While the hard-line approach of scientific inquiry came to a tragic head during the 1937 Entartete Kunst exhibition in Berlin, a more interdisciplinary, humanistic, and ultimately successful appraisal of the art of the outsider is evident in the career of Dr. Hans Prinzhorn (1886-1933). Trained in both psychiatry and art history, Prinzhorn’s approach to the art of the mentally ill, while still influenced by the diagnostic tendencies of his peers, bears the mark of an individual genuinely in awe of the “beauty, originality, and expressive intensity” underscoring the breadth of art works found within the clinics, hospitals and asylums of the time (MacGregor 1989:193). In his seminal book, Artistry of the Mentally Ill, first published in 1922, Prinzhorn strives to cast off the dominant paradigms equating genius with madness, arguing that, if a work may be said to constitute genius, judgment “by any fixed, outside standard” should have little bearing on its intrinsic and lasting value (Prinzhorn 1972:6). In light of this, Prinzhorn strives to examine his subjects, a vast collection of patients’ work from Europe and America held in the Heidelberg Psychiatric Clinic, on the basis of their own merits, “as free of prejudice as possible” (Prinzhorn 1972:6). To do so is Prinzhorn’s challenge to both his contemporaries and the field of art history as a whole. Sensitive to the long-standing habit of the academy to perpetuate “a distinction between one class of objects and another very similar one which is dismissed as nonart,” Prinzhorn set about discovering a common ground between the mainstream and outsider production, finding it in what he considered the single, elemental purpose of all art-making activity: “to actualize the psyche and thereby build a bridge from the self to others” (Prinzhorn 1972:1,12).
With the assertion that “the most sovereign drawing by Rembrandt [and] the most miserable daubing by a paralytic” are both valid “expressions of the psyche,” Prinzhorn (1972:xviii) manages to level the playing field to the point where the work of the outsider may be examined using the same methodology as applied to the masters. Once this is achieved, the author formulates a series of universal “tendencies of pictoral configuration” by which an individual may achieve “configurative power,” meaning the “ability to translate whatever moves him into a picture in such a way that a viewer may participate in the experience” (Prinzhorn 1972:15,33-34).
Significantly influenced by the inward gaze of German Expressionism, Prinzhorn’s theories allow for the existence of variable approaches to the configurative process. In fact, Prinzhorn likens the art of the avant-garde to the very “nature of schizophrenic configuration,” citing a synchronistic preoccupation with a “decisive turn inward upon the self,” coupled with the “free treatment of the outside world [as] raw material” to be reordered according to individual intentions (Prinzhorn 1972:264,271). Alluding in this manner to the “schizophrenic outlook” of the art of his day, an art caught between wars in a time of massive social and political upheaval, Prinzhorn ultimately posits the revolutionary hypothesis that art, by its very nature, can never be truly pathological (MacGregor 1989:205). Despite its origins, he concludes, it is the intention of the artist that must be considered, and because this intention is essentially an effort to communicate the contents of the psyche or soul, it is the responsibility of anyone serious about the existence of art to set aside their prejudices in order to perceive the innermost expressive essence of a given art work.
Prinzhorn’s writings, as groundbreaking and influential as they were, did not arise as an intended manifesto meant to destabilize long-established art historical practices. Rather, Artistry of the Mentally Ill served to model an integration of ideas and ideals already effecting great change within modernist sensibilities. In keeping with Franz Marc and Wassily Kandinsky’s call for an art of “internal truths” unconcerned by the restrictions of “external form,” Paul Klee was fully immersed in the exploration of elemental sources of creativity (Kandinsky 1977:1). Writing in his diary in 1912, Klee (1964:266) focuses his attention on the work of children and “the mentally diseased” as inspiration for sweeping reformation in an art world that had, in his eyes, degenerated into “the very incarnation of exhaustion.” For in these “primitive beginnings,” Klee insists, one may glimpse “instructive examples” of pure expression existing independently of the dictates of cultural expectations (1964:226). Recognizing the invigorating potential of these peripheral sources, including African and Oceanic cultures, Klee speaks with a passion devoid of irony regarding the need to spare the ‘primitive’ from the aggressive corruption of the art world. Perhaps Klee was reacting to widespread appropriation of the Japanese woodblock (itself a product of Western influence,) or Picasso’s Les Demoiselles d’Avignon. Regardless, he makes little mention of a proactive, preservationist approach. But by the time Klee and his contemporaries had forged an articulation of their shared sense of ‘otherness’, more often alluding to physical or generational, rather than pysiological distance, the notion of the outsider was sufficeintly planted in the thinking of the twentieth century.