Excerpts from ARTISTS AND MENTAL ILLNESS: GOING TO THE HOSPITAL, GOING TO THE ARTISTS' COLONY
The James Campbell Distinguished Lecture
Rush Presbyterian St. Luke's Medical Center, Chicago
Delivered on 26 January 2000
I recently read Dr. Kay Redfield Jamison's book, Touched With Fire: Manic-Depressive Illness and the Artistic Temperament. "Touched with fire? Excuse me?" I thought. Shouldn't that be Burned Alive? I am a visual artist with manic-depressive illness. I have never felt myself "touched with fire," or visited by any gods. I am more likely to feel incinerated. As, with the trash.
Dr. Jamison impressively lists in Appendix B many artists who suffered (nota bene the simple past tense; none suffer in the present) bipolar illness. She notes with an authoritative variety of daggers and bullets (not by accident are they collectively called dingbats!) who is known to have been hospitalized, or to have attempted suicide, or to have succeed in the effort—that is, in a direct, unmistakable effort. Did Janis Joplin commit suicide by pursuing drugs and her tormented life in the fast lane? Jamison tends to prefer Sylvia Plath and her plain, pilot-lit way out.
Jamison's fascinatingly undated list of manic-depressive artists includes Michelangelo (Let me supply some dates: his are 1475-1564). There is John Bunyan (1628-1688) right in there along with Robert Burns (1759-1796); everyone's favorite madman, Vincent van Gogh (1853-1890); and Anne Sexton (1928-1974). An interesting study in anachronistically applied terms and concepts?
Perhaps they weren't bipolar, but I am interested that the tormented Joplin is missing, as are Jimi Hendrix and Kurt Cobain. Not only are there no artists in popular culture, but entirely absent are landscape designers, architects and engineers, graphic artists, weavers, set designers, aesthetic surgeons and orthodontists, quilters, disc jockeys, actresses who wait tables and await roles, photo journalists, cooks and bakers, city planners and planners of terrorist plots. And what about the many authors whose excellent fictions have not appeared during decades of retrenchment in publishing? I'll leave to someone else the mathematicians, physicists and botanists, whose "creative temperaments” certainly inform their work.
Uh-oh: could they be artists too?
Well, of course not! For the purposes of research, the Artist is always someone both dead and immortalized within the most conservative possible genres. Their work hangs in the Prado, is heard at Alice Tully Hall, or is taught from a Norton Anthology of some western literature. The definition of artist, you see, is exclusive and romantic. Real artists have widely-acknowledged reputations and universally-acknowledged death certificates. Like most living artists, I will remain unacknowledged for the research record.
When I meet a new psychiatrist, they ask questions born of such authority-born skepticism, questions like these:
“So you are an Artist? What kind of art do you make?" — As if this will clear it up! What they want is not what I do or how I think, but if I paint on velvet.
Next, "Where is my studio?" ("At home" is the worst imaginable answer, but I can trump that because I don't have a studio. I work when I earn space at artists’colonies, none of which they've heard of.)
Third question, Where have I shown my work? (In fact, I was in 13 shows across the country last year, and 14 the year before. Why should a psychiatrist know all the galleries and museums 1 show in?)
On top of it all, I have no more training as an artist than two audited drawing courses at a liberal arts college, and one that I paid for, in life-drawing, at an art school.
All these questions are tantamount to being asked, “Are you a real artist?" Obviously, no one wants to be taken in by a lowly mental patient, an psychiatrists have to screen for symptoms like grandiosity. But it's a disingenuous question anyway if they believe, like Jamison, that real artists are dead artists.
Artists, like psychiatric patients, are seen as potential tricksters because our roles are not always identifiable. Few are lucky enough to pursue art full-time. I have been challenged in a therapy group (not by the doctor, I admit) by the proposition that I am merely a "frustrated housewife who paints." That I am a frustrated housewife is, of course, absolutely true; it in no way precludes the fact that I am an artist. A real, live artist who suffers manic-depressive illness.
On the other hand, few realize that mental illness is rarely a full-time occupation either. But those who live neither as an artist or mentally-ill person, rarely have the imagination to conceive of concentrated or heightened states of mind as other than actively threatening to them.
Jamison cites many types of studies concluding that artists are unusually prone to be bipolar, thus linking bipolar illness and "the creative temperament." Perhaps, then, bipolar illness is integral to the artistic process?
But Jamison also demonstrates that of all the major psychiatric diseases, bipolar illness is more likely than any other (schizophrenia included) to result in suicide. What happens when we wrap up this extraordinary package of suicide and creativity?
I know that for any suicidal person to remain alive, vast creativity is required. This is a point worth making very, very clearly: Duration is the most common presupposition in life. But it is an assumption, and it can be belied. For the suicidal person, creativity is not light bulbs illuminating overhead. This creative force—the sorely challenged life force—goes under the condescending popular terms of "willpower," or "grit," stubbornness, or even orneriness. But the effort to keep life together is the supreme creative effort, however miserable or degraded the forms it takes may appear to bystanders.
As a manic-depressive person, first I survive. Everything else requires creativity of a much less demanding order.
I include among the lesser tasks such central ones as my need to create out of and apart from my own horrors, a wholesome place for my family. Important, too, but less than survival, is trying to imagine into existence a life for myself, where the core rot is halted, maybe even repaired a little. A little farther down the line, I do the things artists are thought to do.
Among all this, manic-depressive illness is a big overlay. It is the constant threat to my life. This is not an inspiring illness; quite the opposite. It stresses a finely-tuned and perceptive person to literally intolerable excesses of emotion. It is the rack. Mania can so urgently require abatement that only three things can relieve it: the dumbest depths of comatose depression, heavy and consistent intake of medications, or suicide. There is no art-making in these circumstances. I make art between psychiatric episodes, and despite them.
My pain is partly generated by—and is focused by—the pattern of life bipolar illness forces upon me. When my work is about the illness, it is about it in this way: I can see nothing without seeing it. It is like cataracts, or hallucinations, imposed upon one's vision. During a crisis, I am reduced to a single-issue life. I have to keep body and soul together. Then there is no work but self-protection, which is one experience I believe art can never express. Art may provide a means of reflection or therapy for some, but a person deciding whether to live or die who has the means to make art has no more decision to make.
Let me offer another way to see the interconnections between being an artist and being mentally ill, specifically, bipolar. In different locations, one can see oneself in different perspectives. My illness has taken me to an institution for mentally ill people: I have been an in-patient on a locked ward of the psychiatric hospital several times in the past six years. Throughout the same period, I have also been a resident for several periods of two weeks or more at art colonies, where artists may go to do their creative work without constraints or interruptions. Although it sometimes feels like it, you don't have to apply to get into the hospital; for colonies you do. Sometimes you are accepted, sometimes not. When you leave the colony though, it's on a schedule you've pre-determined; when you leave the hospital, you are shown the door.
Now, some creative urge can be found in every person, no matter how dull or thwarted the life. Unfortunately, expression of individual creativity can be impeded forever, like the acknowledgment and expression of emotion can be. There are good reasons to compare exploring one’s creativity with undertaking a regimen of self-reflection or psychotherapy. In both, there is much delight to gain through release of imagination and gain of insight; but there is a lot of room for uncontrolled, terrifying discoveries too.
I think that many people sense their own creative temperaments, but are no more willing to put them to work than to pursue psychotherapy: Too risky! This point might give us some perspective, then, on the amount of simple, raw work done by people who suffer mental illness yet continue, on top, to be artists. It takes courage to keep exploring life’s open questions, daily, at the most personal level as well as through art-making.
I never chose to be mentally ill, but I am. I can, however, choose to mitigate the effects my illness has on the rest of my life by undertaking a rigorous individual therapy, taking my drugs as prescribed, going to the hospital if I am suicidal, and by continuing to go to the colonies where both my art, my health, and even my ability to lead a quotidian life are served.
Did I choose to be an artist? Yes and no. It's a calling, not a job. If I call myself a "professional artist," it doesn't mean only that I wish to make the money I don't from my labors. It means that I will pay the price for my decision: the challenges from others, the delayed rewards and gratification, the likelihood I will not find a substantial audience for my work.
People like Kay Redfield Jamison can get away with romanticizing artists with mental illness because, as a psychiatrist and sufferer herself, she understands that pain is central to both the work of art making and the work of being alive and fully human. In linking the artist to mental illness, however, she becomes an apologist for everyone who recognizes a creative urge but fears the consequences of acting upon it.
There are real rewards for pushing one's creativity hard, but there are also many uncertainties and bitter disappointments. Link the artist with something like bipolar disorder and you get not only "obvious" reasons for failing to use one’s own creativity, but a subtle way to transfer fear and hostility to those who do—to those whose efforts may challenge you or make you uncomfortable for your inability to stretch farther.
One durable characterization of artists in our culture is that they are bizarre, irresponsible, immoral, or anti-social people. Mental illness is a handy catch-all for any number of unusual or uninterpretable traits. For the socially insecure, being artistic isn’t a compliment: "I'm not mentally ill; no muse is visiting me. I may not be an artist, but at least I am unquestionably sane." The artist becomes the cultural "carrier" of a dreaded condition with agreeably ill-specified symptoms diagnosable by any person who nominates him- or herself as “normal.” Any artist can be the suspicious object of fear, admired if at all only in quarantine. […]
THE BODY INSIDE ME
© ANN STARR
Northwestern University Medical School, 1999
(revised for the Barnard Feminist Art and Art History Conference, October, 2000)
Let’s start by remembering that the artist, scientist, and doctor once existed in the same person. Once, the connection that I assume between observing, drawing, and knowing was taken for granted. But once, too, anatomy was completely new to the eye and the hand. The Renaissance and its explorers opened many continents posited by ancient imaginations, including those we each inhabit in our very selves. Somewhere along the line the docs and the artists got separated.
Gross anatomy is no longer a field of primary discovery. While you medical students may explore an individual cadaver, many of your "discoveries" are precedent certainties planted by lecturers and lab instructors, confirmed by atlases and Grant's Dissector. Early on in my medico-artistic explorations, an anatomist friend deflated my novice enthusiasm by telling me that a new muscle had been discovered in the jaw a few years ago. So much for romance!
Like most artists, my first body explorations came in an art school life drawing class. Many artists proceed to take not only life-drawing but also anatomy for artists. They are introduced to the skeleton and superficial muscles as a way of improving their renderings of the exterior.
You get (dead) cadavers; we get lively models. Both kinds of specimens create high emotion in the learners, emotion that must pique students and necessitate firm degrees of boundary in our responses. Another similarity, I guess, is that cadavers and models share a certain self-selection principle. But while I gather that people of
many looks and histories commit their bodies to medical education, the models who commit themselves to artists are generally—not always, thank heavens—the young, lithe, and beautiful. The art of the figure is thought to glorify human beauty. Rarely drawn in art schools are dwarfs, elderly persons, cripples, or obese people. An essentially Vitruvian aesthetic still dominates, idealizing proportion.
Models' bodies are artists' basic training, as cadavers are for you. The more one draws the body, the better one knows it and can use it. Models have ceased to be necessary for me. My real work is not rendering, any more than yours will be identification of tendons.
My work in drawing has never been without high emotional content. For me, the body is emotion, feeling, passion, disguise and revelation. I've come to draw and paint the body almost exclusively for all of the intense content that you are being trained to handle with the utmost control. As my drawings elongate the curve of a back, or express themselves in a tumult of twists, I call forth the attractions and fears you will have to
suppress in order to work at all. They're all there, though: All the time.
You will learn—you are learning—not to respond overtly to the sexuality, beauty, exposure, grief, or grotesquerie of the body. Like every human, you will, know it profoundly nevertheless. No less than I, whose business is expression, you will never be free from it.
Now, interestingly enough, when it comes to the interior of the body, the whole picture changes. This is your exclusive domain: Initiation is emphatically required. Where the naked body is culturally the locus of infinite passion and fantasy for everyone, the interior elicits very few, and almost entirely fearful responses. We non-doctors shun it. To look inside the body is to face death; it is absolutely taboo for everyone—except for you. You are entering what our culture has made almost literally a priesthood. Your ability to do and survive this remarkable looking is your source of power. You neither die nor grow ill nor poison the rest of us as a result. We in the laity are happy to have you do it. We would not.
At least, most of us wouldn't. But I would. I hope I can explain this naturally-occurring oddity.
My career drawing the figure (that's the naked exterior, you understand) reached a great impasse a few years ago. These two slides show some of my last full-figure drawing. For these I hired models. They moved continually as I drew, recording their cores and limbs in motion, as a way of pressing, pressing to express the excitement and emotion of the body. Such work it was, and such emotional intensity in the act of drawing!
Now, I will allow that the emotional intensity is conveyed by these records; but it is certainly legitimate for you or any audience fail to see that the body is in these drawings. Essentially, I came to fear that the passion was spinning out of the flesh. To my mind, however, feeling is integral to the flesh. I am not interested at this point in abstracted, but in located emotion. I was wishing to communicate more specified feeling. Not that I want emotion identifiable by words, but rather I'm always looking for a better understanding of excitement and high emotion. I do believe that understanding can develop non-verbally, yet specifically. So, "How to proceed?" became an urgent question for me.
If human feeling—if feeling as both emotion and sensation—inheres in the body, how can I convey its depth, force,and complexion, without resorting to time-worn visual tropes? However innovative I feel, no artist works unburdened by what others have done. The nude is highly eroticized throughout history, and there's no dismissing that. Bones, including the skull, have been reduced for centuries to simple emblems of death—it would be almost impossible to get them to carry any other significance. And exposed sub-cutaneous flesh implies violence. So, all in all this makes for a very limited emotional palette despite the body's obvious richness. Isn't there something between the limitations of representational conventions and the multifarious, problematic experience of actual flesh?
Well, there are symbols—as in this small drawing, "The Group." In this piece it is impossible to distinguish the "figures" from the "chairs." The furnishings offer another way to reveal the emotion in the figures. It also allows a way to work past the associations viewers are ready to make with people's state of dress or undress, so the content I'm interested in isn't obfuscated by associations with either.
This image of a cross, is another way to draw the figure symbolically; and this next image, with its surreal grouping of figures uses fanciful distortions of human form as a way to convey a crowd of emotions.
But in this drawing, "Eureka Portable," I really began to get the idea. (Eureka portable being, for those of you still innocent, a small canister-style vacuum sweeper.) The figure is represented symbolically, but its own parts constitute the symbol. The uterus, vagina, full lips and little-girl dental gap add up to the object-person. The emotion is not conveyed by a vision of an objectified exterior, but by the subject's own guts—her emotion is inside and reveals her feelings about her objectified presence in the outside world.
Eureka, indeed! It has been ever since as if the organs, the interior cavities and body's byways were my very own discovery—as, of course, they are! To find that there is so much of a body still to explore and work with, so much that is not pre-charged with convention. Deep inside there is a world that does not come first to the eye—to think of it plunges us into real terra incognita, to be explored through imagination and the levels of fantasy we must work hard to eke to the surface.
Now, I say that none of what we experience inside is ever known visually. That’s not true, because medicine sees this every day. That's a huge exception. I have already alluded to the taboos about the interior and the need we all have to avoid looking at it directly. As I mentioned, a sine qua non of medicine is to objectify and distance in order to make bodies treatable and tolerable for doctor-humans as well as the rest of us.
Because of medicine in general education, all of us know what the various organs "look like." I think, though, that anatomical imagery does more than record and inform: it protects us all, too. Radiology, medical illustration—even the fact that we are still satisfied with the world view implied in the elegant Vesalius—suggest that we are contented with the boundaries that the conventions of medical representation provide. But I want to suggest this: There is no a priori reason that medicine's be the only way to pictures organs. Why must all expression be distilled away from representations of the interior?
It took no little doing for me to achieve access to human organs for my observations, but in 1995 I finally got my first chance. Among my questions, I wondered, “Do human organs look like their representations?” If I, an untrained observer, draw the material a medical illustrator does, how would our renderings compare? What's there that the "trained" draftsman doesn't see that I can? What does a heart look like if you see it without names and anatomical study to guide you? The lack of medical vocabulary allows my vision to settle where it will—on form, emotion, or non-corporeal associations, as quickly as yours will trace the venous system or evidence of an anomaly. What, for that matter, do anatomical anomalies even mean for me? Can I know them to exist as such? […]