Art and Disorder


balance perturbed

“outsider” art


“If you bring forth what is within you

what you bring forth will save you.

If you do not bring forth what is within you,

What you do not bring forth will destroy you”

Gospel of Thomas (no. 70)



“NORMAL” functioning of the nervous system stabilizes the organism … the stability of one’s states and the rhythm of changes in states throughout the day or even seasons maximizes  predictability and minimizes metabolic amongst other costs.  The flexibility of the processes and their relationships –one’s “adaptive scope”–  prevents the need to invoke even more costly compensations.  Homeostasis is the archconcept.  “Error detection” is the phenomenon at the cellular and tissue level.  Resaonably, the relatively expensive creativity and novelty management of  expressive and receptive art is in balance with all other processes.  Their roots in cerebral function are dramatically manifest in cases where brain trauma changes behavior: perceptive, integrative, or expressive processes are selectively suppressed or expressed in ways that may be manifest as art.   In some cases this seems a readjusted balance of cognitive skills, in others, neuropastic remodelling:

  • Jason Padgett was beat up, got a concussion and had acquired savant syndrome (reported in Huffingon Post) that bwas manifest in spectacular geometric art
  • Franco Magnani had a dangerous fever, after which he found himself obsessively painting in high detail scenes from his childhood (reported by Oliver Sacks).
  • John Sarkon, chiropractor,  had a stroke and found himself an artistic savant (reported in Vanity Fair)
  • Tony Cicoria was struck by lightning and became an obsessive muscician  (reported by Oliver Sacks)
  • Ken Walters had a stroke that evoked  unknown graphic art skills (article)
  • Tommy McHugh had a bilateral aneurism and found himself a poet (New Scientist reporting)


ART may be pursued by one as an activity (“expressive” art) or because it meets one’s specific needs as a unique perceptual experience (“receptive” art), or both.  And in all cases involves complex interactions between multiple cognitive and affective functions of the “self.”   The motivation to pursue art –simple or complex– correspond to the meeting of biological needs at multiple levels of organization. 


OUTSIDER ART is not a pathology, but the idea acquired a constituency because of the dramatic expressions of art by “outsiders:” abnormal/atypical individuals, often victims of specific congenital or acquired neurobehavioral disorders. Disconnected, as its developmental origins or present expression is most often found, from the idealistic or commercial interests of “fine” artists or “professional” artists, outsider art can be a unique window through which the meeting of individual needs might be observed.  It is in some ways a “symptom,” representing the circumstances of much deeper phenomena, not accessible to direct perception. 


When it comes to art and science, there are many ways to be an outsider. There are the fully trained but disaffected, there are the licensed jesters who play at dissent, and then there are those expelled from the academy for bad behaviour. … But perhaps more interesting are two other outsider groups: the self-taught who generally work outside established channels or institutions but who may exhibit or write papers challenging the mainstream; and the wholly untrained, who work only for themselves and do not seek an audience.”  [Two London exhibitions are set to deal with these latter groups.”  From Liz Else’s essay review, “what Outsiders can Teach Us About Creativity,” in New Scientist 27 April 2013; read more.]


An outsider artist might be someone who resolutely, and perhaps eccentrically, wants to live and work only on her or his terms. An outsider artist might be someone who has been institutionalized, or who suffers some physical impairment, which keeps the person at a remove from others. But an outsider artist, as the term has evolved, might as easily be someone whose daily experience—as, say, a black person in the South—has kept that person from having any real contact with the larger culture beyond his or her immediate community.”  [Read the essay/review, “In Their Own Worlds”  by Sanford Schwartz   NYRB  JUNE 7, 2018 issue ISSUE   http://www.nybooks.com/articles/2018/06/07/outsider-art-in-their-own-worlds/ ]

  • We need reference points — before exploring disorder, what do you mean by order?
  • Is something abnormal?  is that bad?  What does it mean to be normal ?  Do you WANT to be normal? compared to what?  more, much more . . .
  • Dysfunctional behavior can arise during development (“as the twig is bent, so inclineth the tree”) or it can be a collateral effect (epiphenomena, side effect) of another behavioral pattern which is, in the last analysis, is of sufficient value to fitness (of the individual or group) to be worth endurance. (examples


Inspiration and the Muses

Plato is notoriously suspicious of art and artists: They are (of course) to be subordinated to social purpose (e.g. Laws Book II 654ff., Book VII).  Possibly because creativity cannot be reduced to rule (Ion, Symposium, Phaedrus): it is a God-given madness: “…there is a form of possession or madness, of which the Muses are the source…” (Book VII 245) The poet becomes a ‘light winged holy creature who cannot compose until he becomes possessed and . . . reason no longer dwells within him.’ Plato is probably borrowing from Democritus, who said that ‘all that a poet writes when possessed and divinely inspired is truly excellent.’)  (see Hacklworth’s commentaries on Plato’s Phaedrus 1952:56-62)


Affective disorders and creativity

A study of “eminent” British writers and artists examined rate of treatment for affective illness: 38%, strikingly high- general population is 1% bipolar and 5% unipolar disorders.  If there is a connection between affective disorder and creativity and it is not simply societal (e.g., expectations) but genetic and if genetic screening can identify individuals at risk, profound ethical issues will arise (Kay Redfield Jamison. 1989. Mood disorders and patterns of creativity in British writers and artists.  Psychiatry 52(2):125-134.)


Shadow Syndromes, spectrum disorders.  For a quick introduction, See Jane Brody’s (1997) Review of John Ratey’s “Shadow Syndromes.” and Jonathan Sholl’s essay, Nobody is Normal


Eccentricity.  Art and Eccentricity.   A frank pathology may not be a precondition for creativity.  In 1990, the neuropsychologist / therapist David Weeks advertised for “eccentrics.”   He observed their general extroversion, good health, and cheer, and wondered about the connections if not the relationship of nonconformity to creativity.  (See Jeremy Gluck’s New Scientist 25 Feb 1995:37 review of Weeks, David and James, Jamie. 1995(?) Eccentrics Weidenfeld & Nicolson. 198 pp.)  (Recalls the ideas about artists as real or self-imposed outsiders)


Manic Depression. 

It is known that bipolar (manic-depressive) illness runs in families, and that  kin of patients so disabled are themselves subject to less debilitating   affective disorders.   Frequently, a harmful trait is unavoidably linked to a beneficial traits; while one could not predict which trait will appear, the net benefit (to the population possessing the trait)   outweighs the harm it causes   Frequently, in such an arrangement, mutual dependence becomes a necessity, not a convenience. Evidence for a link between mental illness and creativity was recently provided by Ruth Richards (et al., August 1988 J. Abnormal Psychol.).  Danish   bipolar patients were studied–lifetime creativity indices were applied to   them, their families, people with milder affective mood swings (cyclothymes),   and a control population:  creativity was significantly higher in cyclothymes   and in normal relatives of bipolars. (see Konner 1989; and notes on “creativity and affective disorder”) 


Kinny & Richards developed  a tool, The Lifetime Creativity Scale to examine all forms of real-life creativity and not merely traditional or “artistic” forms.  They learned that “on the average, it may be the better functioning relatives of manic depressives and not manic depressives themselves, who carry a particular advantage for creativity.”  indicating that some trait or ensemble of traits associated with liability for bipolar disorder and not the disorder itself is the main correlate of heightened creativity.     K&R hypothesize that heightened creativity may provide (in an epiphenomenal way) a “compensatory advantage” within the families of manic depressives. (see Constance Holden’s (15 Aug 1986:725) essay in Science and DK Kinney & RL Richards response (31 Oct 1986)


Temporal Lobe Epilepsy (TLE):

“While organic mental disorders like TLE are often assumed to produce “failures in intellectual function,” according to Geschwind, “TLE with behavioral change is compatible with a distinctly superior level of intellectual performance.”  Bear adds that other disorders, such as schizophrenia, manic-depressive illness, and confusional states–which cause people to see the world in new and often bizarre ways, sometimes leading to artistic flights–can result in behavior that “might, in the broadest sense be called creative.”  But these disorders impair other crucial functions.  “While disruptions of the normal stream of thought result in improbable associations,” Bear explains, “patients suffering from them typically lack the critical scrutiny or persistence of attention necessary to produce significant creative products.”  TLE is different from these disorders because it spares essential functions like attention, concentration, and critical judgment, all of which are necessary to sustain artistry..  At the same time, TLE predisposes people to such aspects of creative thinking as sensitivity, the ability to detect connections, and flexibility.  The combination of these two factors, unique to this form of epilepsy, may even intensify the ability to see artistically and to transform that vision into art, Bear adds, because the disorder generates “intense motivation leading to sustained rather than fragmentary attention while preserving the essential faculty of critical judgments.” (Eve LaPlante 1993:212-213 LaPlante. Eve. 1993. Seized. HarperCollins. )



Alice Flaherty is a neurologist at Harvard who became interested in creativity and a behavioral disorder termed hypergraphia: an obsession with writing (and sometimes compulsive creative activity in general).  The disorder is something she experienced after a tragically failed attempt to deliver premature twins.  This experience and a similar less intense episode after a successful pregnancy led her to write The Midnight Disease (2004)  [more]


as many as 7 percent of Americans may have ADHD Anne Underwood spotted two new books: “Delivered From Distraction” by Dr. Edward Hallowell and Dr. John Ratey and “The Gift of ADHD” by Lara Honos-Webb [that] advance the controversial notion that distractibility, poor impulse control and emotional sensitivity have flip sides that are actually strengths—namely creativity, energy and intuition.”   As with “Here’s to the Crazy Ones,” Underwood points out that “Critics charge that the whole approach risks romanticizing a serious disorder.”  [from “The Gift of ADHD” – NEWSWEEK Mar 14, 2005:48   by Anne Underwood article . . . archive version]


an emerging understanding of the genetics of depression exemplifies application of the understanding of pleiotropic genes and polygenic traits [more]


there is evidence that for a brief period, creativity can flourish as specific areas of the brain have their functions and connectivity altered during a progressive loss of brain function.  see: “Emergence of artistic talent in frontotemporal dementia,” by BL Miller et al. 1998 (Neurology 51(4):978-982)


“Outsider Art” includes the “art of the insane” — see Jerry Saltz’s review of a show of work by Adolf Wölfli at the American Folk Art Museum [review]  

Art Brut” at The Collection de l’Art Brut[i]: “The unique at Collection de l’Art Brut in Lausanne contains works of artists from the fringes of society–schizophrenic patients, loners, lost souls, the criminally insane–who suddenly and unexpectedly began making their own art, often in middle or old age. For example, there was Henry Darger, who died an old man after spending a lifetime as a hospital porter in Chicago, his artistic talents unknown even to his closest neighbors, until his 19,000-page novel, filled with a thousand intricate watercolor illustrations, surfaced after his death.

What results is art entirely free from any conception of formal artistic rules or conventions, which challenges both how we tend to view such “outsiders” in our own communities, and our expectations of what art should be about. Many of the short biographies presented alongside each piece tell heartrendingly sad or disturbing stories about these untrained but passionate artists.

The art is fascinating by itself, but when connected with the often tragic life stories of the creators of these works, it takes on new, profound meaning.”




“He was dangerously violent for some years–at one point, he bit off a piece of a fellow inmate’s ear–until his energies became wholly absorbed in drawing, writing, and musical composition . . . His . . . illustrated books . . .total about twenty-five thousand pages of story, rant and poetry.  Later works feel uncannily intelligent.  They amount to oracular experiments in graphic semiotics. . . . The artist responded to commercial demand with smallish one–off drawings that he contemptuously termed “bread art.” Many are lovely, suggesting a brawny Paul Klee.  In the nineteen-forties, Jean Dubuffet featured Wölfli in his promotion of “art brut” –creative expression by society’s outcasts.  In 1965, Andre Breton called Wölfli production “one of the three or four most important oeuvres of the twentieth century.”  (from Peter Schjeldahl’s essay “The Far Side” in the New Yorker May 5, 2003:100-101.)  [ more on Wölfli, even more, gallery comments on art brut]


Artists who have come to their calling in the context of a BEHAVIOR DISORDER are often categorized by critics and galleries as a prime exemplar of OUTSIDER ART (I first typed “catheterized by critics”) — praise of artists such as Adolf Wölfli (below) evoke (in Peter Schjeldahl’s words, “modern beliefs in the superior authenticity and possible revolutionary portent of “primitive,” childish, criminal, and otherwise anti-rational impulses.” But “Wölfli wasn’t anti-rational. He was nuts.” (p101)   “Sophisticates caricature a taste for outsider art, with some empirical justice, as a sign of patronizing sentimentality and populist resentment.  But the intransigent grandeur of a Wölfli calls everybody’s hand.”


































Clinicians and philosophers both speak of deficits and excesses (see Aristotle on the “virtuous mean” in the Sociobiology notes on dysfunction).  And ART always seems to be regarded as a matter of “going beyond” some boundary of routine, of everyday life, of ordinary, operational consciousness. ?


This seems to be Wordsworth’s view:  “All good poetry is the spontaneous overflow of powerful feelings: it takes its origin from emotion recollected in tranquillity.”  (William Wordsworth in Lyrical Ballads, preface, 2nd ed., 1801).  This sentiment, which is a central tenet in Wordsworth’s criticism, has parallels in Schiller, Ueber Büürgers Gedichte, as well as Coleridge’’s Notebooks, in which he speaks of “recalling passion in tranquillity.” – Preface to the Lyrical Ballads.    (recalling “Coleridge’s ‘intellectual breeze’ running over the Eolian harp: ‘tranquil muse upon tranquility.’ Wordsworth sees writing poetry as a passive experience, and true tranquility can only be reached by the aged.”)





































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In Paul Matthew’s view, Shakespeare’s Richard III displays the behaviour typical of a sociopath, in whom the frontal lobes typically show a distinctive shape. “Shakespeare knew nothing of these ideas, but still understood the behaviour of sociopaths. Richard III believes he is ‘subtle, false and treacherous’ because he appears unable to act on the basis of what is right or wrong. His actions have nothing to do with seeking revenge. ‘He simply has no understanding of the emotional impact of his actions, which is typical of the sociopath,’ Matthews says.” [Professor Paul Matthews is the director of Oxford University’s centre for functional magnetic resonance imaging of the brain; he has collaborated with Shakespeare scholar Jeffrey McQuain to produce The Bard on the Brain, published by Dana Press.  His work was described by Robin McKie: “Bard proven to be an expert on the brain” – Robin McKie  –  Sunday March 16, 2003  –  The Observer  ]


DISORDER is related to ORDER (moving in harmony with nature’s laws”) [more]












10/2011-7/2013 / 2018




[i] Thanks Sergey Gavrilets for sharing this in A&O class 3/27/2018.  The site introducing the museum opens: “some would say that the definition of true art is its ability to provoke a response in the observer, be it positive or negative, emotional or rational. Art Brut–“brut” in the sense of raw–is a term applied to art created outside not only the boundaries of conventional culture, but by those outside mainstream society.

  • A Swiss site identifying the museum: “Art does not come to lie down in the beds that have been made for it; it runs away as soon as anyone utters its name: it likes being incognito. Its best moments are when it forgets what it’s called.” 

Jean Dubuffet’s comments can be envisaged as the central point around which the concept of Art Brut is articulated: those who create Art Brut are creators free from all cultural conditioning or social conformity. They are inmates of psychiatric hospitals, loners, misfits, prisoners, marginalised people of every sort.
These artists create in a self-taught fashion, in silence, secrecy and solitude. Their ignorance of artistic traditions permits them to produce work that is original and subversive. 

La Collection de l’Art Brut is seen as a historic point of reference throughout the world. Every year, 40,000 visitors discover the works gathered together in this museum, which today has 70,000 pieces.
https://www.museums.ch/org/en/Collection-de-l-Art-Brut opened in 1976