In the early 20th century, the medical psychiatric obsession of diagnosing not only humans but also their artworks as “insane” led to the looting of their artworks in psychiatries and asylums. Hans Prinzhorn led the movement and took advantage of the common practice in psychiatric institutions throughout Germany, including Heidelberg, for psychiatrists to take possession of these works, who included them in the medical records as clinical evidence to support their psychiatric diagnoses. This was comparable to the looting by the colonial masters.
This slander still holds today, where the artwork of people with psychiatric diagnoses is labeled “outsider art” and exhibited in a segregated fashion as novelties, rather than “real art”. The discussion around these “outsider art” pieces always revolves around understanding the diagnosis of the artist, rather than evaluating the art itself and its message. The clearest example of the injustices still being perpetrated is the German museum of the Prinzhorn Collection, which opened in 2001 and exhibits the stolen art of those considered by the Nazis to be “degenerates”.
As a way to address this ongoing discrimination and finally disprove the myth of art and madness, the authors propose an exhibition in a prominent location only of works of art by authors who remain anonymous, a wild mixture of authors who were suppressed in coercive psychiatry and by psychiatrists.
It is now one hundred years since Hans Prinzhorn published his book “Bildnerei der Geisteskranken” (“pictorial products of the mentally ill”) in 1922. High time then, to take stock of the trail of destruction left by this concept of medicalising and therefore pathologising works of art. The hegemonic narrative is that insane “outsider art” was discovered by this German psychiatrist who collected the works at the Heidelberg University Hospital at which he worked and disclosed their existence by publishing this groundbreaking book that made these works and their influence known to the world.
When we came across a recent version of this cliché written by The Guardian Journalist Charlie English, we, the International Association Against Psychiatric Assault, decided that it was time to publish a different view of this event, based both on knowledge of the facts and its chronology and aimed at restoring human dignity to the victims.
We refute the mystification of “art and madness” by showing the significance of Hans Prinzhorn for the Nazi specific concept of “degenerate art”. Prinzhorn was an ideological precursor of systematic medical mass murder (which in turn was an important waypost of the Shoah).
In 1916 during World War I, the first Dada exhibition took place in Switzerland. “The first great anti-art-movement, Dadaism or Dada, was a revolt against the culture and values that had caused the carnage of the First World War. The movement quickly evolved into an anarchist form of avant-garde art whose aim was to weaken the value system of the ruling organization that had allowed the war to happen, including the art institution, which they saw as inseparable from the socio-political status quo “. Several of the exhibitors, Hans Arp, Hans Richter, Walter Serner and Ferdinand Hardekopf contributed works while they were incarcerated in the Kilchberg psychiatric sanatorium.
Of course, it can be argued that they were “mentally ill”, but it should also be remembered that several of them were not Swiss citizens and their stay in a mental institution offered them asylum from having to return to their countries and certain forced conscription .
The background of the Dada exhibitions and perhaps other new art movements in the first years of the 20th century (Cubism, Futurism, Negro art, etc.) is the reason for the reaction of authoritarian Heidelberg revisionism in the form of the Prinzhorn book, a reaction that defines the collection acquired in the psychiatric department of the University of Heidelberg. This is a diagnostic slander of the authors of the works in clinical-psychiatric terms. Prinzhorn wrote a letter in 1919 asking all institutions to send him works produced by their inmates. He thus took advantage of the common practice in psychiatric institutions throughout Germany, including Heidelberg, for psychiatrists to take possession of these works, who included them in the medical records as clinical evidence to support their psychiatric diagnoses. This was comparable to the looting by the colonial masters. Prinzhorn not only illegally collected these works (ie he did NOT buy/pay for the works) for a “museum of pathological art” or “his longed-for museum of pathological art”, but also did not regard them as works of art. Charlie English writes about this, but it becomes even clearer in the clinical term Prinzhorn gives to the title of his book: “Bildnerei. It means something like “pictorial products”.
A) The fact that the development of Dadaism had a profound impact on German art and poetry in the 1910s and 1920s allows only one conclusion: Dadaism was a real challenge to 20th century art and especially poetry, as it went against the traditional styles and characteristic values of traditional art and poetry in the social order, even if the Dadaists only experimented for about a decade. Tradition, Dadaist influences continued to be felt in the literary movements of the 20th century for a long time.
Against this demolition of traditional boundaries, Heidelberg University Psychiatry, with Hans Prinzhorn’s collection “Bildnerei der Geisteskranken” (“pictorial products of the mentally ill”), medically labeled the artists as “mentally ill” based on psychiatric diagnoses, reinforcing the notion of pathologisation of art that originated at the end of the 19th century. Art was thus no longer judged, or rather condemned, according to the work, but rather according to the supposedly “sick” mental state of the artists. We call this authoritarian revisionism.. Heidelberg University is guilty of reacting to the liberation of art through Dadaism with this authoritarian revisionism, thus revising this groundbreaking step for the modernizing art of the 20th century. The “cathedral of reason”, the university and its psychiatry, initiated defining art as a disease by assigning it to the madness of the insane. This initiative continues to this day, as artists are still discriminated against as “artists who are different” if they come from or have already been interned in asylums and/or psychiatric institutions. Wilmanns and Prinzhorn intended to use the works of art which they had acquired in psychiatric institutions in bad faith, ie looted art, to establish the Psychopathological Museum in Heidelberg, which indeed was opened on 13 September 2001.
“…if the Führer had not put a stop to it”.
B) This basic structure was further developed in the next step from 1933: “ill” became “degenerate” (“entartet”). In German, the word has a special meaning due to the formative part of the word: “art”, which is often not understood in other languages.
In German the word „art“ is in a biological context a basic unit of classification and a taxonomic rank of an organism. By using the word ‘entartet’, it not only defines a human illness, but worse, excludes a person from being part of the human race. The moral taboo of murder had thus been broken for persons who are defamed in this way. It marked the ideological preparation of exterminationist exclusion, first through forced sterilisation and marriage bans, then from 1939/40 through murder in gas chambers, which was exported to the gas murder factories in occupied Poland in 1942. From 1941, the centrally organised murders were Transferred directly to the psychiatric prisons and continued through death by starvation until 1948/49.
C) The logical consequence of this radical exclusion was then openly expressed by Carl Schneider, Karl Wilmann’s successor as chief physician of Heidelberg University Psychiatry. In his lecture published by the “Archiv für Psychiatrie und Nervenkrankheiten” (Archive for Psychiatry and Neurological Diseases) in 1939, he described the objective that modern art and the creators of this art should meet the same fate as he executed on the mentally ill shortly afterwards, ie their murder. As with the insane, he would select them beforehand: the painter Otto Dix was specified! Then he would have them murdered in the same way, in order to then dissect their brains and to be able to present them as exhibits to his students in the lecture hall of the university psychiatry department, exactly where today the so-called “Prinzhorn Collection” ” is displayed, mocking its victims and demonstrating the hegemony and diagnostic power of psychiatry.
D) This basic ideological structure was not broken after 1949, only the killing stopped. It continued unchanged in “Art and Delusion” and is still the basis of exhibitions such as the 2005 “Biennale meine Welt” at the Museum “Junge Kunst” in Frankfurt-Oder.
That Charlie English actively collaborated with the Prinzhorn Collection for his book “The Gallery of Miracles and Madness” can then no longer come as a surprise, especially since he titles the fourth part of his book”Euthanasia. This very word was used in the language of the doctor-Nazis to cover up a murder and we tirelessly demanded to stop using it in our publication on 17.2.2009. Our appeal:
Help make the perfect Nazi murders imperfect by….
1) …getting the Nazi jargon “euthanasia” (= physician-assisted suicide) banned from language use when it refers to the systematic medical mass murder from 1939 to 1949. The Nazis used the word “euthanasia” to cynically imply that it was the victims themselves who wished to die. Whenever you use this term, the victims are once again degraded, even in this present day. When you use this word for the systematic medical mass murder from 1939 to 1949, you help to reproduce the doctors’ Nazi ideology, expressing solidarity with the perpetrators and participate in the attempt to cover up their guilt….
We deplore the absence of a declaration of solidarity by the art world with the persecuted artists in psychiatry. Unfortunately, the art world has thus yet to take this step. In contrast, the Parisian students were exemplary when they demonstrated in solidarity against the expulsion of Daniel Cohn-Bendit by the De Gaulle government in 1968 with the slogan: We are all German Jews.
A similar reaction is missing, because Lucy Wasensteiner’s 2019 book The Twentieth Century German Art Exhibition: Answering Degenerate Art in 1930s London about the 1939 London exhibition also precisely misses this point. Here, too, reference is made only to the “proper” art of the time, while the art of the alleged “insane and mentally ill” continues to go unmentioned, a threat, despite being with murder and manslaughter, or being persecuted, imprisoned and mistreated.
As a way to address this ongoing discrimination and finally disprove the myth of art and madness, we, the IAAPA, propose an exhibition in a prominent location only of works of art by authors who remain anonymous, a wild mixture of authors who were suppressed in coercive psychiatry and by psychiatrists. For either modernism, like Dada, breaks with the boundaries of conventionality and normality in art, including anti-art, and abolishes these boundaries, or it clings to the idea that “mental illness” can show itself in “pictorial products” („Geisteskrankheit“ in “Bildnerei”) – Prinzhorn’s choice of words – that excludes from art the works by those imprisoned and slandered in the psychiatric wards.
And of course, the collection of looted art in the lecture hall of the murderers in Heidelberg must finally be freed from the medical clutches of psychiatry and transferred to the museum “Haus des Eigensinns” until it can be handed over to its rightful owners, the heirs of the authors.
Mad in America hosts blogs by a diverse group of writers. These posts are designed to serve as a public forum for a discussion—broadly speaking—of psychiatry and its treatments. The opinions expressed are the writers’ own.