I spent the morning yesterday with my dear friend and painter, Ted Katz. We talked non-stop for three hours in front of his cozy studio fire. I brought my most recent encaustic painting to get another perspective. It was helpful to bounce ideas off Ted about my exploration into encaustic and this particular piece. We also talked about relationships, painting, drawing (our first loves), the skill of listening to a piece and how art keeps creative, sensitive people connected. As I was leaving, Ted pulled one of his massive volumes of writing off a shelf and handed me a copy of this article taken from The Art Digest, June 1940.
Sanity From Art
Art, like whiskey, may have hidden medicinal potentialities, and, if present experiments continue their progress, may prove to have definite therapeutic value. Dr. John K. B. De Groot of the Pennsylvania Hospital at Philadelphia, developed this theme before a recent meeting of the American Psychiatric Association in Cincinnati. As reported in the New York Sun, Dr. De Groot “cited the case of a girl who had refused to talk to her parents for three years. She was persuaded to try her sketching skill and within three days was doing excellent drawings of the human figure. Completely normal, she now has her own studio. A young woman who was estranged from her husband…and tried to break her own neck, learned sculpture and created a fine miniature statue, after which she became completely normal.”
Good grief! The estranged wife tried to break her own neck?! We both laughed heartily about the over simplified “happily ever after” endings thanks to dabblings in art. I had to wonder who was crazier, the doctor or the patients.
I must say though, this article has me creeped out. I keep reading it because there is so much in there about the social attitudes and beliefs about women…about artists. The women in the article have been declared normal but there remains an underlying threat of a woman on the verge and now a woman artist on the verge. She tried to break her own neck once. What happens if she hits a creative block and can’t sculpt? Will she try to break her husband’s neck next? It also conjures up images of valium-happy housewives in 1950’s sanitariums, stoned in spa-like settings pursuing painting and knitting. It brings up tales of “wacky artists” (no disrespect intended towards those still living) like Anne Grgich, Jean-Michele Basquiat or Vincent Van Gogh who experienced a tipping point which brought them notoreity, recognition and/or an untimely demise.
Wow, that’s a lot from this little, 70 year old article!
There is some truth to the article though. Many artists and deeply creative people I know experience a dark night of the soul from time to time. Their art form is what keeps them tethered and allows them to create a way out of the darkness. We also know that art does have the potential to heal and transform on a very basic level. It is possible that the women in the article were metamorphosed by their art. I would love to know what happened to them! However, underneath that there is another truth. That many artists and their work do not hold perceived or market value until they reach a perversely and socially acceptable tipping point of insanity or death.
I’m almost done reading Matt Lamb, The Art of Success by Richard Speer. In it, Richard says: “The idea that hardship is good for character…has infiltrated the art business to the extent that the disadvantaged are viewed as infinitely richer in experience than the privileged…The art of a deaf-mute shut-in ward of the state is perceived as broader in symbolism and more profound than that of an artist who has traveled widely, read extensively and enjoyed a full social life.” Granted, this quote is specific to Matt Lamb’s situation of being a highly successful, self representing artist who is both wealthy and social. But, what’s wrong with that? I’d rather be a social, functioning, highly successful artist rather than painting in a padded room. Sadly, this book was written in 2005 so it could be argued that valuing “crazy artists” hasn’t shifted that much.
There is a German word, Schadenfreude, which means when pleasure is derived from the misfortune of others. I’m just wondering if this socially acceptable storytelling about artists doesn’t have a sprinkling of schadenfreude. Just look at the media and how they glorify the misfortunes of pop-culture icons. There is definitely a market out there for crazy artists! And, don’t misunderstand…I’m not just talking about collectors, critics and viewers who support this belief. I have seen many artists who embrace the “crazy artist” archetype, devaluing their own work and lives, as well.
With all the hopeful change that’s happening in our world today (especially this week in my country!), I’m wondering if we can shake these outdated beliefs about artists and embrace art as a basic human right. The right for artists to live healthy and fully abundant lifestyles and to be supported in their work. The right for collectors to own art no matter what their economic situation (thankfully, the internet has made much original art affordable and accessible). The right for viewers to appreciate creative expression, even if it’s not their style. The right for our children to have the support from their parents, communities, leaders and the world to experience, explore and create art every day. The right for our young people to feel hopeful about embracing art as a vocation. Because, let’s face it, who wants to grow up to be an artist if no one is going to acknowledge your work or your efforts unless you’re crazy or dead.