Thursday, 20 September 2018

It’s a Mad, Mad World!

I’m not sure that movie title would be allowed today (It was a very bad movie, released in 1963 — but it featured a lot of great stars!). In fact, I have concerns about one of my favourite old Beatles’ songs ‘Maxwell’s Silver Hammer.’ Remember — it’s a song about an insane, brutal, serial killer who mainly kills women. And it’s quite a cheery tune. No —‘madness’ as it used to be called, is no a laughing matter these days. And as we get more and more politically correct in the arts, it may be time to bury some old favourites deep in the cold, cold ground.
I thought about all this recently when I attended a play that had been funded by an arts program for artists with disabilities. I was certainly very pleased that these artists (some of them forgotten by the world) had this opportunity for funding, and I must say, the work was nothing if not interesting.
But it struck me that I hadn’t seen these artists perform for quite a long time. At least not since I ran Buddies in Bad Times Theatre 20 years ago. Yes, they were Buddies in Bad Times Theatre alumni. And they are very talented people. I have no idea what their disabilities are; but when I worked with them I certainly knew what their abilities were. I also knew that for whatever reason, it was not just their sexuality that made them appear ‘different’ to the outside world. There was another elephant in the room. But at Buddies these people were known only as ‘artists,’ not as ‘artists with disabilities.’ And suddenly I wondered — is it a good thing that they are classified that way now?
I mean, of course it’s important that excellent work be funded — perhaps how it is funded doesn’t matter. But it strikes me that the aesthetic we were promoting at Buddies back in the 80s and 90s was perhaps more radical than we thought. I was a great disciple of Julian Jaynes’ The Origin of Consciousness and the Breakdown of the Bicameral Mind. In his controversial book Jaynes suggests that in ‘pre-conscious’ civilizations (which we now view as ‘primitive’) everyone in society heard voices, usually the voices of the God(s). We have now, generally speaking, lost this gift. In the modern ‘civilized’ world, we classify people who hear voices as schizophrenic. Jaynes suggested that there are others able to hear voices — people we now call ‘artists.’
Shakespeare says much the same thing when he says that ‘the lunatic, lover and the poet are all of imagination compact.’ I know it sounds very romantic and old-fashioned, but I do think that most real artists are more than a little mad. At times, when I was the artistic director of Buddies so many years ago, I felt that I was running a lunatic asylum. Not that I classify myself a non-lunatic — in this case one of the inmates was running the institution! And in fact this was true — because some of the artists working there were in fact the documented walking wounded of the mental health care system.
So which is better? Is it better that we have a special classification for artists with mental disorders — that ‘sane’ artists now do ‘sane’ work, and artists who are ‘mentally ill’ do ‘mentally ill’ work? Or would it be better if we lived in a world where artists are not separated by medical classification. What if instead we understood that all art is by nature, mad, — and all artists, are, by vocation, unhinged? And that being ‘mentally ill’ is an important element of their ability to shake up everyone else’s rather boring, complacent little world? 
But then again, I might just be crazy.