Good art is … the product of the deranged. True or False?

We enter the dark side this week in The Modern and the Postmodern with Michel Foucault’s Madness and Civilization.

Straight away we’re into the thick of things – the medieval landscape of how madness was marked out and addressed right to the current day.

Hieronimus_Bosch_Ship of Fools

Hieronimus_Bosch_Ship of Fools

Foucault quotes Saint-Evremond, Sir PolitikWe owe the invention of the arts to deranged imaginations; the Caprice of Painters, Poets and Musicians is only a name moderated in civility to express their madness.’

Foucault charts the literary and visual representation of madness through a ‘rich portrayal’ in the 16th Century where the fool, alongside the truly mad, is a part of the social fabric.

In literature Shakespeare’s King Lear, Ophelia, Hamlet and Macbeth and Cervantes’ Don Quixote, sit alongside Bosch, Albert Durer, Matthias Grunewald, and Dieric Bouts who depict hell, temptation and madness in truly graphic exposition. Plunge then into the nightmarish landscapes of Hieronymus Bosch‘s earlier paintings from the late 15th Century. Ghoulish and glorious.


My offering for the week below :

Foucault (Madness and Civilization) puts forward successive generation’s approach to treating madness within ‘society’ as a demonstration of a type of counter progress. 
He draws on a number of writers, from Rousseau to Freud, to give evidence to the over riding cruelty which results when a society defines and then seeks to segregate those afflicted by madness.
As Foucault tracks the sorry progress from the Middle Ages – when the mad embarked as a ‘ship of fools’ which for practical purposes moved people on and placed them in other communities. 
In this medieval solution there was also an element of separation (out of sight – out of mind – as we might term it now) which Foucault describes also an early form of intangible separation – ‘the madman’s liminal position on the horizon of medieval concern.’

From a fairly benign tolerance of the mad or eccentric within small, more localised communities, Foucault documents a spiralling – and often increasingly negative trend – to partition the mad. Initially institutions were involved in separating the mad, for example churches denied access to madmen – ‘although ecclesiastical law did not deny them the use of the sacraments’. However over time this became a ritualised element in treating the mad as different and formal rites were used to banish or send off the mad on pilgrimages or other suitable expulsions.

Foucault follows the manner in which great public health works to address leprosy in medieval times were turned over to the Church to administer as general hospitals or to the State as prisons.  England had already assigned vagabonds and the poor as criminals as early as 1575 – in effect they were incarcerated through public taxes which provided for at least one institution in each county. The national institution of the hôpitaux-généraux across France in the 1670s was perhaps a more egalitarian intention. In Germany too this period saw the installation of prisons. All these institutional reforms, some based on civil good doing and benevolent intent, ultimately designed systems which led to greater abuse and stigmatisation of those designated as ‘insane’.

At least to some extent the mad had reached the level of ‘patient’ (unless perhaps they were mad and poor) by the mid 19th Century. And yet, without the advent of more medicalised methods of managing madness, a host of therapies were metered out on those afflicted. Various writers returned to Rousseau to illustrate their basis for ‘new therapies’ such as the use of water in its various forms as a purgative, a shock. Foucault (quoting Rousseau) ‘Nature has prescribed water as the unique beverage of all nations’ so water was regarded as an ancient and thereby respected remedy but here too institutions applied this to the insane in the form of hot and cold baths, shocking the afflicted in an effort to re-instil a ‘normalcy’ through a form of ‘therapeutic baptism’.

Into the late 19th Century the rise of psychology gave greater definition to what might constitute madness and might have then seen as a route to greater understanding. However Foucault writes that ‘People were once afraid, people were still afraid, of being confined; at the end of the 18th Century.’ Where once confinement may have been to protect the mad, now the security of society was paramount and there were growing examples of how incarceration even sought to expose the criminal to the insane as a form of punishment. Sadly, this misuse of incarcerations still persists in many ‘enlightened’ countries.

Or watch a full lecture on Foucault by Prof Roth (who knows what he is talking about as he actually studied under Foucault) is here



2 thoughts on “Good art is … the product of the deranged. True or False?

    • Hi Hilary – Good to hear. I hope being deranged isn’t essential to be an artist but maybe there is that slight line for anyone who truly follows a passion with great intensity. Perhaps this is why we draw back from giving our whole life to art – that and economics…


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s