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21 5 Metaphysical Habitats A Sea Change in Modern Culture In 1922 Dr. Hans Prinzhorn published Bildnerei der Geisteskranken—translated into English as Artistry of the Mentally Ill1 —in which he reproduced and analyzed 187 from the more than 5,000 paintings, drawings, and carvings he had collected from insane asylums in and around Heidelberg and farther afield, mostly from patients diagnosed as schizophrenic. While psychiatrists before him had occasionally published paintings and drawings of their patients, analyzing them for purposes of psychiatric diagnosis , Prinzhorn found that he could not identify the mental disorders of inmates from the types of images they made. Prinzhorn had earned a doctorate in art history before becoming a psychiatrist; in his study of the works that he had collected he identified six basic drives that give rise to image making: an expressive urge, the urge to play, an ornamental urge, an ordering tendency, a tendency to imitate, and the need for symbols. These, he noted, are the very drives at work in professional artists . Prinzhorn gave predominant place in his book to ten masters, whose works, in expressive power and draftsmanship, he judged to be on the same rank as those whom society recognizes as master artists. Artists such as expressionists Paul Klee and Alfred Kubin and surrealists André Breton and Max Ernst looked upon the works reproduced in Prinzhorn’s book with awe and admiration; Paul Éluard called it “the most beautiful book of images there is.” They began at once to incorporate elements of this asylum art into their work. Jean Dubuffet collected a large number of works of the insane and of children, and deliberately set out to paint as the insane do. Wassily Kandinsky, Enrico Baj, and Karel Appel set out to paint like children; Pierre Alechinsky, Keith Haring, and Jean-Michel Basquiat even set out to paint with children. Subsequent contemporary professional art, from the Blue Rider group in Germany to Jackson Pollock, derives more from asylum art than from the Academy. The discovery of asylum art empowered the search for art among uneducated or naive painters and carvers in Europe, among spiritualists , seers, and mediums, then in prisons (several of Prinzhorn’s insane masters had committed crimes),2 in children’s drawings, in primitive or 22 V I O L E N C E A N D S P L E N D O R tribal works, African and Oceanic artifacts and ritual objects hitherto exhibited only in ethnographic museums, and in prehistoric and aboriginal rock and cave paintings. Art was recognized in all this “cultural production .” With the discovery of artwork among all these marginal peoples, there arose a new claim to their dignity and a demand for their social recognition. Schizophrenics are not simply deranged individuals who have to be treated by experts or cared for if incurable; they possess positive powers, even creative powers of value to society, perhaps as a result of their disturbed mental condition. “Primitive” or tribal peoples are not simply backward and retarded; their mental and craft productions may well be important and valuable for modern society. Children are not merely potential adults; the child’s world has its own structures and its own visions and values that adults may well seek to recover. The Original Authenticity The discovery of art in insane asylums in Europe then had a quite different effect from the earlier discovery of art in China and Japan or among the Maya of Central America. What was recognized as art in those far-off lands was, like earlier European art, in the service of religious ideals and had long been crafted according to aesthetic canons. It was produced by trained specialists, on noble materials, and with perfection of finish. Those works could then enter the museums of modern Europe as works of high culture. The works discovered in insane asylums sparked a radical contestation of high culture. The champions of this art denounced the fine arts academies and the professional artists for producing works that, though they no longer illustrated religious stories and ideals, nonetheless promoted the reigning values and pretensions of the Western ruling elite. Artists, who had lost the patronage of the courts, had become cunning flatterers of the moneyed bourgeoisie. How much flattery went into portraits, into landscapes—how much falseness! In the Academy aspiring artists studied the forms and compositions with which society and nature had been depicted in fine art. But the very recipes derived from the old masters render the works...


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