detail image from: Return Of The Vietnam Vets - 1978 painting by B.A. Poulin
Responses to comments made on my postings at times tend to be long-winded, I therefore sometimes reply as a post rather than a simple yay, nay or hmmmm. This is one of those times and I would like to both acknowledge and thank William Beckwith for his comment on my last presentation : D'ja Hear Van Gogh's Crazy. . . Again!
William always makes me think further. And so. . .
It is not the caring observation that William describes so wonderfully in his response to me which bother. Willam Beckwith's presentation of an experience before a van Gogh piece simply and profoundly highlighted the human in the man van Gogh rather than the "sickness". There was empathy rather than sympathy or ogling in the discovery of this artwork's power. And I only wish I could have been there to experience it also.
No, my reflections are rather linked to the morbid interest in the mad van Gogh by those who seek out "the sick guy who painted and shot himself" rather than the artist who created despite his illness. It is also the connections we at times collectively make between mental health issues and creativity - i.e. : that the former is the cause and/or stimulant of the latter, which are upsetting.
Our own little mental health nest?
Being as the “art world” is a small segment of society (presumed to be 2% of the total population - though research is sparse ) is it not odd that we collectively associate (if not emphasize) mental health issues as being part and parcel of the creativity realm? Are we saying : “well, you have “issues” but then, you have a compensation - you’re creative?” or. . . “well, you may have “issues” but then, what do you expect - you’re creative?” So. . . mental health "acceptability" is only a viable topic when associated with the arts? It often seems so as it both differentiates "them" from those who are not artistic while pointing a finger at somewhat questionable (yet tolerated) differences in being within a purported "normal" environment.
But how is it that we shove aside, if not ignore this same issue, (no pun intended) when referring to the rest of the world - those who are not seen as “artistic”? Is it that we consider other spheres of human existence as having no mental health issues or is it that those issues beyond the arts don't really titillate us? Or is it, rather, that these issues frighten us - being that they hit too close to home. . . ?
When an excellent truck driver, a scientist with lauded research discoveries or a loving parent kills themselves, we don’t associate their achievements or lack thereof with the suicide but rather speak of their accomplishments as after-thoughts - asides about which we know little and which therefore are not seen as relevant to the consequences of the illness which afflicted them.
In the arts we immediately create a link. Is it because most of us who are not artistic perceive creative action as an impossible magical exercise - if not a devil worshiping one? Is it because the door of “artwork creation” is always slightly ajar - teasing us. . . at best dangerously welcoming. . . at worst “allowing us” a peeping tom look into an “eccentric” world most of us fail to understand? Or is it that we who are in the arts consider our little world to be oh so special that we can be and do whatever we say because we can get away with saying we can?
In Dr Judith Schlesinger’s book : The Insanity Hoax, she clearly references this dichotomy of perception in that we speak of the artistic crazies (whilst giggling even) but fail to recognize that the issue of mental health is a universal phenomenon which does not hold artists more dearly within the folds of its cape than it does others. And despite an increased public awareness re : mental health, we still cringe at associating “those things” with “us” and rather continue to speak of mental health only insomuch as it relates to others. Are we keeping a “healthy” distance from this still unknown yet ”say we know more about it” state? Or is it, possibly, that we who need to be perceived as “normal” are not as up-to-date on these matters of import as we say we are.
The perfect normal
Normal is what most of us purport to be. Yet, normal is nothing more than what there is the most of. So then why is this the state in which most of us want to be? Well, it's the “good to-be-in" state. . . Right?
But then why is normal so boring to most of us that it constantly needs to be enhanced or compensated for? Why does the state of normalcy require its adherents to consistently search out the rationally impossible “perfection” as its zenith? Is it not evident that the quest for perfection has two great failings : (1) : It’s an impossible to achieve goal. And (2) : If perfection was a plausible accomplishment, there would actually be nothing beyond it worth pursuing other than death.
Perfection implies having accomplished everything, in the only and therefore best way possible and therefore nothing more can be accomplished since we are now "perfect". Ergo, the next step? Death. But in our societies, death and its "normal" precursor "growing old" are verboten. They are "things" we most heartily and “crazily” try to avoid as they imply demise - and that is a sorely feared thing. Now, if that is not abnormal as a baseline for normality, then what is?
But then, with death being fearsome we do try to compensate by looking at more "insanely realistic" (?!) goals. . . : i.e. : “to be seen to be as perfect as possible”. . . Sigh!. . . Long live the elimination of wrinkles, flab and motivational speakers. . .
But, as the goals of perfection and being seen to be - along with their concomitant “being seen to be normal” - remain the ultimate (though impossible and restrictive) achievements, I guess normal is as normal does. None of these goals allow for discrepancies, self-bettering or any other accomplishments. In essence, normal is as falsely elitist as it gets, perfection as domineering as sanity purportedly allows and nothing actually is worth pursuing or even exists beyond either perfection or the quest to be seen to be.(So there! Harrumph!)
Our insane view of sanity variances
So restrictive are these 2 existence elements (perfection and normal) that it is rather odd that this pair would allow for the perception of insanity (a generically defined negative) as having a somewhat tangential link with creativity (a perceived "somewhat" positive).
How ironic that normalcy would hold such a seemingly unstable view - in light of its consideration of perfection being the ultimate quest. Does a recognition of "acceptable abnormalities" not open the gates to insanity now being perceived as nothing more than an all-encompassing title for an indescribably long list of degrees of variance? (Horrors!) And in this sanity/insanity variance display are not all of our own “states of being” listed along its continuum. . . “somewhere”? (even greater gasps of horror?!).
And if that is so. . . would fitting somewhere along such a sanity scale of variances therefore not be a positive? Would it not be a more healthy state of perception and being than the euphemistically called “normal” - whose sole battle appears to be that of maintaining stasis at all costs? Are we not all, in one form or another, sanity challenged - and this on a daily, if not hourly basis? If so. then why the ghoulish obsessions with the so-called disturbances "in others" - especially those who are "higher ups" than we? Are we afraid of the ever sneaky "pointing finger of fate"?
The paradox of OK and not OK
Normality has always been a collective (read : “acceptable”) arena of functionality. It is the bar by which we (morally?) define the (with it) solidity of our governmental, corporate and social structures. By normal we mean that anything else (then what there is the most of) is oddball if not crazy and at our most "paranoic" : dangerous. In other words, we tend to classify and codify in order that the great majority (us?) is always (despite acceptable variances) perceived to be “OK” (on top) and therefore can control that which threatens us : i.e. : what isn’t OK. As for those "left-overs" in our societies who fail to pass the OK test. . . Well. . . Their “states” will always be debatable by those who have a strangle-hold on what is “normal” or OK and who have the power to establish how these not-OK people are to be handled. And that is good. . . Right?
The abnormality of that which is normal
Out of generosity (!) on the part of those in authority - (we are civilized societies aren't we?) - creatives have grudgingly been deemed to be “acceptably abnormal” as members of our societies - despite the fact their individual creative quests remain at odds with the seeking or the being seen to be of perfection - the single-minded goal of normality.
Creatives believe in "achievability", not impossibility. Theirs is never a goal of perfection, of being the best, but rather of being the best that it is possible to be today. While tomorrow is simply a future timeline during which a new door opens - one which allows "all creative people" the freedom and challenge to better their yesterday’s best - despite the hordes surrounding them who seek perfection - often through ads and the taking in of marketing ploys rather than the wisdoms of the likes of Shakespeare, Tolstoy, of Maureen Jennings, et al.
Consequently, despite perceived eccentricities, maybe creatives "amongst us" aren't all that crazy. Rather than defeat themselves through discouragement and an existence who's only goal is foiling death, they reach beyond to that which consistently opens the door to more rather than less - to a better life through a never ending search for excellence. And so, would this not mean that perfection seekers, the normals of this world, are at a much higher risk level of insanity then creatives?
In this light, van Gogh would have to be a very highly rated sane individual, despite his mental health issues. His goal was never to copy (render perfect) that which he could not create but to create every new day the best reflection of the perfect wonders of visible compositions he encountered daily. In essence, his need was never to be perfect but to "perfect" himself, his "seeing".
As painters we may be on a more intense acreage of the bell curve that all of us straddle. But this does not make us more crazy and therefore more creative; or creative therefore more insane. It simply explains the varied levels of passion eccentricity requires in order to strive to be the best we can be despite all odds.
That being said, it cannot be denied that our sane-insanity may have “asides”. . . i.e. : overtones which, like cancerous cells, may cause havoc with the healthy elements feeding our need to better ourselves each and every day. But then, does this not imply the wondrousness of the unknown, of the challenges, of the possibilities which allow us to stand firm against the odds threatening our well being and our ability to “function despite”? And does this not confirm, rather than deny the healthy aspect existence of our wondrous yet "imperfect" immune systems in both our bodies and our minds?
Basically, being human means being that imperfect, that much incredibly and beautifully flawed - that much of an unknown. And that in turn possibly means that our definitions of normal are also seriously and eerily flawed.
In essence, we are all astride this curvature of the unexplainable. Some of us on the edge of numbing boredom, others on the razor’s edge of a passionate need to discover, explore and express. And so, degrees of normality are nothing if not simply degrees of sanity at one end of a “being” spectrum with extremes of insanity at the other. And with time and experience and fate and happenstance, all of us never-endingly slide up and down that bell curve we inhabit; being positive, being negative, being creative, being not, being sane and insane.
And through the acceptance of what is, and the ebb and flow of it, it suddenly becomes possible to find within our worlds the greatest of all attributes of the greatest of all states of being that can be : the mystery of our own personal “uniqueness” - that seemingly frightening thing which makes us "us" and, which at times upsets others, whilst keeping us on our toes.
In essence, we are all in and of the same box of “chocolits”. What type of chocolit are each of us individually? Well. . . The world all on its own will decide one day. . . Probably when we are no longer around to have a say.
Bernard Poulin. . . I paint, I draw, I write