Art And Madness

While reading Foucault’s Madness And Civilization, I came across an interesting quote. The author was writing about madness and romantic identification, and he cites an unnamed source,

“We owe the invention of the arts to deranged imagination; the Caprice of Painters, Poets, and Musicians is only a name moderated in civility to express their Madness.” (Madness And Civilization, 29).


The context here is Cervantes’ “Don Quixote”. Foucault is relating how the creation of art, and the role of the artist, at a certain point in culture is identified with mental illness. This romanticizes madness. It portrays coping with a disease as a struggle with an impossible dilemma, or a series of them. By attempting to  capture life’s beauty, the artist engages in an irrational struggle that is not mentally healthy.

I see shadows of the Quixote role in living with schizophrenia. There is a sense that, no matter how hard one tries, one will never be sane. Plenty of things can be accomplished– maybe even great art can be made, but some stigma of schizophrenia will remain.

Hence, the image of jousting at windmills.

Just the same, I would not suggest that art itself involves madness, necessarily. By some societal standards the things that artists do might be regarded as inappropriate, or unacceptable. But I believe that it is possible to be a sane, well-adjusted person and to be an artist.

I am sure that Foucault, in this quote, was referring to a particular view from a particular period of cultural history. But, I think that by suggesting that artists are mad and madness is art, somehow the source of the quote belittles both. It is correct to cite a romantic theme, as to associate two different things in this glib a manner connotes a process of romanticization.

Quixote is not only or especially a hero for the mentally ill. He is a hero for all who continue to believe in an ideal, regardless of the odds, or of what rationality or society might dictate.

Perhaps the experience of the mentally ill artists lies more in a continuum with other people– and perhaps it is not always a thing to be romanticized, or that is romantic to experience.

Author: mystified13

Sole member of Mystified and Mister Vapor.

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