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Welcome to Lisa's website, a gallery of art, writing, and thought. Lisa is a visual artist, writer, and educator who lives and works in Toronto, Ontario, Canada.

Talk for Art Gallery of Hamilton, April 26, 2012

Talk on Art, Madness, and Religion for Art Gallery of Hamilton, April 26, 2012


(Adapted from “What’s in a Name?” presentation)


“The label doesn’t teach us about a person; the person teaches us about the label.”




My sense of being a “mad artist” fuelled by my lifelong experience of feeling like an outsider

-       as a child being raised by artists to be an artist, in a suburban neighbourhood

-       as a lesbian in a hetero-dominant world

-       as someone with BPD in relation to just about everything, especially the field of mental health care (BPD in relation to psychiatry = psychiatry in relation to health care in general)


It does seem ironic to have struggled for years with identity politics, and to have left a deliberately political life to be an artist, and find myself confronted with these same issues.



Spectrum of mad art:


1  a. mad art/art therapy  |  b. mad art/intentionally revealing   |   c. psychotypical/ unintentionally revealing   |  d.  psychotypical/intentionally revealing


mad / psychotypical = with / without insight


2. Dimensions shared by both psychiatry and art:

  • Commodification of  psychiatric illnesses = commodification of art
  • Art exposes the mind from inside itself / Psychiatry exposes the mind from outside itself


Both art and psychiatry share an unacknowledged yen for self-perpetuation



My own mad practice


Three kinds of work to show: how mad is each type?


1.    Mad art made when I was in crisis... people really relate ("Bite Woman")


2.     Art made which reflects on my experience of madness, after the fact (It is a knell... Heaven)


3.    Art which reflects on madness – can be made by any artist (I know I am....)



Key questions:


·      In the grander scheme of things, is the art created by visual artists with mental illness consistently different than that created by more psychotypical people? Is it more intense? Is it more honest? Is it more insightful?

There is not a lot of evidence for that. Can think of examples that contradict these notions.


·      Is the mad artist truly able to look inward, distinguish her unique qualities, and then visualize these that in a way other artists cannot?

Again, can think of contradictory examples


·      Are all works created by mad artists automatically Outsider/Patient Art/art brût? or simply mad art?

The degree to which the work travels outward from the artist into is part of determining how to name it.


·      From whence the romance (and redemption?) of the suffering artist? Why does this hold so much appeal to audiences? (about Van Gogh: Starry, starry night: “Now I think I understand / what you tried to say to me / how you suffered for your sanity / and how you tried to set them free..”)

Romantic notions of suffering for the greater good of the people


·      Do notions of “good” or “not good” art apply to the work of mad artists, or are we to think that the rules just don’t apply? If we do not subject the work of mad artists to the usual criticism, is it because the work is truly in a world of its own, or are we in fact patronizing the artists?


·      Is it problematic to catergorize the work of artists with mental illness as being in a unique class of its own? Is there an appeal to mad art that can be used as a marketing strategy?


·      If your idea of your self is distorted due to mental illness, are the artworks you create distorted as well? or are they actually more insightful?


·      What are the implications of this debate for me, at this point in my life as an artist? How comfortable am I with these labels?


·      Do I foresee a time when I may want to distance myself from the “mad art/ist” moniker?



Tantalizing ideas:

·      Irony: we use labels to distinguish people with mental illness, and then we use more labels distinguish the kind of art they make.


·      It’s as if the commercial art industry is fearful that people with mental illness who are not profesionally trained artists will infiltrate the market with their work, which is not really art but “art therapy”


·      Mad artists assumed to be unable to be objective in their work.


·      Nevertheless, the work of the gifted mad artist is thought to reflect the essential passion of all people