Over the summer I visited the Vincent Van Gogh museum in Amsterdam. Given my grasp of Dutch is somewhat limited, I hired the audio-tour so I could better appraise myself of the exhibits. As I wandered around I was struck by many of the oblique references to ‘mental illness’ that accompanied the biography offered of Van Gogh, as his life narrative unravelled before our eyes, culminating in the famous ear incident and then his suicide. I have never been a scholar of Van Gogh, so was not aware of any literature or debate, but as I walked through the exhibition I began to consider that there might be a much closer relationship between what was going on in Van Gogh’s head, (his emotional life) and the paintings he produced. But this didn’t really seem to be a feature of the commentary I was hearing through my headphones. Why was the obvious influence of emotional distress being downplayed in his work?
For me, this unease culminated on the upper floor of the museum, where standing in front of one of the final paintings in the exhibition, the commentary relayed that Van Gogh had produced all of this fantastic art, not as a product of his illness, but in spite of his condition. Here it was, incontrovertible truth that the manufacture of Van Gogh as a Dutch cultural icon was predicated on painting out the role and influence of emotional distress in his work. For me, it was incontrovertible that ongoing issues in terms of how he thought about himself, and his relations to others, were constitutive of his art, and could not, and should not, be brushed aside. Indeed it appears there are two camps of cultural commentators. Those that regard Van Gogh’s work as a triumph against his ‘psychiatric condition’, and others who consider his work as a reflection of these ongoing struggles. But as a medical sociologist interested in mental illness and how it is constructed my concerns took me in a somewhat different direction.
Last year, the same museum presented a major exhibition, entitled “On the Verge of Insanity: Van Gogh and his Illness”. Again, notice the boundary being drawn between madness and Van Gogh. He was only on the verge, he was not ‘fully insane’. The implication is that Van Gogh’s ability to produce this work was because he was only a ‘little bit mad’. I am saddened that the cultural re-appropriation of his work almost seems to require that the madness be downplayed. It seems an opportunity has been missed to interrogate our assumptions concerning madness and sanity and to explore how it might have shaped what Van Gogh did, and to then enable us to think about the ways in which psychiatric diagnosis, mental health and emotional distress are represented in society, and the signals this sends and the controlling work this does in making sense of ‘mental health’. Rather than working to exclude this vital dimension of Van Gogh’s life and work can we not rather accept and work with it in trying to understand the work? Indeed this echoes the concerns of Antonin Artaud in 1947, who, when outraged by a psychiatrists clinical portrayal of Van Gogh’s madness, wrote that Van Gogh had been ‘suicided by society’, by those that could not comprehend his exceptional lucidity. There has been much retrospective work undertaken to ‘diagnose’ the illness of Van Gogh (some 12,000 links on google scholar) but this I feel is a red herring.
What is actually at stake is not what the diagnosis was, but much more fundamentally, that the need to separate his work from his mental health is so prevalent and so insistent. Consider that the 2016 exhibition produced an accompanying book, published by Yale University Press, the blurb for which asks “Was he mentally ill or a genius?”. It does not seem to have occurred to anyone that he may have been both, and indeed, that this could have been simultaneous. Why does this binary opposition persist, and what does it say about our ability to truly speak to enduring stigma around mental health?
Later in the summer a good friend introduced me to the work of singer and activist Nina Simone. I had been remiss in my musical self-education (I think in part I was put off by an ill-advised raisin advert from the 1980’s that was sound-tracked by her). I set about improving my knowledge and was pointed towards a 2015 documentary What Happened, Miss Simone? It tells the story of her childhood in North Carolina, through her direct involvement with the Civil Rights movement, domestic violence and her subsequent relocation to Africa, then Europe. I watched this whilst I was still mulling over my response to the Van Gogh exhibition, and I was struck by a very similar train of events in the documentary. The way the story was told, Nina was found, down on her luck, in Paris, and brought to the Netherlands. Whilst it was clear that she was struggling in her situation, my concern is with the way in which her mental health was represented as a barrier or a block to her genius. Her Dutch friends made her visit a psychiatrist, who diagnosed manic depression, and recommended a prescription of Trilafon. Her daughter talks about the effects of the medication, an acquired facial tick, and a shuffling gait. It also affected her motor skills (so her ability to play the piano) and her voice (so that she never hit the notes she hit earlier on her career). However, her daughter also spoke more positively;
“about how this got Nina back on her feet, enabled her to perform and fulfill the business dealings that were taking place, so that her career could get back on track, but there were times when I questioned that, you know, but what about her heart”
The documentary concludes with a view that Nina was out of control, and needed to be controlled (by Trilafon) in order to do what she did best, sing and perform. But again, for me, this invests a false binary between good mental health and bad mental health. There can be little doubt that Nina Simone would not have produced the incredible body of work that she did, without the personal difficulties she endured. But, she also endured social, political, cultural and economic difficulties that contributed significantly to her art. I am not taking an anti-medication stance here. Rather I am arguing we need to think about ways in which we can dissolve this false binary between good and bad mental health, between madness and sanity and instead try to find ways in which we might understand the relationship between struggles of life and living and human responses to those struggles, however they might be manifest.