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Art and Insanity

Was modern art insane? Was modernart -– often defined as art that broke from classical traditions in Europebeginning in the mid-19th century –- created by artists with mentaldiseases, for appreciation by those with sick minds? To hear what some Pennpsychiatrists had to say in the 1920s, the answer is a resounding yes!

One of the memorable figures whoappear in the first part of Marshall Ledger’s engrossing history of Pennpsychiatry in the forthcoming Fall 2012 issue of Penn Medicine is Charles W. Burr, MD. An 1886 graduate of Penn’smedical school, Burr rose to become professor of mental diseases in 1901. Withhis appointment, as Ledger explains, “the Department of Psychiatry came intobeing, although with the old terminology.” Given the opening of the BarnesFoundation in its new Philadelphia location this May, it is instructive to readwhat Burr said publicly 91 years ago about the kind of art that made up Dr.Albert Barnes’s collection. It’s likely that these comments and others likethem influenced Barnes’s decision not to establish the foundation in his hometown.

Burr had some important mentors. Hewas a student of Dr. Charles K. Mills (MD 1869, PhD 1871), who specialized inthe nervous system and became Penn’s first professor of neurology. Another ofBurr’s mentors was perhaps the most well-known neurologist of the day, S. WeirMitchell, MD, who served as a trustee of the University of Pennsylvania for 35years. Burr himself eventually served as president of the American NeurologicalAssociation and was a founder of the Philadelphia Psychiatric Society. A Penncolleague described Burr as “conservative.” That may be putting it mildly. Burrhad harsh words for psychoanalysis, for standardized education, and for youngpeople who strove to cross class, ethnic, racial, or other lines and to climbsocial and economic ladders. Writing in TheNew York Times in 1913, he called for “segregation of the defectiveclasses,” including government-imposed lifetime confinement in institutions.

Burr was also known for hiswritings in newspapers, and he apparently did not hesitate to share his viewson a wide range of topics. One such topic was art. In April 1921, thePennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts mounted a show of 280 works under thetitle “An Exhibition of Paintings and Drawings Showing the Later Tendencies inArt.” The show, considered quite adventurous for Philadelphia, drew muchskeptical and mocking attention. A contemporary account in The Weekly Review described the show as “under the auspices of agroup of extremists . . . representing the very latest incoherencies in colorand form. . . .” On the other hand, a certain Albert C. Barnes (MD 1892),described the show as “the first real move to shake Philadelphia out of . . .lethargy.” Barnes bought eight of the paintings for his own collection.

Matters grew more heated about twoweeks later when the Art Alliance “staged a sort of post mortem clinic at which the most prominent specialists ininsanity in America discussed the current exhibition.” Among these “alienists”were Burr and Dr. Francis X. Dercum (MD 1877), a neurologist who had taught atPenn and later served as president of the Psychiatric Society and of theAmerican Philosophical Society, one of Benjamin Franklin’s creations. Anotherwas W. D. Wadsworth, described in TheWeekly Review as “a well-known pathologist.” Burr delivered a paper called“The Evils of False Art,” describing the art at the Academy as in large part“degenerate,” a favorite adjective of eugenicists. Many of the works, Burr wenton, were created or intended to create “unhealthy feelings of pleasure in thediseased onlooker, and which a healthy-souled artist would not have painted.”In one sentence, then, Burr dismissed both the sympathetic viewers and the artists.

For his part, Dercum noted that “ina large degree, the pathological element enters into these paintings anddrawings. . . . I think the main feature, however, is the disease of the colorsense and the disease of a great many other mental faculties.” Wadsworth, too,joined in the criticism. The works, he argued, represented those “ghastlylesions of the mind and body which usually land people in the hospitals and inthe asylums.”

Barnes, who was known for a sharptongue, responded in the June-July issue of TheArts, a New York magazine. He called the psychologists “old hats” who were“standing pat on somebody else’s thinking. . . . ” When they make publicstatements “concerning matters about which they have no scientific knowledge,they can be classified as ignoramuses with a penchant for limelighting.” Harshwords for graduates of Barnes’s own medical school! It is also interesting thatBarnes himself had a certain expertise in mental diseases. After receiving hismedical degree, he took a residency at a Pennsylvania psychiatric asylum, wherehe studied abnormal psychiatry. As Mary Anne Meyers (PhD 1978) writes in Art, Education, and African-AmericanCulture: Albert Barnes and the Science of Philanthropy (2004): “The rant ofthe alienists against the groundbreaking exhibition made Barnes’s hometown seemincreasingly foreign to him.”

It is also likely that Burr andBarnes thought differently about other matters. In his piece in The New York Times, Burr spent nearlyhalf his space on undesirable immigrants, then cautioned against “theintermarriage of races as far apart as the negro and the Caucasian. . . . Itleads to degeneracy.” In that same piece, Burr had cited the need for“segregation,” an approach often advocated by eugenicists. Barnes, on the otherhand, collected African art. The year following his public squabble with thePhiladelphia alienists, Barnes established his foundation in Merion, Pa. Hisintended audience, he noted, included “factory and shop workers, poor anddisenfranchised people, African-Americans, and young artists” –- and he had noscruples about integrating his African art with his European and American paintings.

 

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