How a Logic Logiced the System c. 1997

By Josephine Berry, 10 September 1997

In the exhibition 'Beyond Reason: Art and Psychosis' at the beginning of this year, the Hayward Gallery had an opportunity to tackle the long and tortuous relationship between society and those it defines as mentally ill. Josephine Berry examines the way in which the Prinzhorn collection was presented, and traces out the relationships it reveals to past and present interpretations of insanity.

Hans Prinzhorn's collection of art(istry) of the mentally ill has been around for most of this century. It bears the scars of its journey through the climate changes of psychiatry, art, and politics and got washed up on the shores of the Hayward Gallery in December last year - a bottle with an ever changing message inside.

The collection, comprising visual material by patients of German psychiatric hospitals from the former half of the century, is a Holy Grail for pilgrims in search of something like an originary mind prior to its socialisation. Its existence can be attributed to Prinzhorn's own attempts to establish scientific principles for a universal theory of 'The Psychological Foundations of Pictorial Configuration'. His activities resulted in the publication of the book, Artistry of the Mentally Ill in 1922 - a book which was revered and despised in turns as it passed from the hands of the German avant-garde to those of the Nazis (who banned it in 1933 and later deployed some of its images in the infamous 'Degenerate Art Show' of 1937).

In her catalogue essay for Beyond Reason, Caroline Douglas traces the relationship between madness and the notion of a privileged ontological insight (genius?) from Socrates to the Weimar Republic. This development could be summarised as a rationalisation or secularisation of the attributed causes of madness' perceived grasp on reality's core. Madness, once a divine endowment, becomes a consequence of material and/or social determination. That madness brings man closer to an unmediated reality has remained a persistent belief. Socrates describes madness as God given, "...So according to the evidence provided by our ancestors, madness is a nobler thing than sober sense... madness comes from God, whereas sober sense is merely human." Douglas moves on to deal with the Romantics of the 18th and 19th centuries who are described as no less reverential of the 'manic art', which they perceived as liberated from the inhibitions of socialisation and consequently closer to the natural world. In accordance with these beliefs, poets and artists tried to puncture the veneer of rationality by experimenting with narcotics. Their perception of the madman was endorsed by some of the foremost scientists of the day. Here Douglas cites a medical study entitled 'Medical Inquiries and Observations upon the Diseases of the Mind' of 1812 by Benjamin Rush, who compared the effects of mental disease to an earthquake, "which, by convulsing the upper strata of our globe, throws upon its surface precious and splendid fossils, the existence of which was unknown to the proprietors of the soil in which they were buried".

Extending Douglas's genealogy of the social and cultural construction of madness, list-fashion, one could mention: the Expressionists' idealisation of the 'primitive' power of the art of children and the insane; the Surrealists' designation of society as diseased and conversely the insane as dangerous visionaries incarcerated by society for its own protection; Jean Dubuffet's splitting of the human and the social, and situation of the human and insane together and beyond society's processes; R.D. Laing and the Anti-Psychiatry Movement's diagnosis of the social causes of psychological illness; Foucault's analysis of the historical tendency within the treatment of insanity to confront the lunatic with their own image and consequent attempt to control the flight from reason - unreason is constructed as a site of resistance to the rationalism of power relations; Deleuze and GuattariÕs use of the schizophrenic's position outside of the mechanisms of social reproduction as a model of a strategy of resistance and a totem of the univocal quality of the real as opposed to the given. In short, our perception of madness is subject to the forces of history and the fluctuations of social and cultural preoccupations. We learn more of society and culture than of madness by following this epistemology and recognise that the object of madness has long held currency within cultural exchange. We can also recognise that the deployment of madness is more concerned with serving cultural ends than serving madness itself. The Hayward Gallery's exhibition of Prinzhorn's collection, although perhaps ostensibly aimed at questioning how we view art, demonstrated as importantly how we view madness. Behaviourally speaking, we view it in tightly packed lines, pouring over images with a hushed concentration rarely shown at art-art exhibitions. The pictures and objects seemed to contain encoded clues to our own minds in an infinitely more revealing and tantalising way than most artwork.

The audience was visibly mesmerised by the artwork's minute and delicate chains of logic, which far from abandoning, they characteristically demonstrated. However the confusing shift in the object of this logic's application might help to account for the visitorsÕ unusual level of concentration - as when playing a familiar game in which some of the rules have been changed. Alfons Frenkel's How a Mouse Moused the Elephant elaborates an obscure tale of morality in a cartoon-like sequence. An elephant, drawn with perfunctory economy, is shown apparently doing away with a giraffe by means of an axe in the 'off-stage' privacy of a stall. His joy (?) is so great that one image shows him flat on his back, legs stretched skyward. He exits the scene of the crime and almost immediately his eyes alight upon the minuscule presence of a mouse. This mouse, so obviously the elephant's physical inferior, reduces him to paroxysms of remorse. The last picture box shows him lying on the ground, prostrate with grief and weeping profusely, while the mouse departs completely unaware of the affect it has just had.

This drawing is a perfect demonstration of Prinzhorn's (amongst others) notion of the eidetic - the apprehension of phenomena's essence by means other than their mere sensory perception - not only in its execution but also in its title and narrative. The mouse, apparently quite unconsciously, brings the elephant to its moral senses simply by virtue of its being a mouse. So essentialised has this quality of being a mouse become that it can be transformed into a verb.

This image irresistibly provokes the question as to whether the logic, so fastidiously and yet mostly 'nonsensically' applied by the artist-patients, has dislodged itself from normative definitions of sense due to its eidetic essentialisation. In other words, that we start to perceive logic by means other than through its more usual role in the creation of reason and therefore, seemingly, as if laid bare. In fact we can glimpse at its 'essence' precisely because of its many 'irrational' applications within the work of the artist-patients. Perhaps it is because of the severance of phenomena from their habitual grammar here, that we are presented anew with their qualities which can be construed as inherent or eidetic. Yet we should not overlook the social and historical constructedness of this encounter in our rush for revelation.

In the 'Degenerate Art' exhibition, the Nazis used the visual manifestations of psychiatric patients to construct a rhetoric of normality and deviancy. This rhetoric was used to off-set and hence promote the virtue of 'rationalist' paradigms as demonstrated at the 'Great German Art Show' of the same date and location. Interestingly the consignment of their art(istry) to the realm of the irrational blinkered the Nazis from recognising any shared procedural operations, e.g. the application of logic, despite their hugely divergent ends. It is perhaps unfortunate to use the Nazis' appropriation of this material to shed light on our own, but it is a powerful thought distiller. The idiosyncratic semantics of their art(istry), its refusal (whether conscious or not) to create meanings that coincide with the interests of society assures it a position outside of this enterprise. This position of exteriority lays it open, in a reciprocal manoeuvre, to investments of social meaning. In the case of Nazi Germany, its extra-social nature was used as an anti-model of culture and society. In its late 20th century veneration, demonstrated at the Hayward Gallery, its extra-social nature is understood as offering us fresh contact with realityÕs essence. Postmodern thinking might have deconstructed the socio-narrative skein that once gave shape to reality, but it could not do away with an underlying sense of the reality of reality per se. The perceived extra-sociality of psychotic art has, in the wake of this climate, gained a social function hitherto unimaginable. Its perceived ability to reveal reality whilst, by definition, eschewing consensual society is a sight for our postmodern eyes. The internal deconstruction of social narratives witnessed by these images far from giving on to a depressing absence of reality, presents us with reality anew. This is partly achieved by the reconfiguration of values, e.g. logic, which are freed of their habitual inflections and yet left intact and hence essentialised - e.g. logic persists in the absence of reason.

Tempting as it is to take these 'fossils' thrown up by excavated psyches as evidence of a pre-symbolic reality, we should first consider whether the extra-social can ever truly exist for humans. Also, can the line of reason separate off the social from the extra-social? Secondly, we should ask: why is it that we are better convinced of our reality by witnessing a reality which is obscure to us? Is it not likely that through this oblique apprehension of reality the social and the real become opposites in our minds? Finally, can our apprehension of this reality be anything other than yet another permutation of the social itself? The Hayward's presentation of the Prinzhorn Collection did little to disrupt the tradition of madness' cultural construction as extra-social. The othering of unreason, that has historically resulted in its hugely divergent treatment (persecution or heroisation) has become a virtually automated response. Without wishing to belittle the extreme difference of the visual material on display, it must be said that the Hayward Gallery showed a peculiar complacency in its unwillingness to even consider the rhetoric it effortlessly helped to perpetuate.

Josephine Berry <josie AT>