Out of their Minds

Lost and found: John Tursi, one of six artists in Jessica Yu's The Living Museum. Photo: Bill Stanton/HBO

Of the six mad artists we meet in Jessica Yu’s The Living Museum (Tuesday, July 6; 7:30 to 9 p.m.; HBO), Issa Ibrahim seems to me the most compelling. And not only because he’s young, handsome, black, prodigal, articulate, and funny (although, of course, these indices do add up to something sort of nineteenth-century Romantic: the jailbird genius). Ibrahim is also political. His demons are social and pop-cultural as well as personal. In addition to painting the inside of his paranoid-schizophrenic head, he has rendered American flags, Muhammad Ali, the Wizard of Oz, and a disgruntled Superman (exhausted, puffing on a cigarette); hooded Klansmen and a Hogarth series on slavery itself; even, especially, an Abbey Road like a Pilgrim’s Progress with Jesus Christ, Adolf Hitler, Malcolm X, and Elvis instead of the Beatles. Doubtless this preference says more about me than it does about art or madness, but this column is my therapy.

Ibrahim reports, by court appointment, to the Creedmoor Psychiatric Center in Queens, New York, where the Oscar-winning documentarian Yu (Breathing Lessons) spent more than a year chatting up mental patients for whom artistic activity is a lot more than therapy; it seems to be both respiration and salvation. While neither Yu nor Dr. Janos Marton, the psychologist and “curator” of this Living Museum, ever makes it entirely clear which artists are in-patient and which out – nor exactly how long they’ve been at Creedmoor, nor precisely the damage they did to themselves or others before they got there – it’s obviously a sanctuary where astonishing work and play are fostered. “We are more honest,” says Marton, who identifies perhaps to excess with his communicants. “There is a total lack of pretension here.”

Well, for Eileen (no last name), there isn’t any time left over for pretension between her screaming back at the voices she hears and her painting in morbid religious metaphors, as if art were surreal prayer. And the rather solemn-seeming John Tursi turns out to be sex-obsessed, converting the “garbage” of such found objects as lightbulbs, tongue depressors, and ice-cream sticks into visual dirty jokes that are genuinely witty. And Helen Sadowski, who attended the Philadelphia College of Art before abandoning her apartment and her life, has moved on from Roman Catholicism and depression to Zen Buddhism and abstraction, which she expresses in bands of neat-freak color so tightly compacted that they seem to scream like Eileen. And John C. Mapp is making movies – producing and writing and directing them – in his head, of which we see only the storyboards for, say, Rikers Island Shadow of Death. And David Waldorf has come back from a perfectly dreadful past of violent abuse and suicidal depression, of a decade of being “completely gone,” to allegorize what seems to be “the allure of madness” in free-form pencil sketches of phantomlike gargoyle shapes inspired by the music Beethoven wrote after he’d gone deaf.

These six, some more garrulously than others, explain themselves to Yu’s camera and are elaborated on by the indulgent Marton. We also visit a SoHo gallery (for a dual exhibit of Tursi and Sadowski) and an open house while listening to some soundtrack music that definitely isn’t Beethoven (Soul Asylum, Beth Orton, Elliott Smith, and Beck). We needn’t buy the whole public-relations package – Marton goes so far as to argue that “mental illness and art are a natural combination,” and that “anybody who has a mental breakdown, a psychotic experience,” can come out of it “and create great works of art” – to appreciate the the surprising beauty and the equally surprising laughter that Yu has found in Queens.

What I’m trying hard to resist here is an impulse to sermonize against a comeback of the notion, so fashionable in the sixties, that all art is neurotic or psychotic, and that madness is a proof of grace. We’ve been too long as it is recovering from R. D. Laing, whose own lunacies on the subject had such an unfortunate effect on several novels by Doris Lessing. To be sure, there is an eerie music to be heard from the fretting of the raw edges of a mind that craves to heal, and we can hear it in the literature, going backward from therapists like Lauren Slater, dreaming along with her schizoid patients, to literary critics like Edmund Wilson, with his wound and his bow, to the great essays of Sigmund Freud, with his “substitute gratifications” and his Leonardo vulture fantasies, to painters like Goya and Bosch, with their exquisite tortures, to such poets as Baudelaire, Rimbaud, and Verlaine, having disarranged their senses, all the way to the beginnings of Christianity (suffering is truth) and mythic prehistory (sexual sacrifice, mutilated priests, prophets, and shamans). And we’d like to believe that our apprehensions signify our specialness, that our consuming fantasies guarantee our creativity, that our intensities of feeling amount to genius.

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.

Out of their Minds