has been a fundamental reorientation of taste: art that seems more irrational than rational has come to be preferred—even over art that has struck a balance between the two, or between the childish and the adult, the ahistorically archaic and the traditionally accepted style. Immature, insane art has come to have greater power over us than a realized, accomplished, truly complex style that signals human as well as artistic maturity.

Thus the real question this book raises—and suggestively answers—is why Western society has come to idealize seemingly uncontrolled (“direct”) expression, in whatever artistic form (whether labeled primitive, naive, insane, or otherwise). Why does controlled expression seem anathema, except for everyday communication? MacGregor adopts Jean Dubuffet’s answer: we have realized that the art of the insane is inherently more authentic than that of the sane, which always depends on “an artificial and irrelevant aesthetic.” Dubuffet in effect locates the old debate between the natural and the artificial, the spontaneous and the calculated, personal expression and public communication, private symbolism and social signs, on a new field of action: the art of the insane. And MacGregor accepts this.

But the whole argument, made most persuasively by Karl Jaspers and André Breton, that the art of the insane is “free of exterior influence and restrictions, free of calculated efforts intended to lead to profit or prestige,” depends on an assumption of the dualism between the authentic and the inauthentic. And this is and always has been a false dualism—particularly obviously today, when whatever is freshly declared to be authentic quickly becomes banal. Clearly, authenticity lies partly in the eye of the beholder, like beauty. And not only are the authentic and the inauthentic inextricable from each other, but both ore inner necessities. Why is one of them regarded as more to the human point? Such thinking, in my opinion, has ultimately to do with our age’s taste for new sensations. Right now the art of the insane is sensational, and to writers like MacGregor its inauthenticity cannot even be imagined. But as he himself implicitly admits—in, for example, his acknowledgment that much insane art is heavily dependent on the style, whether high or popular, of its day—this work too has a certain admixture of the “artificial” to it. Insane art would be trivial, in fact, without the twist it gives a conventional style.

Furthermore, the expressive edge that this twist gives the art of the insane is no guarantee of worth. The expressive subtlety and complexity of the best art is lost in this work—not even in sight. The elegant harmony of a Raphael, I believe, is more expressively resonant—not just qualitatively different from the art of the insane, but dealing with a quantitatively greater range of emotions—than the raw disharmonies of any psychotic artist. For the supposedly human-all-too-human voice of the art of the insane is missing the voice of reason, or sharply reduces it, and only the voice of reason can fully, and with cunning discrimination, articulate psychic states. One of the virtues of MacGregor’s book is his demonstration that there is a certain consistency, even logic, and so style, to insane art. Without realizing it, though, he shows that this style is not only artistically but emotionally limited. Its more or less typical traits are its diagrammatic character, suggesting a mechanical sense of unity; its horror vacui, which fills the picture space with redundant, compulsively reiterated content; and its dramatism, as it may be called, which is inflexible, and ultimately counterproductive in its communicational purpose. Again and again one sees the percussive beating of the same psychic drum, in a tediously narrow form of expressivity that can be of durable interest only to the psychiatrist.

There are of course exceptions to these taxonomies, in both formal and emotional terms. But generally speaking, insane art’s technical and expressive limitations are quickly apparent after the initial seduction of its novelty wears off. This hardly denies that it offers valuable insights into the workings of the psyche (which are certainly more complex than the workings of art, and more urgent to understand). But as to art, this work falsifies or misconceives its purpose. The art of the insane is popular now because it is thought to advocate the expressive role of art at the expense of its civilizing intention. Yet far from breaking free of the prison of style, insane art is confined in it, for the artist lacks the resources of rationality that would make possible an exploitation of the style for true expressive purpose. In any case, art is a matter not of so-called free expression but of expression bound and channeled, formalized, even when supposedly free. Free expression is of course a social myth. Indeed, even the art of the insane, so often imagined as esthetically unencumbered, involuntarily shows that there is no such thing: here as in sane art, what is made “freely” is in fact overdetermined by factors both unconscious and pseudo-conscious. Art exists to widen the space of consciousness, and though the best art cannot and does not deny the force of the unconscious, it allows it to emerge under controlled, if flexible, conditions. Art inhibits as well as exhibits, then, however much the physiognomy—the style—of that inhibition may look like free expression.

In general I would argue that the art of the insane is of interest to an art audience mostly in terms of its influence on certain Modern artists whom it served as a means of creative rejuvenation, a way out of the seeming dead end of all-too-familiar styles that had become dissatisfying for one reason or another. MacGregor, perhaps partly out of empathy for the insane (he describes how their condition often improves when they are allowed to make art), is determined to prove the esthetic importance of their work. But while instances of it can undoubtedly stand on their own, its main esthetic significance is its effect on artists who have used it to catalyze their consciousness rather than to descend into their unconscious, never to come out. While it is undoubtedly true that the unconscious is a source of all art, it is a mistake to think that it is the only source of art. Art is a demonstration of the power of the ego—even the superego, in certain cases—as well as of the id. It involves mastery as well as power.

The question MacGregor’s book raises is why so many people think there is mastery in the blind expression of raw emotion. What is truly of artistic interest is the interaction of irrational impulses and fantasies with rational, historically and socially given style or form, not the impulses and fantasies only. These fantasies may be useful to the psychiatrist, but the art thinker must interpret the style that defends against and shapes them, and is also finally a part of the artist’s psyche. Strange as it may sound, the lesson of the art of the insane is that art that is more or less entirely either an unconscious or conscious matter is likely to look irrelevant.

Donald Kuspit is a professor of philosophy and art history at the State University of New York at Stony Brook. He contributes regularly to Artforum.