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The Living Museum: Mental Illness Meets Art

In here, nous sommes tous les indésireables—we are all undesirables—but that is not our problem but yours, the spectator from outside. ∇Δ Bolek Greczynski

Once a cafeteria, Building 75 at Creedmoor Psychiatric Center now houses one of the most extraordinary collections of art I have ever seen. Known as The Living Museum, the 40,000-square-foot space is covered from floor to [very lofty] ceiling with the work of over 500 past + present artists-in-residence—all of them patients with mental illness.

Prior to my visit, my only experience with mental illness was through stories I’d heard from friends or via my rampant consumption of popular media. In all honesty, I arrived at Creedmoor’s expansive and remote campus, located in the far reaches of Queens, with more than a hint of discomfort. But on entering that space, surrounded on all sides by unique works of art, all my hesitation fell away. Instead, I became eager to chat with the museum’s artists about their work. Their psychiatric state was immediately irrelevant to me, except in the sense that, for many of them, their symptoms were a prime source of creative inspiration. Indeed, that very shift in perspective—that reidentification from mentally ill to chronically creative—lies at the heart of an arts asylum like The Living Museum.

Building 75 was converted into an arts studio for Creedmoor’s patients in 1983 by psychologist Dr. Janos Marton and artist Bolek Greczynski. By providing patients with the space and resources to create art, Greczynski and Marton encouraged those suffering from mental illness to view their afflictions not as a limitation, but rather as a creative advantage. 

The pair was inspired by the work of Austrian psychiatrist Leo Navratil, who founded what became the Gugging House of Artists—a residential house in which artistically talented patients with mental illness came to live and make art together. Navratil’s work seamlessly wove into the rise of Outsider Art, or Art Brut, which grappled with the nature of individual self-expression and the conventions of mainstream art. The Gugging artists thus found fame—and more importantly, acceptance—in this world of Art Brut as interest in and appreciation of the relationship between mental illness and artistic creativity grew.

Following the Gugging model, Marton and Greczynski sought to create an arts asylum of their own at Creedmoor. Rather than viewing the creation of art as a form of therapy in the traditional sense, the pair believed that the patients at Creedmoor could come to reinvent themselves as creatives… who just so happen to be mentally ill. In fact, Marton asserts that his colleague’s greatest strength was that Greczynski never saw the museum’s artists-in-residence as mentally ill, remaining singularly concerned with the quality of their artistic output.

Before his passing in 1994, Greczynski often suggested: “Use your vulnerabilities as a weapon,” which remains the museum’s guiding mantra almost twenty years later. Now under the directorship of Dr. Marton, the museum’s sole employee, The Living Museum remains dedicated to fostering the creative spirit of its 100-or-so current artists-in-residence. On visiting the museum, which is open to the public by appointment, I had the great pleasure of interviewing Dr. Marton. Below, you can read more about his experiences with The Living Museum and his insights into the interrelatedness of mental health and creativity.

What is the guiding philosophy behind The Living Museum?

We’re not doing anything else but turning people into artists. The therapeutic goal is that you change your identity from a mental patient to a mentally ill artist. Our philosophy here is more a practical, pragmatic one—that it gives you the identity. And if you think of yourself as a mentally ill artist—as a painter, as a video artist, as a poet—that’s a much more comfortable identity than that of a mental patient. And that’s a huge leap in terms of healing.

The foundation for that philosophy is that there are two symptoms of mental illness that most people are not aware of, and these two principles are the foundation for The Living Museum. First, extreme creativity and mental illness overlap; it’s almost a symptom of mental illness. And the second part, which is absolutely unknown to most people—especially to those who work with mentally ill people—is that mentally ill people are nice. So these two aspects are the foundation for an art asylum. Processed with VSCOcam with se3 preset There’s this old question of whether all artists are crazy or touched in some way. What is your take on the relationship between mental illness and creativity, especially given your own experiences with The Living Museum?

I would think that what I was saying about extreme creativity and mental illness works the other way around. I think that all artists have neurodiversity happening in their brains, and if they don’t, I would bet they cheat with drugs and alcohol. Navratil believed his dozen or so artists would be great artists even if they did not have mental illness. I don’t think that’s the case. With the mentally ill, there are a number of pedestrian factors that contribute to this creative artistic output.

One of them is just time. Patients have too much time on their hands, so institutions are always forced to fill their time and keep them occupied. And time is something that you really need for art. In fact, Malcolm Gladwell brought up the 10,000 hours of happy activity to become a genius. I believe in that. You become very good at what you do constantly. So people who come here and create day-in and day-out become incredibly good at their craft. In a way, what we do here is a solution for the mental health field because once you are caught by the bug and the idea that you are an artist, the only thing you want to do is create create create. It’s so satisfying and so essential to your life.

Another factor is that great art—versus decorative or political art—is the art that remains relevant hundreds of years from now. And great art is created in that ahistoric, mythical space where you hear voices and you literally meet Jesus. It’s not created in the here-and-now. Here, mental illness is a great advantage because you truly have that experience of the space where the angels fly. I would put down my money even in this mythical domain, that art is in that privileged sphere where you are hearing the voices and you are handicapped ultimately.

Another aspect that makes creativity important is the issue of trauma, of PTSD. When you are hurt, when you are under attack, when you are an outsider—that motivates people. People with mental illness certainly qualify; they experience a lot of hardship and discrimination and rejection and that requires from them a song. There’s this line in a Jimmy Cliff song: “’Cause the wicked carried us away in captivity required from us a song.” So that type of suppression is a good fuel for art.

The word “asylum” in the context of mental health has become a really touchy word, so it’s really interesting and refreshing that you’ve reclaimed it here as a safe and utopian space. Could you elaborate more on the idea of an art asylum and its place in the mental health field?

Mental health policies are generally integrationist, and the asylum is always considered historically bad because it was based on segregationist ideas. But the old asylums had some good positive qualities. So we try to revitalize that and take the good aspects of the old asylums. The idea here is to provide protection and the recognition that mentally ill people are different. Mental illness isn’t like breaking your leg where you go into rehab and you recover and you run a marathon again. Mental illness is chronic and mentally ill people are traumatized people. Loved ones—not just society—reject the mentally ill and that is a big trauma. So it is great to have utopian spaces where your mental illness is not the issue because everybody has it. You can concentrate on other things instead—like your work.

And there’s also the idea of protection, which does not mean you can’t be out in the world if you can handle it. But once you’re not able to handle it, it’s always good to come back to a safe space that belongs to you. I am convinced that this should be the future for the situation of people with mental illness. The big asylums are downsizing in terms of numbers and most importantly in terms of buildings and real estate. So in my mind, instead of selling off these buildings or giving them away, they should reserve this real estate for Living Museum-style art asylums because it works so well. It’s a very inexpensive of protecting people and providing them with meaning.

How would you distinguish art therapy from what happens here?

I think this is something that is misunderstood a great deal in the art therapy community. In my mind, the biggest difference between what art therapy does and what we do here is a legal difference. The most important aspect of any therapy is confidentiality—that we have a contract that whatever happens here between us remains confidential. So artwork that is produced in the context of therapy shouldn’t really be exhibited. It should remain a part of the process. But at The Living Museum that does not exist. Here, you publish things, you go out in the open, you use your own name. I encourage people to do that. So it’s not a therapeutic contractual agreement.

This is more work rehab and less of a psych therapy program. Just because making art is good for you does not mean it’s therapeutic. So there’s a confusion of terms and a problem with the paradigms. You might be enjoying our conversation right now, but this is not therapy. It might make you feel good and it might make you feel good about what you’re doing, but that’s not dealing with your inner demons.

A common criticism of medication that I hear often is that it has this numbing effect that seems counter-productive for creativity. But the artists at The Living Museum are encouraged to keep up with their medication, so it must not be so black and white. Could you share your thoughts on the relationship between medication and creativity?

While the criticism might have some foundation, my experience over these 30 years is that if you have severe chronic mental illness, medication is the bottom line. You have to take it. So we embrace medication here because it works. My experience has been that each person is really different and each person has to be taken at his or her own case. For some patients, medication takes away their particular form of art. But for many patients, it doesn’t tamper with their creativity. It depends very much on what kind of work you are doing.

One patient, for example, channels Beethoven’s spirit, but when he’s stable, the spirit of Beethoven is not communing with him. Or, there’s a woman and God or Jesus appears to her physically and she is inspired to write a spiritual song. The music that she writes is authentic religious music. But when she’s stable, Jesus doesn’t appear to her, and so she doesn’t have that motivation. Though she can still perform her songs—and perform much better—when she is stable.

Again, mental illness is not a dichotomous thing where you have it or you don’t. It is a continuum. In my opinion, the best definition of mental illness is the inability to tolerate stress. That’s much better than any of these scientific definitions in the DSM. When you are psychotic there is very little you can do; you’re happy to be surviving. So my experience has been that when people are off their medication and they are unstable, they can create very interesting work. But it just might not be worth it.

Major hat tip to Heather McKellar, program coordinator at the NYU Neuroscience Institute, who organized a screening of The Living Museum—a documentary following six of the museum’s artists directed by Academy Award Winning documentarian Jessica Yu—for 2014’s Brain Awareness Week. Enjoy a trailer for the film below.

Photographs taken by Maryam Zaringhalam.