A Disquieting Feeling of Strangeness

Full article of A Disquieting Feeling of Strangeness

In this brief survey, differing attitudes to the art of the mentally ill have been outlined. The subject raises questions as to how we think about art and madness. First, it illustrates our changing notions as to what is art. Various strands have contributed to these changes—the Romantic movement of the 1800s; the twentieth century’s interest in looking for new modes of artistic expression outwith mainstream western culture; and, more recently, the growing attention paid to so-called marginalized groups, perhaps fuelled by the influence of postmodernism, which has undermined the idea of a fixed and authoritative canon of western art.

Secondly, with regard to our ideas about madness, do we align ourselves with Jaspers, who holds that insanity represents a decisive break from normality, or with certain cognitive psychologists, who maintain that there is a continuum between the sane and the insane? If the former, this adds weight to the claim that the art of the insane is possessed of a unique quality. If the latter, then we may conclude that there is nothing singular about the work of the mad. In fact, when asked if there is anything distinctive about such art, most commentators reply no and yes.

No, in the case of the great majority of the mentally ill, who, it is maintained, produce perfectly unremarkable work. But yes in the case of a small proportion of patient—artists whose creations are regarded as particularly distinctive. Attempts to describe the nature of this distinctive quality have proved elusive. Rhodes has contended that it is misguided to search for defining stylistic characteristics. At the beginning of the last century, Hans Prinzhorn also decided that such a venture was ill-advised, although he did feel there was something different about the work of the mentally ill. In the end, perhaps we can do no more than agree with Prinzhorn that this something lies in ‘a disquieting feeling of strangeness’.

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