Art, and Artists Making Art

This is a copy of my paper on the relationship
between art and brokenness.


Brilliant Insane Genius Lunatic Creative Mad-as-a-March-Hare
Inventive Abnormal Artistic Nuts Innovative Just Plain Crazy

I am writing this, in part, to satisfy my own curiosity.  I have heard the idea that genius and insanity were linked, in one form or another, all my life.  Whether people claimed the two were flip sides of the same coin, that the relationship was cause–>effect (though it is never clear which is the cause and which is the effect,) or that there is some as-yet-unknown neurological or genetic link; the effect is the same. Both the general public and artists of all stripe seem to buy into this notion at some level – if not consciously – then lurking somewhere just below the surface.  This presupposition changes the way we, as artists, think about our work and our existence; and it certainly has an effect on how we, and our work, are perceived by the public.

I believe the best potential counter argument to this culturalized belief is the claim that humans are, without exception, all broken or damaged.  We all experience pain, loss, damage, broken faith, unfortunate circumstances and misunderstanding; of the world around us.  We all experience death, fear, anger, and sadness – and some experience much more than others.  We all enter the world made of chemicals, genetic patterns, electricity, water, and breath – and the world being what it is, we all enter with glitches, skips, breaks, gaps and holes.

In reading about and considering the very full lifetime of work by artist Louise Bourgeois (1911-2010), it is brokenness and the damage of her early life which is trackable in her art – not insanity. In fact, her genius is tied most closely to her handling and expressing her own past, rather than some Freudian suppression of it.

According to Leonard Cohen’s poem Anthem: “There is a crack in everything/that’s how the light gets in.”  (This is a kinder and more optimistic view than Yeats’ entropic fatalism of The Second Coming, which observes that “things fall apart.”) It’s true. Things do fall apart. Entropy is a real thing – but the more complete truth is that as humans, we have some say in how and where entropy moves, and whether we are engulfed by it or ride it like a wave.  If our inevitable brokenness is where “the light” gets in – whether it is the light of innovation, invention, and creation; or the light of faith and hope; it is this shared crack in everything that makes it possible for us to minister to each other by way of cathartic Dionysian ritual (theater/art), the spiritually cleansing catholic confessional, or the psychologically purifying  therapist’s couch.  We may not be able to control what happens in the world around us, or what happens to us; but, we can control how we respond to it.

And it is that response which makes Bourgeois such a glorious counter-example to the presupposition of insanity/genius.  In her own words,

All my work in the past fifty years, all my subjects, have found their inspiration in my childhood….  My childhood has never lost its magic, it has never lost its mystery, and it has never lost its drama.

At first glance, we might assume from this that Louise lived an enchanted childhood. The reality, however, is that the magic of her childhood was made up of a revolutionary feminist mother who did her duty by her husband and had two children, then left him to find himself a mistress. Further encumbrances of motherhood were not on Madame Bourgeoise’ list of coming events. The mistress also served as a live-in caretaker for the children, tutor, and governess.

Strident and independent Mother was foreign, cold, and absent; the Mistress was a villainous pseudo-stepmother; and father was not just cold, but abusively cruel to the children born so dutifully by his ultra-social wife. This was a house full to the brim with angry, self-serving adults, and a couple of clueless children who only pieced together the truth of the arrangement as they entered puberty. The only magic I found in this childhood is the near miracle that there were no poisoned apples, huntsmen, or cinder-covered hearths involved.  Louise left home in her teens to paint live in a house full of surrealists in Paris (the house full of surrealists.) Not surprisingly, hardly anyone noticed she was gone.

It is only been in the last 200+ years that painting could be thought of as self expression.  As soon as the self, the mind, and the intentions of the artist began to become important players in the making of art, all sense of trade and craft disappeared from all the arts. Meaning became the subject of a work of art rather than some object or model being copied.  Since this was happening just as the unconscious mind, mental health, and general psychology were creeping into everyday the 1st World cultures, it’s no wonder that artists were perceived as breaking the rules and wandering into the sinful landscape of the criminal and insane. Vincent van Gogh was the poster-boy for the insanity/creative genius camp right up until the culture of the 1st World grew and discovered he might have been bipolar or schizophrenic. Then he became the poster boy for physical chemical imbalance. Whether it was a serious food allergy, and/or PTSD/abuse/neglect-induced fugue states, those are late 20th and early 21st Century understandings of his life.  The more we learn, the less insane, criminal, sinful, and weak van Gogh looks. (see Wilfred N Arnold’s  Chemicals, Crises, and Creativity for more on van Gogh’s relationship to his own biology.)   At the beginning of the 21st Century, Vincent is an unfortunate victim.  If we could choose for him and pick a different century for him to be born, would we give up his art works in order to allow him a peaceful, balanced life?  Is it a fair trade?

Louise Bourgeois, on the other hand, turned those magical, mysterious, and dramatic bits of her childhood into art by choice – by all evidence, fully aware of the metaphorical connections between her art and her past.  Her cold, alien mother became Maman (colloquial fr. for mother)

"Maman" sculpture by Louise Bourgeois

the giant spider that seems to wander through forests of cement and steel.  Her installations are   experiences to be fashioned between the individual and the place/object.  They are her home.  Her rooms.  Places of memory and rite, built to elicit feelings and ideas to be shared between the artist and the single audience member.  She has built these places and made this art so people will understand and build relationship through these intensely personal conversations. We all experience her isolation and loneliness with her – and we recognize it because we have felt it, too.  Bourgeois’ father appears in her art – though not in the dramatic and shocking form of her monster mother.  Instead, his presence is felt in these rooms and in many of her other installation. He is a tangle of objects and a claustrophobic lie of a room.  He informed Bourgeois through every action and word that being a girl – a woman – was to be grotesque, useless, ugly, ungrateful, unwanted, foolish, stupid, and disgusting.

Red Room installation, by Louise Bourgeois

Listening to Bourgeois as she demonstrates her father’s trick with the tangerine reveals a pain so deep that after 7 decades – it still reduced her to a weeping child.  There are some pains – some breaks and rips in our being – that, like a wicked witch’s spell, never lose their magic.

The Father and the Mother are responsible for Louise Bourgeois reaching out to communicate with the rest of the world.  Had they been loving and affectionate – she might never have picked up a paintbrush or sculpted a frail hand.

Why?  Because there is a crack in everything.  That’s how the light gets in.  It’s the light (energy,) memory, and emotion that travel through those cracks that connect us. That’s where we meet –and where communication happens.  Those universal cracks are where art does what art does, and where artist and audience share and survive together.

I believe that the question about the relationship between genius and insanity is an old, out of date question.  It presupposes that what is not normal can be labeled criminal, insane, sinful, stupid, useless and/or weak. But that’s a 19th century understanding of normal – and a 19th century understanding of insanity.  By starting with the wrong question – there is no chance of finding a right answer.  The real question artists, critics, audience, and history have to start asking has to do with understanding and choosing how to express and relate to our own individual and cultural breaks, cracks, quirks, skips, and bumps.  What is the relationship between brokenness, health, and the making of art, invention, and creativity?

I know that we must have care with the words we choose and the presuppositions we make.  If we start with the question: What is the relationship between brokenness and making/creating (or just between brokenness and art), then we have changed the playing field of presuppositions.  Brokenness carries a few negative bags of its own – but it also carries the solution for itself: it carries the presuppositions of repair, mending, re-finishing, correcting, and healing. A broken pot can be fixed.  A broken window can be replaced and made good as new again.  A broken person can be brought back to health.  An insane person just gets more insane until s/he finally succumbs.

Some people presuppose that artists and other creatives somehow experience more deeply.  They are especially sensitive and have a stronger emotional life than an accountant or a short order cook.  I have no idea how true/not true those assumptions are.  But I know that artists in all the arts find a way to express what is inside their own minds and guts in a way that is recognizable and creates a link to others through Leonard Cohen’s cracks.  I don’t believe artists make art as a means of self-therapy (though it may sometimes happen as a side effect) – but I do think there is something to be said for extending a helping hand to all those accountants and short order cooks through art, music, story, poetry etc.

Art requires us to be generous and to be able to need without shame, simultaneously.   This is a very great evolutionary step.

As for how my own thoughts and self expression relates to the life and art of Louise Bourgeois, I suppose the first point of contact is that we share some of those “magic” childhood experiences.  There is something about profound neglect and intentionally inflicted pain that is, as Bourgeois says, never lost.  What we choose to do with those experiences makes the difference between her building giant, alien looking mother-spiders, and Van Gogh at his most disturbed eating tubes of chrome-yellow paint.  While Louise Bourgeois spent the first 30 years of her 70 year career just learning to use her tools and talent to express what was going on in her mind; I spent those 30 years learning what was going on in my mind, and about the minds, motivations, and puzzlements of others.  It has only been the last 5 or 6 years that I have begun looking for materials to start creating expressions of those things.  I am just now comfortable with the tools of the trade.  But like her, I know the language of metaphor.  I understand the layers and pieces of the puzzle, and I have a long-running intimacy with opening boxes.  Communication, in whatever form, has always been the crux of what I have done, said, made and searched out.  Whether that ultimately makes art or not is another question.  But it is certainly fun trying.

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2 thoughts on “Art, and Artists Making Art

    • Greetings as well –
      While I wasn’t really trying to address the Brave New World argument that suffering is somehow necessary to make art, or the Aristotelian argument that the gods make us mad in order to destroy us; I am acknowledging that the modern (from the Romantic period forward) questions about the relationship between insanity and genius stem (at least in part) from the inferred permission given to those who would be artists and creatives, by the question itself, to misbehave and act against or outside societal norms. This is too easy. It presupposes that we cannot help ourselves or choose for ourselves. Or at least that we should prefer not to in order to enjoy the kind of suffering that supposedly produces great art.

      In fact, I think we are agreeing on this point. Artists, like everyone else, are on the CAUSE side of the equation, rather than constantly being at the EFFECT of their circumstances and suffering. Bad things happen to everyone, but each of us chooses how we will reference and use those bad moments/experiences. In the case of artists — like Bourgeois — we can choose to incorporate it metaphorically or literally into art. van Gogh, according to all we know about his life, probably had a good many difficult circumstances of his own — but his madness — the madness at the root of his depression, paranoia and (probable) schizophrenia was not nearly so much the retribution of vengeful gods as much as it was a result of his own body chemistry. A hundred years later — he could have been making choices to deal with his life and art in a healthier way — but the difference of a hundred years is everything, medically.

      I don’t have much to say about “divine spark” — as the term is too vague for my purposes. It implies something about the supernatural that makes it impossible to prove or disprove — or even talk about in any meaningful way.

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