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Art and Mental Illness: Stop the Insanity!

Let's lay to rest the stereotypes about art and mental illness.

An article in the New York Times by Tara Parker-Pope uses the work of Martin Ramirez, an artist with schizophrenia, as a platform to promote and ponder once again the well-worn perception that artistic creativity and mental illness are somehow inevitably linked. Emotional disorders are not afflictions that sometimes come with a built-in creativity boost, NY Times. It's time to lay this stereotypical viewpoint to rest and the stigmatizing statements that often come along with it.

Possibly one of the more offensive statements is credited to curator Brook Anderson of the American Folk Art Museum in New York City where Ramirez's work has been shown. Anderson observes, "His reliance on motifs and animals indicate a more sane and less mentally ill part of Ramírez." Perhaps the quote was taken out of context, but is there really creative content reserved only for the sane? And just what is the "less mentally ill part" of any individual, artist or not? This type of statement typifies what people with mental illness must endure from the public and what artists who also happen to have a disability or illness encounter from even the most educated individuals in the art world itself.

In looking at Martin Ramirez through another framework, he is one of many creative individuals defined as "outsider artists," people who are self-taught and making art outside the mainstream art world. He was diagnosed with paranoid schizophrenia, although what his exact illness is debatable, and he spent much of his adult life in an institution. In the early 1950s, Tarmo Pasto, professor of art and psychology, saw Ramirez's drawings, recognized their merit, and began to supply him with art materials. Ramirez became the subject of Pasto's research into the relationship between mental illness and creativity, a fascination that emerged in the late 19th and early 20th centuries and continues today. In essence, Parker-Pope's and Anderson's references reflect that ever-present human desire to anecdotally explain just why artists make the visual art they make. To some extent, the field of art therapy has also focused on finding meaning in various symbols and content in artwork by people with various emotional disorders; while some tenuous connections have been made, more often it's difficult at best to link specific characteristics in drawings or paintings to a diagnostic category.

The relationship of bipolar disorder to creativity is one of the more accepted premises (see Touched by Fire by Kay Redfield Jamison). Manic states may provide the catalyst for heightened creativity; I know and agree with that premise from my own involvement with art making. There are indeed geniuses who happen to also have bipolar disorder and whose creative contributions have made a significant impact on the arts, science, medicine, and other fields. The changes in

brain function that occur during manic episodes are conducive to creative endeavor; artists and writers recount of periods of inspiration, euphoria, and novel associations during hypomania. Research also suggests that creative individuals do share more personality traits with people with mental illness than people who are less inclined to creative activities.

There may be some hope on the horizon as we all learn to be more culturally competent, including our worldviews of mental illness. In a previous post, I wrote about the possibility that "neurodiversity" could be one explanation for unusual artistic abilities, such as the work of artist Stephen Wiltshire who also happens to be a person with autism. Arts researchers offer an alternative lens through which to view artists categorized as disabled, noting that philosophies such as "social role valorization" propose that people not be seen as "sick," but as "socially devalued." This type of research and exploration within the contexts of art and mental illness is helping to reshape perceptions and bring needed humanism to the fields of psychology, psychiatry, art therapy, art curating, and art criticism.

Let's make a resolution to stop the pathology-driven analysis of the art of artists who happen to have mental illness. Instead, let's celebrate artists who have struggled, for whatever reason including physical health, addictions, mental illness, socioeconomics, culture, or gender by instead reflecting on the power of the art they have created and meaning of creativity in their lives. People with emotional disorders are not some defective subset of the human race nor do they differentiate disease and health. Human creativity is complex and ultimately, it is appreciated for its merit, innovation, and imagination.

© 2009 Cathy Malchiodi

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