Thursday ReadsPosted: May 3, 2012
Last night JJ posted about the sale of Edvard Munch’s The Scream for nearly $120 million. Even Mitt Romney probably couldn’t have afforded it! Somehow I don’t see him as much of an art lover though…
I’ve always been fascinated by the connections between creativity and mental illness. When I took Cognitive Psychology as an undergraduate my professor talked about Munch, saying that the artist felt his mental illness was the source of his creativity and so never wanted to be treated for it. The professor said that once Munch was treated, he did lose much of his creative gift. After seeing the Munch painting in the news last night, I decided to find out a little about Munch’s life.
It turns out my professor’s story was a bit of an oversimplification. Munch did link his artistic talent to his emotional problems, but I’m not sure that he ever really overcame his illness. This fascinating 2006 article from Smithsonian Magazine gives a brief account of Munch’s life and sufferings. The source of Munch’s most famous painting, The Scream, was a hallucination he experienced while walking with some friends.
Munch’s The Scream is an icon of modern art, a Mona Lisa for our time. As Leonardo da Vinci evoked a Renaissance ideal of serenity and self-control, Munch defined how we see our own age—wracked with anxiety and uncertainty. His painting of a sexless, twisted, fetal-faced creature, with mouth and eyes open wide in a shriek of horror, re-created a vision that had seized him as he walked one evening in his youth with two friends at sunset. As he later described it, the “air turned to blood” and the “faces of my comrades became a garish yellow-white.” Vibrating in his ears he heard “a huge endless scream course through nature.”
Munch was a
restless innovator whose personal tragedies, sicknesses and failures fed his creative work. “My fear of life is necessary to me, as is my illness,” he once wrote. “Without anxiety and illness, I am a ship without a rudder….My sufferings are part of my self and my art. They are indistinguishable from me, and their destruction would destroy my art.” Munch believed that a painter mustn’t merely transcribe external reality but should record the impact a remembered scene had on his own sensibility.
That much of what my professor said was correct. He did make an explicit connection between creativity and his emotional demons. And Munch did suffer. His mother died of Tuberculosis when he was only 5 years old. He adored his sister Sophie who was a year older than he was, and she too died of TB at age 15. Munch’s father was much older then his wife and sounds very authoritarian and forbidding. He was “a doctor imbued with a religiosity that often darkened into gloomy fanaticism.” Munch also had a sister who spent most of her life in a mental institution and a brother who died suddenly when he was only 30.
Munch once wrote in his journal: “I inherited two of mankind’s most frightful enemies—the heritage of consumption and insanity—illness and madness and death were the black angels that stood at my cradle,” It’s easy to see where that iconic scream painting came from.
As a young man, Munch had a love affair with a dominating older woman, whom he depicted in his painting Vampire
After his father died of a stroke, Munch’s mental illness seems to have grown worse; but in the next few years he produced some of his best work. During this time, he got involved in another difficult romantic relationship with a woman who pursued him relentlessly while he relentlessly resisted.
Munch had been drinking heavily for years and eventually he became an alcoholic. He was most likely trying to self-medicate with alcohol, since he seems to have experienced auditory and visual hallucinations throughout his life. Finally he entered a sanitarium, where he cut back on his drinking and began to feel more mentally stable. This was in 1909. When he was released, he was about 40 years old and would live for 40 more years–he died in 1944.
Munch continued to paint and produced a great deal of work, but critics agree that his best work had been produced prior to his treatment. I’m not sure you could say that his mental illness was cured, though. It seems that he just dealt with it differently. In his later years he isolated himself in his home and avoided going out in public and being part of “the dance of life,” in his words.
And now, moving from the sublime to the ridiculous, let’s look at some current news.
Bloomberg evaluates Mitt Romney’s tax plan and finds it wanting:
Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney’s tax plan rests on a set of principles that, taken together, are difficult to reconcile.
Romney wants to reduce individual income tax rates by 20 percent, keep preferential rates for capital gains and dividends, broaden the tax base to limit revenue loss, and retain the tax-burden distribution across income groups.
Those goals are in conflict and will require that Romney consider limiting or eliminating the tax breaks for charitable deductions and home mortgage interest, said Martin Sullivan, contributing editor at Tax Analysts in Falls Church, Virginia.
“As soon as he gets in, he’s going to have to start backpedaling big-time on all of his promises,” Sullivan said. “It’s just not doable under any conceivable, realistic scenario.”
Well, Romney has a lot of experience with backpedaling, so that shouldn’t be a problem for him. It’s a lengthy article and you may feel like Munch’s The Scream while reading it. I hope no one experiences visual or auditory hallucinations, but Romney’s ideas may have the potential to trigger them in vulnerable people.
Bloomberg also finds Romney is deficient at evocative storytelling, and says this deficiency could explain why the Romney bot can’t seem to connect that well with normal humans. Here’s a “story” Romney tried to tell in Wisconsin:
“I met a guy who worked for the city and he was working, I think, in the landscape division for the city,” the presumptive Republican presidential nominee said at an April 2 town-hall meeting at an oil company in Milwaukee.
Romney never did get around to giving the name of the man or mention what city he had worked for, or identify the company he said the man founded after leaving his municipal job or say how much gasoline his trucks were burning.
“In today’s politics, it’s all about the narrative,” said Tobe Berkovitz, a communications professor and longtime Romney watcher at Boston University. “This has never been part of Romney’s wheelhouse. It’s just not his style.”
Story-telling is an age-old technique in politics. The two modern presidential candidates best-known for mastering the art tailored it to their political times and defeated incumbents. Ronald Reagan, a onetime movie actor, invoked a sense of patriotism and heroism amid economic distress and the Iranian hostage crisis, while Bill Clinton used personal narrative from his modest Arkansas upbringing to show empathy for Americans recovering from the recession of the early 1990s.
Unlike Edvard Munch, Romney lacks both imagination and creativity, and for those reasons, he probably could never even develop a mental illness.
Yesterday a Missouri legislator suddenly came out to his colleagues and begged them to withdraw the “don’t say gay” bill.
A Republican lawmaker in Missouri on Wednesday announced that he was gay and called on his colleagues to revoke their support for a “horrible” bill that would prevent the discussion of homosexuality in schools.
“I will not lie to myself anymore about my own sexuality,” state Rep. Zachary Wyatt said during a press conference at the State Capitol. “It has probably been the hardest thing to come to terms with. I have always ignored it, didn’t even think about it or want to talk about it. I’ve not been immune to it. I hear the comments — usually snide ones — about me.”
“I’m not the first or last Republican to come out. I’ve just gotten tired of the bigotry being shown from both sides of the aisle on gay issues. Being gay has never been a Republican or Democrat issue.”
Wyatt warned that Missouri’s so-called “Don’t Say Gay” bill would make it impossible for LGBT students to speak with teachers and counselors when they were being bullied.
Someone needs to do a psychological study on why there are so many gay Republicans (like Richard Grenell, who just had to resign from the Romney campaign) and at the same time so many Republicans who hate homosexuals.
Maybe this could shed a little light on the problem: A recent study suggested that people who are homophobic are more likely to be repressing attraction to the same sex and to have grown up in authoritarian homes.
Study subjects — four groups of about 160 college students each, in the USA and Germany — also rated the attractiveness of people in same-sex or opposite-sex photos and answered questions about the type of parenting they experienced growing up, from authoritarian to democratic, as well as homophobia at home.
Researchers also measured homophobia — both overt, as expressed in questionnaires on social policy and beliefs, and unconscious, as revealed in word-completion tasks.
The findings suggest participants with accepting parents were more in touch with their innate sexual orientation. But, Ryan says, “if you come from a controlling home where your parents do have negative attitudes toward gays and lesbians, you’re even more likely to suppress same-sex attraction and more likely to have this discrepancy that leads to having homophobia and feeling threatened.”
Ryan says the study may help explain the personal dynamics behind some bullying and hate crimes directed at gays and sheds light on high-profile cases in which public figures who have expressed anti-gay views have been caught engaging in same-sex sexual acts.
In other words these people may be using the defense mechanism Freud called reaction formation, which I’ve written about previously in a post about Michelle Bachmann.
Freud theorized that the ego unconsciously uses defense mechanisms to protect itself from being overwhelmed by anxiety-producing thoughts, feelings, and situations. This is one of Freud’s ideas that has been supported by extensive empirical research.
Reaction formation is a highly neurotic defense mechanism in which a person appears to others to be “protesting too much”–for example, exaggerating how much she loves or hates something to the point that observers wonder if this behavior is a cover for the opposite feeling.
This isn’t the first study that has found a correlation between homophobia and homosexual attraction. In a previous study, some researchers actually measured arousal in homophobic and non-homophobic men.
The men viewed homosexual and heterosexual soft core porn videos and their level of arousal was measured by means of a device attached to their penises. Interviews and psychological tests were used to identify homophobic and non-homophobic men.
Results showed that men who scored as homophobic on the tests and also admitted to having negative feelings toward homosexuals were more likely to be aroused by homosexual stimuli. Not only that, the men rated their own arousal levels as low when they watched homosexual videos. They were denying their own arousal levels. From the abstract:
These data are consistent with response discordance where verbal judgments are not consistent with physiological reactivity, as in the case of homophobic individuals viewing homosexual stimuli. Lang (1994) has noted that the most dramatic response discordance occurs with reports of feeling and physiologic responses. Another possible explanation is found in various psychoanalytic theories, which have generally explained homophobia as a threat to an individual’s own homosexual impulses causing repression, denial, or reaction formation (or all three; West, 1977 ).
That’s got to be a big part of what’s happening with Republicans. Now someone needs to study their woman-hating. It probably has something to do with how they feel about their mothers as well as the kinds of behaviors they observed between their parents.
I’m rambling today, aren’t I? I’d better wrap this up. Just a few more links.
Bill Clinton reviewed the new Robert Caro book on LBJ for the NYT Book Review.
Vanity Fair has an excerpt from a new biography of Barack Obama by David Maraniss (who also wrote a biography of Bill Clinton).
Finally, here are two stories about Hillary’s ongoing adventures in China. I sure hope she can work things out. Right now it doesn’t look good.
What’s on your reading list today?