Section 3

The violence of the myth of the tortured artist

Gabrielle Anne Everall

This article explores the way the myth of the tortured artist both stereotypes ‘the mentally ill’ while obscuring the way ‘the mentally ill’ are tortured.  The stereotype of the tortured artist violates ‘the mentally ill’ by reducing them to a diagnosis.  An example of this can be seen in the way Van Gogh is pathologized.  Hartlaub describes Van Gogh’s The Starry Night thus, ‘The realism of a neurotic, a desperate genius, often great, sometimes grotesque but always pathological’.  The myth also creates romantic typologies of the creativity of ‘the mentally ill’ by asserting that some ‘mental illnesses’ are more creative than others.  Dichotomies of reason and madness are created where the creativity of ‘the mentally ill’ is distinguished between those who are genuinely creative.  ‘The mentally ill’ are seen as a lost cause who cannot reproduce and will die young.  Artists are stereotyped while the truth of the violence of the psychiatic system is denied.  Such as the torture (tear gassing and sexual assault) of teenage boys in Don Dale detention centre in the NT ‘the mentally ill’ are tortured (drugged, given ECT) in the state apparatus of the mental hospital.  A report by the Victorian Mental Illness Awareness Concil shows that 45% of women are sexually assaulted in care in psychiatic hospitals.  An involntary patient Garth Daniels has been given shock treatment about 97 times sometimes without general anaesthetic or muscle relaxant in Box Hill hospital in Victoria.


Mental Illness; Psychiatry; Violence

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In a previously unpublished oral presentation by Michel Foucault, “The Silence of the Mad” (2015), Foucault problematises the construction of “madness” as silence in literature. However, in doing so he still speaks of madness as silence. Foucault writes, “As for madness, it will remain silent, the pure object of an amused gaze” (2015, 13). I disagree, as “madness” is not always silent. Foucault says, “Madness can speak, but on condition that it takes itself as object” (2015, 20). I am not an object.

In this paper, when I write or speak the signifier “mental illness” I do so in quotations. This questioning of “mental illness” is undertaken in light of the frequent misdiagnoses that are made in the psychiatric system In Doing Psychiatry Wrong, Muller explains misdiagnosis:

“Listening to my patients’ stories, it became clear to me what had happened: symptoms they reported were matched by a clinician to the DSM criteria for bipolar disorder and schizophrenia without the meaning of the symptoms ever being ascertained—all but assuring a wrong diagnosis” (2013, 1, italics in original).

I too am critical of mis-diagnosis and the reduction of human beings to diagnostic labels such as schizophrenia.

Artistic “madness” occurs when parallels are drawn between creativity and “mental illness”. From this comes the concept of the tortured artist. According to van Uitert, Van Gogh is “the prototype of the misunderstood, tormented artist” (2016, n.p.). Van Gogh only sold one painting in his life, but after his death his paintings sold for millions (van Uitert 2016). However, with the tortured artist stereotype, the reality of how Van Gogh struggled with “mental illness” and poverty is trivialised. The concept of the tortured artist simultaneously stereotypes the “mentally ill” while not taking into account the serious ways “the mentally ill” are tortured in the mental health system. To deny the way “the mentally ill” suffer in the sadistic regime of psychiatry is fascist. This paper’s definition of fascism is about making people do things they don’t want to do. Such as when involuntary patients are forced to undergo shock therapy against their will.

For those categorised as “mentally ill”, the stereotype of the tortured artist reduces “the mentally ill” to a diagnosis. For example, Van Gogh’s manic depression. It creates typologies of “mental illness” where one “mental illness” is defined as more creative than another. For example, in her book on the artistic temperament associated with manic-depressive diagnosis, Jamison implies that hypomania is more creative than schizophrenia (1993, 108). Who has the right to say what groups of people are considered more creative and what groups are not? Who has the right to white coat creativity?

How can you be a creative genius when you are drugged up on high dosages of medication such as anti-psychotics? Medication that amongst other things makes you lose your memory. How can you be a creative genius when you have been given so much shock treatment that you can no longer tie your own shoe laces? How can you continue to be a creative genius when you are dead? For example, Phillip Young writes about how Ernest Hemingway killed himself after receiving twenty-five counts of shock therapy (1964, 31).

I am now going to talk about the musician P.J. Harvey. In no way do I see P.J. Harvey as being connected to “mental illness”. Yet, the stereotype of the tortured artist has led to literal interpretations of P.J. Harvey and her music. P.J. Harvey says, “the tortured artist myth is rampant. People paint me as some kind of black witchcraft practicing devil from hell, that I have to be twisted and dark to do what I’m doing. It’s a load of rubbish” (1999, 6).

Music journalist Mick Brown describes P.J. Harvey as “the voice of confused, dysfunctional femininity” (2001, n.p.). He also describes P.J. Harvey as “A scary, neurotic exclamation mark”. Why does Brown use outdated psychiatric terminology to define P.J. Harvey? Brown also says about P.J. Harvey, “the voice of female angst is learning to lighten up” (2001, n.p.). Thankfully P.J. Harvey will be angry forever in her art.

The stereotype of the tortured artist mocks “the mentally ill” while not taking into account the serious ways “the mentally ill” are tortured in the psychiatric system. It is about torture such as the involuntary treatment of shock therapy administered by psychiatrists and nurses in the state apparatus of the mental hospital. Similarly, teenage boys in the Don Dale detention centre in the Northern Territory have been tortured (tear gassed and sexually assaulted by guards). Although sexual assault in psychiatric hospitals is perpetrated by both staff and patients, a report by the Victorian Mental Illness Awareness Council (VMIAC) shows that 45% of women are sexually assaulted in care (2013, 4).

Like Don Dale youth detention centre, I have a memory of a sadistic chair at Graylands Hospital in Western Australia in 1993.

The mental health act violates the human rights of the patient where the patient can become involuntary. Once the patient becomes involuntary they can be administered shock treatment and high dosages of anti-psychotics against their will. An example of this is Garth Daniels who has been given shock treatment 97 times sometimes without general anaesthetic or muscle relaxant at Box Hill hospital in Victoria.

Anti-psychotic medication can also lead to weight gain, diabetes, stroke and heart disease. Anti-psychotic medication has been known to shorten life expectancy. Anti-psychotics can also replicate psychotic symptoms. Muller writes how the prescription of medication for patients misdiagnosed with schizophrenia can lead to psychosis. Muller writes, “This is thought to be caused by an overproduction of postsynaptic dopamine presynaptic receptors, the explanation posited for the original psychosis” (2013, 3). If a patient goes off their anti-psychotic medication suddenly they can have “discontinuation syndrome” in which “psychotic symptoms can occur even if the patient never had psychotic symptoms” (2013, 3).

While Whitaker in Mad in America writes about the side effects caused by the blocking of receptors in the antipsychotic Olanzapine (2002, 279). According to Whitaker, the blocking of receptors causes “motor dysfunction”, “sexual dysfunction”, “hypotension”, “dizziness”, “tachycardia”, “blurred vision”, “dry mouth”, “constipation”, “urinary retention”, “memory problems”, “drowsiness”, “fatigue” and “sedation” (2002, 279). Other complications with Olanzapine include “Parkinson’s”, “akathisia”, “seizures”, “increases in serum prolactin”, “liver abnormalities”, “leukopenia” and “neutropenia” (2002, 281). Other difficulties people with “mental illness” face include homelessness and poverty.

Deleuze and Guattari write about the tortured body and the excluded body in A Thousand Plateaus. This could quite easily be the body of “the mentally ill”. The body of the tortured is the counter body of the despot or God. The body of the tortured has its own ceremony “to code” its “lack of power”. The tortured body loses its face. In Graylands Hospital in 1993 the mirrors in the locked ward were sheets of metal. I could not see my face.

The tortured body enters into becoming-animal. The “mentally ill” are classified like animals. The “mentally ill” are the scapegoats. They are defined as “everything that was “bad” in a given period” (2008, 128). “The mentally ill” can be read as resisting signifying signs (2008, 128).

For Deleuze and Guattari, psychiatry is not established in relation to the sign “madness” (2008, 133). Rather, at the heart of psychiatry is the double delusion of “seeming mad without being it, then being it without seeming it” (2008, 133). Deleuze and Guattari are two of the few philosophers who dare to doubt psychiatry. Foucault is still caught up in very clear distinctions between “madness” and reason. This is will be elaborated on later in this paper.

Lastly, Deleuze and Guattari speak of how the tortured body “incarnates” lines of flight or “absolute deterritorializations” that the signifying regime cannot tolerate (2008, 128-129). “Deterritorialization” refers “broadly to the fluid and dissipated schizophrenic nature of human subjectivity in contemporary capitalist cultures” (Deleuze and Guattari, 1977). One example of the “deterritorialization” of “the mentally ill” is the freeing up of labour power from the means of production.

However, Deleuze and Guattari still use the language of psychiatry in their philosophy. Yet, when they say “schizophrenia” they are not referring to the “mental illness”. But Deleuze and Guattari still refer to people suffering from “schizophrenia” as “schizos”. For example when they say “a schizo out on a walk” (Deleuze and Guattari, 1977). I find this quite derogatory.

In the article by Borecka, “Madness: The 5 types of Crazy Artists you will meet in your life”, art and addiction is one type. From my last experience in the mental health system I was constructed as some kind of alcoholic, drug addict when in actual fact I couldn’t even afford to buy alcohol and the last time I took drugs was 20 years ago.

Claridge in “Creativity and Madness: Clues from Modern Psychiatric Diagnosis” distinguishes between the chaotic creativity of the “mentally ill” and those deemed as genuinely creative (1998, 227). As though the creativity of “the mentally ill” is not valid or should belong in some binary opposition of two different types of creativity that of unreason and reason. Similarly, outsider art takes place within the psychiatric system and is kept excluded from the mainstream. Outsider artists are often only recognised after their death.

Foucault himself in Madness and Civilization places the creativity of “the mentally ill” in a binary with reason claiming that “the mentally ill” cannot produce the work. In the conclusion to Madness and Civilization Foucault sees “madness” as diametrically opposed to the work of art. Foucault writes: “. . . between madness and the work of art, there has been no accommodation, no more constant exchange, no communication of language” (1967, 286-287). On the poet Artaud, Foucault says, “his madness is precisely the absence of the work of art” (1967, 287, italics in original). When Foucault speaks of “Nietzsche’s last cry” he associates this “madness” with silence as I mentioned earlier in this paper. Foucault writes, “it is the very annihilation of the work of art, the point where it becomes impossible and where it must fall silent” (1967, 287). This is untrue, as countless artists who suffered from “mental illness” produced the work—for instance, the poet Sylvia Plath and as already observed, artist Vincent Van Gogh. I wrote poetry and my PhD exegesis when I was considered “mad”. This work has since been published and I have been invited to present it at conferences and feature poetry readings in Melbourne, Adelaide, Newcastle and New York.

In Strong Imagination: Madness, Creativity and Human Nature, Nettle (2001) sees the origins of “mental illness” as genetic. I disagree with a genetic view of the cause of “mental illness”, instead viewing the cause of “mental illness” as socially constructed. Nettle’s genetic view leads to a reductive view of “the mentally ill” where he views those who have suffered from “psychosis” as not being able to reproduce and having “an early grave” (2001, 149). He believes those suffering from “psychosis” do not possess enough intelligence and discipline to produce creative works of genius. Nettle’s damning view of those diagnosed with “psychosis” is an untrue generalisation. Especially in light of John Forbes Nash Junior, who was diagnosed with paranoid schizophrenia and won the Nobel Memorial Prize in Economic Sciences.

Manya Steinkoler in “Reading Mayhem: Schizophrenia, writing and the engine of madness” takes the opposite view of Foucault, reading delusion as a work of art (2015, 254). Steinkoler mentions a schizophrenic author, but she describes his work as “unreadable” (2015, 255). Steinkoler is still reliant on categorising “the mentally ill” with a diagnosis of schizophrenia.

However, a diagnosis of schizophrenia is questioned by Muller, Lake and Szasz. Muller writes about how she evaluated more than 3,000 psychiatric patients for a decade at three hospitals in Baltimore. Muller realised that most viewed as having schizophrenia didn’t meet the DSM criteria. Her misdiagnosed patients took anti-psychotic medication, “sometimes to their detriment” (2013, 1). According to Muller most of her patients diagnosed with schizophrenia had “personality disorders” and “used illicit drugs” (2013, 1).

Lake, in Schizophrenia Is a Misdiagnosis (2012), found that some patients diagnosed with schizophrenia got better with mood stabiliser drugs. This lead Lake to discover that many patients diagnosed with schizophrenia had psychotic mood disorder. Thomas Szasz, in Schizophrenia: The Sacred Symbol of Psychiatry (1976), goes as far to say that schizophrenia is the invention of Kraepelin and Bleuler. Szasz writes:

“The point I wish to emphasize here, right at the outset, is that the claim that some people have a disease called schizophrenia (and that some, presumably, do not) was based not on any medical discovery but only on medical authority; that it was, in other words, the result not of empirical or scientific work, but of ethical and political decision making” (1976, 3).

Szasz is critical of Kraepelin, viewing his terms as referring more to behaviour than disease (Szasz 1976, 10). Szasz also says that the problem with “the so-called schizophrenic is that he [sic] speaks in metaphors unacceptable to his [sic] audience” (1976, 14).

Van Gogh was perceived as a “lunatic”. His eccentricity was viewed as “madness” where his neighbours evicted him from his house and caused him to go to an insane asylum. Van Gogh was pathologised and so was his art. The cypress trees in The Starry Night have been describes as “nature contorted by madness. Strange, feverish works full of power, tension and violent expression” (Nici 2015, 178). Like P.J Harvey Van Gogh is described as “neurotic”. Gustav Friedrich Hartlaub goes on to say about The Starry Night, “The realism of a neurotic, a desperate genius, often great, sometimes grotesque but always pathological” (Nici, 2015, 178).

Another scholar describes “the contrast of the soaring verticals and oppressive horizontals” in The Starry Night as “symbols of the conflicting effects of fate” that “can be compared to epileptic bipolar movements” (Nici 2015, 178). And lastly, a scholar describes Van Gogh’s “jumpy undulating touches and low undulating lines” as “a clear expression of . . . epileptic psychosis” (Nici 2015, 178).

However, Van Gogh cannot be reduced to one stereotypical desperate story. Van Gogh says, “This is my ambition, which is founded less on anger than on love founded more on serenity than on passion. It is true that I am often in the greatest misery, but still there is within me a calm, pure harmony and music” (2000, 416).

One of the more pleasing analyses of Van Gogh comes from Deleuze and Guattari, where they write of the becoming sunflower of Vincent’s lost ear. In Van Gogh’s Women Fell sees the cause of Vincent slicing off his own ear to be an altercation with his artist friend, Gauguin. Fell writes, “Vincent’s act of self-mutilation may have been his penitence for attacking Gauguin, a gesture to show his friend that he would rather harm himself” (2004, 142). Another explanation by Fell is “that the victorious matadors at bullfights would slice off one of the bull’s ears and present it reverently to a beautiful woman in the audience. He knew such a woman – Rachel! She had shown him compassion at the whorehouse; she was Gauguin’s favourite too” (2004, 142).

Deleuze and Guattari write in What is Philosophy? (1994), “What terror haunts Van Gogh’s head, caught in becoming sunflower?” According to Deleuze and Guattari “the task of art” is to “destroy the varying pragmatic-spatiotemporal intensities one might otherwise call ‘life’” (cited in Golding, 2010, 133). The first of Deleuze and Guattari’s artistic journeys is “an immanent ‘becoming-x’” (Golding 2010, 134). The becoming can be “becoming-intense”, “becoming animal”, “becoming woman” or in the case of Van Gogh “becoming sunflower” (Golding 2010, 134). According to Deleuze and Guattari, “We are not in the world; we become with the world; we become by contemplating it. Everything is vision, becoming. We become universes. Becoming animal, plant, molecular, becoming zero . . . It is about listening . . . This is precisely the task of all art” (1994, 170-7).

Deleuze and Guattari view art in a similar way to Antonin Artaud’s Theatre of Cruelty which is about the importance of sensations. Deleuze and Guattrai write, “whether through words, colors, sounds, or stone, art is the language of sensations” (1994, 176). Deleuze and Guattari write “the flower sees—pure and simple terror” (1994, 175). The sensory becoming sunflower is when “someone is ceaselessly becoming other” (1994, 177). Deleuze and Guattari define artists as the “presenters of affects, the inventors and creators of affects” (1994, 175). Artists give affects to us like the sensation of the sunflower and “make us become with them” (1994, 175). Deleuze and Guattari write that in Van Gogh the area of colour, blue in particular brings about the dissolution of man. Deleuze and Guattari write, “color in the absence of man, man who has passed into color” (1994, 181).

However, the myth of the tortured artist denies the way the “mentally ill” are tortured in the psychiatric system. A system that is criticised as faltering (Muller 2013). Where patients are mis-diagnosed and forced to undergo treatments that are detrimental to them. Such as the side effects of anti-psychotics outlined by Whitaker and the loss of memory associated with shock treatment. Muller, Lake and Szasz even critique the label of schizophrenia itself. Szasz in particular viewing the diagnosis of patients as schizophrenic as a political and moral activity. The psychiatric system like the detention centre is about torture. The “mentally ill” can be viewed according to Deleuze and Guattari as the tortured body. Lastly, “the mentally ill” have to deal with the political and moral judgement of people outside the psychiatric system, that is, society at large.


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