My House Surrounded By A Thousand Suns

‘Outsider art’ is a term given to self-taught artists who work outside traditional structures such as galleries and training institutions. Many have experiences of mental illness and intellectual disability. The work is ‘...idiosyncratic, intense and obsessive, and is made by people who are unaware of, or indifferent to, normative artistic standards... they are not part of the art world and are sometimes unaware of themselves as artists or their creations as art... they work out of personal necessity.’

Although Outsider Art was coined as a term in 1972ii, its history dates back to the early 20th century when mental health professionals (such as Hanz Prinzhorn) and artists (such as Max Ernst) began to collect and study art by the mentally ill. Later the French artist and collector Jean Dubuffet championed this work, branding it ‘Art Brut’: art that was created in a raw, unadulterated technique and style. Dubuffet admired that ‘creators drew everything from their own inner selves’ rather than being influenced by trend, fashion or contemporary practice.

‘(Dubuffet) is pursued by the idea of a direct and untutored art ... which he thinks to findamong the insane and imprisoned. If he heard that in some place a bear had begun to painthe would dash there immediately.’ Jean Paulhan (editor)iii

The term ‘Outsider Art’ became controversial over the years, and now arguably teeters on thebrink of redundancy. It implies an inside which so-called ‘outsiders’ seek entry to. Even if such aninside exists, are these artists aware of it; do they even care about getting ‘in’? How do they feelabout being branded ‘outsiders’ and who defines these categories? Stuart Shepherd, long-termadvocate, friend, supporter and agent of New Zealand ‘outsider artists’ uses the phrase ‘selftaughtand visionary’. Amy Szostak, featured in this exhibition, says, ‘I wonder why they call mean Outsider Artist when I do all my pictures indoors.’

The work featured in this exhibition appeals to me for three main reasons.Firstly, for its density, fullness, richness, brightness and intensity. To me these artworks are alive,and some of them are monstersiv. They are images, colours, patterns that radiate energy. I can’tget them out of my head. Secondly, the work is of a personal nature. The artist’s feelings andinner being are very present, at times touchingly so. Often the artist’s name or initials aredominant, as with Ernest Gordon Peach or Colin Korovin. (Peach would often sign any artworkthat was currently unattended by its maker, although his style is so unique that there is little doubtwhich works are his creations.) Or they are a personalised re-telling of a famous picture, as withDaniel Phillips’ “Girl” or Victor Bright’s repeated figure, with the tell-tale single ear.

The third major appeal of this work is its confidence and boldness of vision – there is littlehesitation or second thought, no hint of doubt. The expression springs forth uncensored – anatural and uncontrived response to the world the soul finds itself in. It is this freedom frominfluence which leads to exquisitely idiosyncratic work – the sort of art which one sees andimmediately cries: ‘It’s a Yelena Barbalich!’

Is there any connection between mental illness and creativity? Certainly not all artists arementally ill. Nor all those with mental illness are artists, but Handel did write the Messiah in sevendays flat. Many artists describe overwhelming experiences with the muse. Some are gripped byimaginative impulses that dominate their lives for a short period, resulting in powerful works of art.Others work through the night, have abnormally energetic periods or exhibit other forms of manicbehaviour. Bleak and dull phases usually follow hot on the heels of such bursts of energy, just asday follows night. v

Amy Szostak, Viking Wedding of the Year
Amy Szostak, Viking Wedding of the Year, an essay that appeared in the exhibition My House Surrounded by a Thousand Suns. An exhibition of artists with experience of mental illness and intellectual disability curated by Jo and shown at the New Dowse, Lower Hutt in 2008

A recent American study of major creative prize-winners showed 55% of the poets and 63% ofthe playwrights had a diagnosis of mood disorder. By comparison, the general population had arate of about 6%.vi Other research carried out on ‘great achievers’ showed that those in creativepursuits had a 73% risk of mental illness, compared to 42% for all other vocationsvii. While theexact numbers are arguable, with many different studies producing varying figures, it seems clearthat there is some correlation between an abnormal state of mind and creativity. As JohnBeardsley says, “Disturbances can have the effect of producing extraordinary developments ofanother kind.”

Is difference a useful societal tool? Why, if our gene pool were constantly selecting traits for thebetterment of our species (survival of the fittest), would mental illness and other ‘imperfections’persevere? Why haven’t schizophrenia, manic depression and borderline personality disorderbeen bred out from humankind? Perhaps because divergent thought is essential for the survivalof human society. As Daniel Nettle, a researcher on mental illness and creativity puts it,“Madness would persist in our species because, although disadvantageous in itself, it is closely linked to a trait – creativity – which is highly advantageous.”viii

Or as Dryden expresses it:

Great wits are sure to madness near alliedAnd thin partitions do their bounds divide

As an example of creative thinking, there’s a test where people are asked to place a selection of random objects into similar groupings. Those with schizophrenia frequently depart from common taxonomies. Where obvious categories include ‘tools’ or ‘fruit’, one schizophrenic subject “put together a bath plug, a padlock and a circle of red paper ‘because all three stop flows or processes’... ‘similarly “air and water were put together because they are ‘states of molecular density.’ ”ix This ability to ‘think outside the square’ is extremely useful for our society, if we are able to recognise and value such inventive thought.

Bearing this in mind, how healthy is our practice of separating those with ‘mental illnesses or other differences from the rest of our communities? Consider that the idea of Outsider Art is foreign in most tribal societies around the world. In these societies ‘altered states of being, mental illness, and visions are perceived differently than in our own Western culture’.x In some cultures, those with Down Syndrome are considered prophets. In Native North American culture it is common practice to analyse the previous night’s dreams. Are those who have connections to other worlds, who hear different voices and converse with ‘the other side’ just raving loons or might they have something of value to offer, if we knew how to listen?

Research done by the NZ Mental Health Foundation show that 47% of New Zealanders will experience mental illness at some point in their lives. Yet there is still a stigma attached. In a recent Listener article, Iain Stables said he regretted revealing his manic-depression.xi Compare this to the Renaissance when the degree of your malaise determined your weight as a poet, your ability to discern the true nature of the world. In those days, illness was worn like a badge of honour. If you were sensitive to the true reverberations of the world, how could you live in anything but a cold blue funk?

(Interestingly, scientific studies bear this concept out. Depressives have low expectations of their abilities, but they are closer to reality in their perception than ‘normal’ people. Normal people are unrealistically optimistic. The depressives, you could argue, see the world as it is – and suffer the consequences (that inescapable black dog).xii Consider unlucky Cassandra, blessed to know the truth, compelled to speak it – but forever condemned to be ignored.)

It’s a double-edged sword, and one that can easily tip over into harm. Mental illness is not to be glorified but nor should it be marginalised, as articulated by John Beardsley below:

We mustn’t forget the predicament of the individuals who made this art... Real people who grappled with often desperate circumstances... we may even discover that our experiences and theirs differ only by a matter of degree ... Conceived as an other; the outsider may turn out to be not so different from everyone else after all. xiii

All of us have a grain – or more - of Cassandra in our DNA. Humans continue to be intrigued by the depths of the mind and its unusual conditions, probably because most of us identify at some level. Mental illness exists on a spectrum rather than as a binary definition (we’re not either sane or insane). As a friend described it, ‘We are all crazy, but some of us a little more so.’ Whileresearch shows there are a hereditary as well as an experience/stress-triggered component to mental illness, we can ascertain the ratios little further. We all have the possibility to become ill, but which of us will do so and to what extent remains anyone’s guess. You can add it to the list of unknowns in our life.

If we view alternative visions as life-enriching experiences, we will be better able to see and value those truly unique individuals in our midst and to further explore the idiosyncrasies in ourselves. And this will have benefits far beyond the treatment of those with mental illness, it will also improve conditions for artists, entrepreneurs, not only square pegs but any shape pegs - things that aren’t even really pegs at all. No-one can escape this liberation. Truly valuing diversity in our society will enliven our businesses, theatres, schools and homes – all aspects of our communities - because a society that doesn't tolerate difference will not support creative endeavours. 'The initiators of revolutions are never communities. The initiators are always individuals with a unique vision.'xiv Accepting diversity of behaviour, thought, and belief can only lead to a richer society for all.

THANKS TO: Stuart Shepherd, Sarah Jane Parton, Nic Marshall, Brita McVeigh, Simon Price, Fiona Elwood and the staff at Pablo’s, Glen McDonald, Andrew and the staff of Vincent’s, Chris Brown and Take 5: Te Whare Marama, Liz Sutherland and the IHC Arthouse, Jill Thomson and Artsenta, Jackie Randerson, Thomas LaHood, Sam LaHood, Phillipa Clements, Joan Barbalich, Sticky Pictures, The Far Site Gallery, Marianne Taylor and Arts Access Aotearoa, Glenda Lewis, Peter Ireland, Claire Regnault and TheNewDowse, Cate Hennessey, and the Mental Health Foundation whose media grant made this exhibition possible as part of the Like Minds, Like Mine programme.

Footnotes

i as seen on www.TED.com, Sir Ken Robinson speaks on schooling and creativity

ii By Roger Cardinal in his book ‘Outsider Art’

iii quoted in ‘Imagining the Outsider’, by John Beardsley

iv ‘Monster’ is to me the highest term of flattery for an art-work. An undeniable, alien presence which causes shivers down one’s spine.

v Churchill referred to his clinical depression as ‘his black dog.’

vi Strong Imagination: Madness, Creativity and Human Nature, p 142-3, in a study by Professor Kay Redfield Jamieson

vii Study by Professor Arnold Ludwig in ‘The Price of Greatness’

viii Strong Imagination: Madness, Creativity and Human Nature, by Daniel Nettle, p.1

ix ibid, p. 120

x Annie Carlano, in her introduction to Vernacular Visionaries: International Outsider Art

xi NZ Listener, April 12-18 2008 ‘The Daredevil Inside’ by Diana Wichtel

xii Strong Imagination: Madness, Creativity and Human Nature by Daniel Nettle

xiii Vernacular Visionaries: International Outsider Art

xiv Frank J Sulloway, Born to Rebel