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Form and mental state: an interpersonal approach to painting

  • Jonathan Green

Summary

This article is based on the idea that paintings carry much of their cultural power by being ways of embodying states of mind in physical material. It follows that the understanding we have of how people infer mental states in others can also be used to address how we respond to visual art: our facility for inferring mental states can help us understand paintings. In pursuing this argument, I discuss first how artists make meaning in paintings by a process that embodies mental states within a formal structure. Second, I support the notion of a link between the formal structure of art and mental states with evidence from my studies of children's drawings. Third, by analogy with the way we relate to another person's mental states, I look in more detail at the process by which we ‘read’ a painting and in consequence develop an aesthetic relationship to it.

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Copyright

Corresponding author

Professor Jonathan Green, Psychiatry Research Group, Room 4.319, 4th Floor (east), University Place, Oxford Road, Manchester M13 9PL, UK. Email: jonathan.green@manchester.ac.uk

Footnotes

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Most of the images that appear in this article may be viewed in colour in its online version.

Declaration of Interest

None.

Footnotes

References

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Bower, TGR (1974) Development in Infancy. WH Freeman.
Carpendale, J, Lewis, C (2006) How Children Develop Social Understanding. Blackwells.
Cohen, S, Samson, I, Shakespeare, E et al (2001) Forms of feeling: an analysis of children's drawings. Royal College of Psychiatrists' Annual Meeting, 2001: A Mind Odyssey. Conference abstract. Royal College of Psychiatrists.
Davies, J (2001) What a child's drawing reveals. The Times; 24 September.
Hobson, R (2006) The intersubjective foundations of thought. In Intersubjective Communication and Emotion in Early Ontogeny (ed Braten, S) 283–96. Cambridge University Press.
Hulse, WC (1952) Childhood conflict expressed through family drawings. Journal of Projective Techniques; 39: 389–93.
Wolfson, S (2006) John Keats. Longman.
Kendall, R (1988) Cézanne by Himself. Macdonald.
Klee, P (1961) The Thinking Eye. The Notebooks of Paul Klee (ed Spiller, J trans Manheim, R) Lund Humphries.
Langer, S (1953) Feeling and Form: A Theory of Art Developed from Philosophy in a New Key. Charles Scribner and Sons.
Skynner, R (1976) One Flesh: Separate Persons. Constable.
Sylvester, D (1984) Interview with Howard Hodgkin. In Howard Hodgkin. Forty Paintings: 1973–1984. The Whitechapel Art Gallery.
Trevarthen, C (2006) The concept and foundations of infant intersubjectivity. In Intersubjective Communication and Emotion in Early Ontogeny (ed Braten, S) 1546. Cambridge University Press.
Winnicott, DW (1971) Playing and Reality. Routledge.

Form and mental state: an interpersonal approach to painting

  • Jonathan Green

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Form and mental state: an interpersonal approach to painting

  • Jonathan Green
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eLetters

The strange complexity of Dubuffet and art brut

Zekria Ibrahimi, psychiatric patient
18 May 2009

The e- letter from Andrew Clark and John Crossfield (1)never considered the Nazi attitude to modernism in art. The term, degenerate art(entartete Kunst), was deliberately intended in the 1930's to bracket the avant garde in painting and sculpture with mental illness (2). An infamousdisplay in Munich in 1937 placed paintings by Van Gogh and Picasso alongside the products of patients in psychiatric hospitals. Art and mental illness have often travelled in tandem. Nazi art history did indeedequate modernism with madness (3).

Anti- art was what Dubuffet preferred.

Dubuffet was devoted to anti- painting, to what Wylie Sypher termed art at absolute zero. 'Dubuffet considers art as an act of sabotage, he says, of the past, of academism, of the Louvre, and of the Greeks.' (4)

Clark and Crossfield mention the now hackneyed comment by Dubuffet: 'Our point of view is that art is the same in all cases, and there is no more an art of the mad than there is an art of the dyspeptic, or an art for those with bad knees.' We would suffer without the general investigation of Clark and Crossfield into art as dialogue.

But Dubuffet is frequently misunderstood here. He was anti- psychiatrist in addition to anti- painting. For him, the concept of madness was just a western fabrication to put down creative rebels. What he feared was that art by the mad might be segregated and stigmatized. Thesame as Klee and Ernst, he concluded that the aim of art was to be as abnormal as possible.

'The psychological mechanisms from which all artistic creaion proceeds are such, it seems to me, that they should be classed once and for all in the domain of pathology, and the artist should be considered inall cases as a psychopath, or we should enlarge our conception of what is sane and normal, and roll back the boundary so much that the whole of madness can take its place there.' (5) Such comments from Dubuffet edgily presage Laing.

With Dubuffet's own work, there is a possibly self- conscious attemptto mirror schizophrenia. From the 1920's, his initial half- baked flirtation with figurative depiction becomes unstable and unsafe- deliberately so. Dubuffet shatters whatever he observes into fragments. Nudes are broken up into discordant areas. The paint turns muddy, dirty. Vision is split up into hundreds of bits. Ugliness is cultivated. This despairing fracturing of the canvas space is very schizophrenic.

It would be surprising if the art of a patient were any less of an insight into a patient's illness than his speech, his appearance, and so on.

REFERENCES:

(1) Art and mental state; meaning requires dialogue. APT. E-letter. A.F. Clark. J. Crossfield.

(2) The Concise Oxford Dictionary of art and artists. 1990. Edited byIan Chilvers. Pg. 123.

(3) Blinded Insights: On the Modernist Reception of the Art of the Mentally ill. Hal Foster. October 97, Summer 2001, pgs. 3-30.

(4) La Degre Zero de la peinture. Wilie Sypher from Jean Dubuffet. L'Herne. 1973.

(5) Honour savage values. Jean Dubuffet. 10 January. 1951.

DECLARATION OF INTEREST:

I am a psychiatric patient, Old Oak unit, West London Mental Health Trust
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Conflict of interest: None Declared

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Re: art and mental states: meaning requires dialogue

Zekria Ibrahimi, psychiatric patient
18 May 2009

The e-letter from Clark and Crossfield refers to an article in the American Journal of Psychiatry (1)that, however, does not justify their assumption about art not indicating mental state. In fact, the article resorts to a chi- squared test, whereby untrained lay people are much lessable to infer mental illness than psychiatrists from the tragic paintings of Gauguin, Van Gogh, Munch and Rothko. The article does concede that psychiatrists are not so sure- footed when dealing with the ordinary worksof individuals not found in museums.

This article belongs to a series, 'Images in Psychiatry', where the overall implication is that art mirrors the often turbulent mental state within. Art is a leap into the void. For example, 'Art as a Portal Into the Minds of Those with Mental Illness' (2) is about the American Visionary Art Museum in Baltimore.

Another article revolves around Caravaggio, with the grim painting ofDavid holding Caravaggio's own severed head. This reflects Caravaggio's 'psychopathology- pitilessly self- destructive and ultimately fatal masochism.'(3) Caravaggio was indeed a suicidal Goliath.

According to Dubuffet, all art requires instability, rather than moderation and reason, at its core. Art is the pursuit of the abnormal. Caravaggio- a homosexual, brawler, and murderer hunted down by Authority across all Italy- was the typical artist as doomed rebellious outsider.

The association between art and mental illness is an old one. We could not cope without the insight of Clark and Crossfield that art is a dialogue, but they are denying the history and essence of art in divorcingthe mental state from what is depicted and displayed. Art seeks the heart of shadows that is in us all.

REFERENCES:

(1) Images in Psychiatry: Can Psychiatrsist Recognize Mental Illness in Paintings? Anjali Rao. Matcheri S. Keshavan. Am J Pschiatry 163:4, April 2006. Pg. 599.

(2) Images in Psychiatry: Art as a Portal Into the Minds of Those With Mental Illness. Alissa Fujimoto. Molly Douglas- Fujimoto. Am J Psychiatry 165:7, July 2008. Pg. 819.

(3) Images In Psychiatry: Caravaggio (1571-1610). Peter J. Buckley. Am J Psychiatry 165:2, February 2008. Pgs. 201- 202.
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art and mental states: meaning requires dialogue

Andrew F Clark, Consultant Adolescent Psychiatrist
16 April 2009



In this article Professor Green encourages us to think beyond the structured interview and symptom checklist but instead to allow our patients to express their experiences and distress in the ways, words and modalities most appropriate to them. This always has been and remains at the heart of our professions, even if prevailing ideologies encourage us to depart from it. However pictures, more than words, rely for meaning not just upon the originator but also upon the perceiver – how a picture is perceived may have little or no relationship to the thoughts and intent of its originator (1). The same words or images can have radically different meaning or significance to different individuals or in different cultures. Sensitive exploration of meaning and an awareness of ones own cultural heritage and biases are essential parts of use of art as a means of therapeutic communication.

Imbuing of mental state from the interpretation of a painting is fraught with danger. Green cites his own study (2) in support of his contention that abnormal mental states can be recognised from art, at least in children, although scarce detail is available from this conference abstract. There is little convincing evidence either from psychiatry (3) or from art history (4) that it is possible to recognise individuals suffering from mental illness by their art alone. Indeed Dubuffet, one of the fathers of Art Brut or Outsider Art, writes: “Our point of view is that art is the same in all cases, and there is no more an art of the mad than there is an art of the dyspeptic, or an art for those with bad knees” (4:p608). Art Brut’s emphasis was upon encompassing the vitality and spontaneity of artists traditionally ignored or regarded as unschooled into the cathedra of the established art world and not upon some intrinsic differentness that their art possessed.

Green writes: “Thus, I am suggesting two processes: the first, a sustained sense of not knowing, linked with free-floating attention; the second, a gradual piecing together of local connections between elements of another’s communication, which build up gradually into a more coherent overall image. This image is suddenly meaningful, ‘makes sense’ and is accompanied by an intuition of the other person’s mental state.”. This hasreflexive echoes of Hilton’s writing about the production of art: “Painting is feeling. Just as much as a sentence describes, so a sequence of colours describes … All art is an attempt to exteriorise one’s sensations and feelings, to give them form … Words and painting don’t go together. The more words that are written about a painting the less peoplewill see the painting.” (5:p772/773).

Images are created through a process. In art therapy in particular itis the process and the relationship that develops between client, therapist and image and the shared understanding that develops from this that is of importance rather than an end product taken out of context and then layered with the viewer's own interpretations.



References

1.Berger J. Ways of Seeing. London: Penguin.1972

2.Cohen S., Samson I., Shakespeare E., et al. Forms of feeling: an analysis of children’s drawings. Royal College of Psychiatrists’ Annual Meeting, 2001: A Mind Odyssey. Conference abstract. London: Royal College of Psychiatrists. 2001.

3.Rao A., Keshavan MS. Can Psychiatrists Recognise Mental Illness inPaintings?. American Journal of Psychiatry, 163:4, 599. 2006.

4.Dubuffet J. Crude Art Preferred to Cultural Art (1948) in DubuffetJ. Prospectus et Tous Ecrits Suivant, Paris, 1967. Translated in Harrison C., Wood P. Art in Theory 1900-2000 pp605-608. Oxford: Blackwell. 2003.

5.Hilton R. Remarks about Painting. Zurich. 1961. In Harrison C., Wood P. Art in Theory 1900-2000 pp771-773. Oxford: Blackwell. 2003.
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Conflict of interest: None Declared

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Form and Mental State: the case of Art Brut

ZEKRIA IBRAHIMI, psychiatric patient
06 March 2009

The article possessed an uneasy omission. There was no mention of outsider art- art brut, conceived by Jean Dubuffet as being produced by the mentally ill. Dubuffetstood for raw art, seeking not immortality and refinement, but the difficult essence of what we are. Green refers to the grim cold irony of postmodernism in art today. The far from comfortable fact is that art is usually a mere mirror to society. Postmodernism alas reflects a contemporary ethos that is all too cynical and sly.

Dubuffet would not have been happy about statistical tests being applied to drawings and paintings done in the art brut mode; "robotic mathematics is unable to interpret art!" might have been his angry response.

The thrust of Green's thesis is possibly implying that art by schizophrenics might be a sort of vague and approximate diagnostic tool, without which we understand less well what is going on inside a patient's mind.

Art can be a disturbing looking glass- to shallow consumerism, to inhuman mechanization, and to depression and schizophrenia. Yes, 'formal aspects of visual art are associated with mental states' (Green, 2009). Art is not so much a thing in itself, as the fragile silvered surface where all our own dangerous passions shine back at us with such frightening candour.



Correspondence:

Coombs Library,

West London Mental Health Trust,

Southall,

UB1 3EU

DECLARATION OF INTEREST:

I am a psychaitric out- patient, diagnosed as sschizophrenic, formerly under Section 3
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Conflict of interest: None Declared

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