Art in the asylum

ABC Radio National’s All in the Mind has just broadcast the first of a two-part series on two of the most important collections of art by psychiatric patients. The programme considers the ethical and artistic issues raised by displaying the creative work of people who may be experiencing profound alteration in their thinking.

The first part explores Australia’s Cunningham Dax Collection, named after Eric Cunningham Dax, a psychiatrist who realised the therapeutic potential of art and encouraged artistic expression by patients.

Cunnigham Dax collected the artworks not for the aesthetic value, however, and saw their interest largely in clinical terms – as a way of better understanding the problems of the mind.

In contrast, the Prinzhorn collection (which we discussed earlier on Mind Hacks) was meant to highlight the artistic talents of people with mental illness, and so historically has had quite a different approach.

The programme is incredibly thought provoking both in terms of how we understand the artistic significance of these works, and the ethics of these collections.

For example, considering the works purely of clinical interest seems to rob the creator of any artistic voice or creative credit, while considering them of purely artistic interest perhaps robs the creator of the rights of confidentiality ascribed to medical patients.

The programme also touches on the power of these artworks to stir strong emotions and communicate seemingly alien experiences and has obviously generated a lot of interest, as the Dax Collection website has slowed to a snail’s pace.

Next week’s programme will examine the Prinzhorn Collection and its remarkable survival during a period when the Nazi’s attempted to eradicate what they considered ‘degenerate art‘.

Link to AITM on ‘Art in the Asylum’.
Link to Cunningham Dax collection.

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