New York

the Prinzhorn Collection

The Drawing Center

It was 1920 when Hans Prinzhorn wrote to asylums in Austria, Germany, and Switzerland informing them that he intended to assemble “drawings, paintings and sculptures by the mentally ill, which are not merely copies or memories of better days, but rather expressions of their own experience of illness.” This last line summarizes how he plotted the reception of the collection that would ultimately bear his name. Under the rubric Bildnerei (image-making) rather than Kunst, the collected works were to be assigned, not to diagnoses, but to “creative urges” that were evinced by the visual output of psychotics and, Prinzhorn believed, artists too. It was this version of separate but equal that the Heidelberg psychiatrist and art historian exercised in his influential Bildnerei der Geisteskranken (1922) published in English as Artistry of the Mentally Ill. Of course, it’s a truism that the historical reception of any collection is central to its meaning, but where the Prinzhorn Collection is concerned, it is necessary to voice this early. From the National Socialists, who hung the “patient art” in the infamous “Degenerate Art” exhibit, to a host of modernists, who adored it for its purported example of mediated creativity, the ethical dimensions that shaped the reception of the Prinzhorn Collection are diverse, intricate—and troubling.

Between the catalogue for the recent Drawing Center show and another from a 1996 survey at the Hayward Gallery in London (“Beyond Reason: Art and Psychosis”), there are eight lengthy essays, with more than 250 footnotes, grappling with the legacy of Prinzhorn’s collection: what to do with work that was never intended for an audience outside the asylum. Hal Foster provides some of the most illuminated writing when he suspends the whole of the collection in doubt, by asking from where the motives for this work originally sprung, patients or their doctors. “Although some works do show affinities with Symbolist, Expressionist, or Dadaist art,” Foster writes, “few of the patients were trained in any way. Indeed, few were interested in art at all before they were encouraged, institutionally, to take it up.”

Can one translate an expression of mental illness into an aesthetic declaration, and if so, without ethical trespassing? Is it art at all, or has it been improperly conscripted to bear witness on behalf of deeply held convictions, from the Brown Shirts to Brut? Take Willhelm Maasch’s ca. 1910 Finkenhammer der Buchweizenhändler (Finkenhammer, the buckwheat factor). Without question, this drawing of a plant form is vital and impressive; it would be at ease beside Odilon Redon’s 1896 The beasts of the sea, round like water-skins or even Terry Winters’s Schema 61,1985–86. Drawing, the most routine of media, immediately registers Maasch’s picture as “artistic” to our eyes, and the knowledge that he meant to reveal his insight into the souls of plants only gives the image the visionary patina habitual to the history of modern art. So does that make Maasch a visionary artist, whose illness made him preternaturally “ahead” of his time? And if Maasch’s schizophrenia was not the latchkey to modernism’s mania—emancipated expression—then what was it? Only the misery of insanity?

These questions become even knottier when it comes to Marie Lieb’s curious arrangements. Only dim sepia-toned photographs remain of the charming floral patterns of torn cloth Lieb arrayed in a repetitive motif across a floor 106 years ago. It looks like “installation art” before the fact, until one notices the unambiguous caption in the catalogue that describes her work—“Cell floor decorated with tom strips of cloth.” Lieb’s life as a patient indeed foreclosed on the possibility that her creation could be called “art”: first because the culture of 1894 precluded it, and second because her illness—signaled by the very making of these floor arrangements—kept them, and her, confined within the asylum. What to do then, with this pseudoinstallation that was never intended as a work of art because, quite simply, any such aspiration would have been, well, crazy? With Lieb’s eccentric patterns, context—cell floor—has become decisive to identity.

Dubuffet, for one, was fascinated with psychotic art because he appreciated the compulsion that left Maasch and Lieb helpless to do anything other than make drawings, or patterns out of cloth, to be obsessively creative without reason. But was Dubuffet’s fascination not locked up behind the same institutional model that later granted artistic asylum to Chris Burden when he turned himself into a human rifle target in Shoot, 1971? How artistic was Burden’s “psychotic compulsion” to experience pain and risk death; how compulsive was his art? The Prinzhorn Collection is the invitation to revisit these questions, while remembering that as far as Prinzhorn was concerned, a patient might create an artistic effect, but that did not mean he or she was an artist.

Where the Prinzhorn Collection is concerned, the question has never been whether we could interpret the visual outpourings of Maasch or Lieb as art; the question is whether we should. The issue is unambiguously ethical: Should there be limits to our ability to interpret things as art? At the risk of pitching the stakes too high, I am reminded of an essay David Baltimore wrote in 1978 titled “The Limits of Science,” in which the Nobel Prize–winning virologist considered whether scientists should conduct certain kinds of experimentation just because they could do so. He urged that there should be no restrictions on discovery in pure science, only restrictions on its application. His attitude may well signal the best course where the Prinzhorn Collection is concerned: Patients should express their own experience of illness with creativity; maybe we ought to consider deferring its interpretation as art.

Ronald Jones is an artist and a frequent contributor to Artforum.