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November 15, 2012 // By John Shea // Comments

Art and Insanity

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Was modern art insane? Was modern art -– often defined as art that broke from classical traditions in Europe beginning in the mid-19th century –- created by artists with mental diseases, for appreciation by those with sick minds? To hear what some Penn psychiatrists had to say in the 1920s, the answer is a resounding yes!

One of the memorable figures who appear in the first part of Marshall Ledger’s engrossing history of Penn psychiatry in the forthcoming Fall 2012 issue of Penn Medicine is Charles W. Burr, MD. An 1886 graduate of Penn’s medical school, Burr rose to become professor of mental diseases in 1901. With his appointment, as Ledger explains, “the Department of Psychiatry came into being, although with the old terminology.” Given the opening of the Barnes Foundation in its new Philadelphia location this May, it is instructive to read what Burr said publicly 91 years ago about the kind of art that made up Dr. Albert Barnes’s collection. It’s likely that these comments and others like them influenced Barnes’s decision not to establish the foundation in his hometown.

Burr had some important mentors. He was a student of Dr. Charles K. Mills (MD 1869, PhD 1871), who specialized in the nervous system and became Penn’s first professor of neurology. Another of Burr’s mentors was perhaps the most well-known neurologist of the day, S. Weir Mitchell, MD, who served as a trustee of the University of Pennsylvania for 35 years. Burr himself eventually served as president of the American Neurological Association and was a founder of the Philadelphia Psychiatric Society. A Penn colleague described Burr as “conservative.” That may be putting it mildly. Burr had harsh words for psychoanalysis, for standardized education, and for young people who strove to cross class, ethnic, racial, or other lines and to climb social and economic ladders. Writing in The New York Times in 1913, he called for “segregation of the defective classes,” including government-imposed lifetime confinement in institutions.

Burr was also known for his writings in newspapers, and he apparently did not hesitate to share his views on a wide range of topics. One such topic was art. In April 1921, the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts mounted a show of 280 works under the title “An Exhibition of Paintings and Drawings Showing the Later Tendencies in Art.” The show, considered quite adventurous for Philadelphia, drew much skeptical and mocking attention. A contemporary account in The Weekly Review described the show as “under the auspices of a group of extremists . . . representing the very latest incoherencies in color and form. . . .” On the other hand, a certain Albert C. Barnes (MD 1892), described the show as “the first real move to shake Philadelphia out of . . . lethargy.” Barnes bought eight of the paintings for his own collection.

Matters grew more heated about two weeks later when the Art Alliance “staged a sort of post mortem clinic at which the most prominent specialists in insanity in America discussed the current exhibition.” Among these “alienists” were Burr and Dr. Francis X. Dercum (MD 1877), a neurologist who had taught at Penn and later served as president of the Psychiatric Society and of the American Philosophical Society, one of Benjamin Franklin’s creations. Another was W. D. Wadsworth, described in The Weekly Review as “a well-known pathologist.” Burr delivered a paper called “The Evils of False Art,” describing the art at the Academy as in large part “degenerate,” a favorite adjective of eugenicists. Many of the works, Burr went on, were created or intended to create “unhealthy feelings of pleasure in the diseased onlooker, and which a healthy-souled artist would not have painted.” In one sentence, then, Burr dismissed both the sympathetic viewers and the artists.

For his part, Dercum noted that “in a large degree, the pathological element enters into these paintings and drawings. . . . I think the main feature, however, is the disease of the color sense and the disease of a great many other mental faculties.” Wadsworth, too, joined in the criticism. The works, he argued, represented those “ghastly lesions of the mind and body which usually land people in the hospitals and in the asylums.”

Barnes, who was known for a sharp tongue, responded in the June-July issue of The Arts, a New York magazine. He called the psychologists “old hats” who were “standing pat on somebody else’s thinking. . . . ” When they make public statements “concerning matters about which they have no scientific knowledge, they can be classified as ignoramuses with a penchant for limelighting.” Harsh words for graduates of Barnes’s own medical school! It is also interesting that Barnes himself had a certain expertise in mental diseases. After receiving his medical degree, he took a residency at a Pennsylvania psychiatric asylum, where he studied abnormal psychiatry. As Mary Anne Meyers (PhD 1978) writes in Art, Education, and African-American Culture: Albert Barnes and the Science of Philanthropy (2004): “The rant of the alienists against the groundbreaking exhibition made Barnes’s hometown seem increasingly foreign to him.”

It is also likely that Burr and Barnes thought differently about other matters. In his piece in The New York Times, Burr spent nearly half his space on undesirable immigrants, then cautioned against “the intermarriage of races as far apart as the negro and the Caucasian. . . . It leads to degeneracy.” In that same piece, Burr had cited the need for “segregation,” an approach often advocated by eugenicists. Barnes, on the other hand, collected African art. The year following his public squabble with the Philadelphia alienists, Barnes established his foundation in Merion, Pa. His intended audience, he noted, included “factory and shop workers, poor and disenfranchised people, African-Americans, and young artists” –- and he had no scruples about integrating his African art with his European and American paintings.


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