Art and Madness: New Riffs on an Old Theme

Article excerpt

"The Devil and Daniel Johnston," a documentary film directed by Jeff Feuerzeig that begins screening nationwide this month, is about a multitalented but severely troubled man. Daniel Johnston is a compulsively prolific cartoon artist, pop song writer, and performer, whose bipolar disorder and drug abuse, beginning in the 1980s when he was in his early 20s, stalled his career. Psychiatric care and parental support have helped Johnston achieve stability recently. Now age 45, he has made a comeback, reaching a level of artistic self-control and productivity that has brought him unprecedented recognition.

This movie charts Johnston's life, ingeniously assimilating materials made by him as a youngster--movie and video footage, audiotapes, photos--as well as new footage by the filmmakers. By mid-adolescence Johnston was holed up in the basement of his family's home, staying up all hours, writing songs, drawing, and making tapes almost nonstop.

In his mid-20s, after false starts at two colleges, he migrated to Austin, Tex., where he made a brief splash on the pop music scene. Within a year or two, abetted by heavy use of marijuana and psychedelics, he began to experience highly disruptive mood episodes, just as his work was starting to receive recognition.

Mental Illness and Creativity

Over the next 15 years Johnston was hospitalized frequently for dangerous manic episodes. He once seriously injured an acquaintance with a lead pipe. During another episode, he interfered with control of his father's small aircraft, causing a crash landing that, luckily, both he and his father survived. He became convinced he was "the Devil."

Much of the time between mood episodes he has lived in a torporous state, partly due to the effects of medications, ensconced in his parents' home in Waller, Tex. Yet he has kept up his drawing of the comic characters and visual icons that fascinate him. You can see examples of his work at two Web sites: www.museumoflove.com and www.rejectedunknown.com/feature.htm.

Skinny as a kid, he later became obese, partly the result of medications; he's no longer the flamboyant, zany free spirit that titillated and frightened his followers years ago. But today he in better control of his drawing and singing. He has been helped immensely by his parents, Bill and Mabel, now in their early '80s, and by a former agent and a music journalist, both in Austin. All have toiled on Johnston's behalf to help sustain and enhance his artistic reputation.

The efforts of Johnston and his supporters have been rewarded. At an exhibit of Johnston's recent drawings at Gallery Zero One in Los Angeles, more than 90% were sold to a single collector before the show opened. In 2003 Johnston sang before an audience in Sweden that obviously worshiped him. Cartoonist Matt Groening is a fan of Johnston's. Tom Waits and Beck, among others, have covered his songs. Manhattan's Whitney Museum of American Art will include a dozen of Johnston's drawings in the Whitney Biennial 2006 exhibition.

Johnston's story has striking parallels to that of Roger "Roky" Erickson, a '60s-era psychedelic rock musician who is the subject of another recent film, "You're Gonna Miss Me." Erickson first manifested symptoms of schizophrenia in the '70s, triggered in part by drugs and the stresses of life in the fast lane. Unlike Johnston's course, however, Erickson's has been a sad one. Erickson did not have the benefit of caring parents who welcomed and arranged decent psychiatric care from the get-go. Burdened by the entrenched habits of an aimless existence and negative symptoms of his illness, Erickson does little in his daily life nowadays, despite recent heroic efforts by a brother to rehabilitate him. (For more information on this film, visit the Web site http://youregonnamissme.com/).

Dr. Nancy Andreasen--the English professor who subsequently became an internationally renowned psychiatric researcher and editor of the American Journal of Psychiatry--has recently reported new information on the connection between severe mental disorders and creative genius. …