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Out of their Minds

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But anyone who's ever spent time in a psycho ward, or lived with someone mentally disturbed, or gone through any of it himself, knows all too well that the fallout is despair far more often than it is beauty, that the voices and visions are punishing rather than redemptive. Madness is chaos and destruction, prison and impotence -- no more a door to great art than the occasional frenzies of drugs, and probably less. At least a hallucinogen gets some sort of credit for the rock paintings of the San bushmen of the Kalahari and of the Shoshonean Coso of the California Greater Basin; and poppies probably account for the bat caves of southern Spain, the tomb art and Breton megaliths of neolithic France, and the late Minoan III period of ornamental vases; and soma for both the Rig Veda and the geometries of Persian carpet design; and opium for a poem by Coleridge.

Art, on the other cunning hand, must advance from perception to representation to realization; it requires shaping, subjugation, and mastery; it is the unconscious made conscious by the mysteries of craft. The lesson of The Living Museum is not, it seems to me, that artistic genius is some weirdly automatic compensation for the sufferings of the wounded mind (a demonstrable falsehood). Nor even that art works therapeutic miracles (only occasionally). The lesson, more valuable by far, is that the maddened are human, not so strange, as full of terror and wonder as the rest of us (only sometimes more so). The lesson of this remarkable program is empathetic. Jessica Yu enables us to imagine others, the not-so-strangers with their tongue depressors and their ice-cream sticks, after which imagining we might be able to conceive of something that is, socially, even scarier: that, to these others, we have civil, medical, and moral obligations. We are all on Issa Ibrahim's Abbey Road.


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