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Artists and Psychiatrists—or the “Art” of Psychiatry

Artists and Psychiatrists—or the “Art” of Psychiatry


In 1968, Syd Barrett, original front man for the British psychedelic band Pink Floyd, was evaluated by then famed London psychiatrist R.D. Laing after it could no longer be ignored that the 22-year-old singer and guitarist had suffered a psychotic break. Perhaps not ironically, Laing, who enthusiastically promoted the widespread use of psycho-pharmacology, ie, psychedelics, at a time of psychoanalytic dominance, was branded an “anti-psychiatrist.” A published, if mediocre, poet, he agreed with the contemporaneous American anti-psychiatrist-cum-scientologist, Dr. Thomas Szasz, that mental illness is nothing but a “metaphor,” calling schizophrenia “a theory, not a fact.”1

Laing not only supported the use of, but preached the therapeutic thaumaturgy of hallucinogenic substances, and went on to create the Philadelphia Association at Kingsley Hall. Still in existence, at the time this was an (in)famous, and expensive, residential program for schizophrenics and self-proclaimed “mad artists” of financial means, in which their “creativity” was fostered, their condition was considered beyond the veil of reality, and they were to mingle, and live with—and at times encouraged to sleep with—the staff.

Thus was created a several-years long, unwittingly hyper-real performance piece, an orgiastic re-creation of the “id,” or at least Laing’s version. And so it was that the daily inebriated Laing, years before his medical license was finally revoked, and who doubtless was more impaired than most of his patients, declared Mr. Barrett “incurable.”2

Aesthetics and anaesthetics

Art theory from the 20th century onward—despite the latter-day efforts at denial—was nearly indistinguishable from psychoanalytic theory. And its own attempts to prove itself right, wrong, or, as in the latter half of the century, nonexistent, parallel the philosophical struggles and pains that continue to plague psychiatry.

On a foundational level, art and psychiatry concern themselves with the portrayal of reality. Artists and patients engage in the suggestion of new realities, of the possibility of different, or variant (deviant?) realities, even in the prospect of no reality. Both struggle with language and its place, its limitations, and therefore engage the world via visually symbolic representation, via phenomenology, via quasinarrative.

Art theory from the 20th century onward—despite the latter-day efforts at denial—was nearly indistinguishable from psychoanalytic theory.

The psychiatrist and the artist both, despite—or maybe because of—the non-randomized mountains of media evidence, must rely on theory as justification. What weds the 2, for better or for worse, in the 21st century is their common enmeshment with Madison Avenue and Hollywood. They have, in fact, become—to borrow art theorist Victor Burgin’s term—the very “environment” they were meant merely to represent.

After the honeymoon

In the 21st century, the “shrink” and the postmodern artist strive for the maintenance of the status quo. Their livelihoods depend on it. They have become meaningful instruments of the mega-complexes, the informatics industries. Neo-capitalism depends on the perpetual outpouring of imagery—the creation of visual clutter—which, in its own way, has made both the artist and the “shrink” valued employees. Mental illness, despite the billions of dollars aimed at proving otherwise is, at its core, a social disease, an inability to tolerate the status quo. The psychiatrist, and more so the ongoing psycho-babble of television and print media, is charged with maintaining the balance between enough and too much distraction.

And like art theory, psychosocial theory has become hamstrung by its own environment. If a clinician were to suggest, for example, that the rise in autism coincides remarkably with certain historico-societal developments, this would be construed by the academic super-ego as intolerable, and scientific research into such a theory would be, if not legally, then socio-morally banned. Likewise, if the art theorist were to suggest, for example, that decadent art correlates with some inherent defect in the artist, this would be construed as a value judgment.

This fervidly neo-moralistic pseudo-Enlightenment is what ultimately destroyed the promising field of family research in the 1970s and 1980s. Psychiatrists, products of their times, that is, their Foucaultian “epistemes,” adapt to trends as much as any artist. Witness the historico-clinical course of homosexuality through DSM iterations—now gender dysphoria.


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