Art and Madness: New Riffs on an Old Theme

By Atkinson, Roland | Clinical Psychiatry News, April 2006 | Go to article overview

Art and Madness: New Riffs on an Old Theme


Atkinson, Roland, Clinical Psychiatry News


"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.

The rest of this article is only available to active members of Questia

Sign up now for a free, 1-day trial and receive full access to:

  • Questia's entire collection
  • Automatic bibliography creation
  • More helpful research tools like notes, citations, and highlights
  • Ad-free environment

Already a member? Log in now.

Notes for this article

Add a new note
If you are trying to select text to create highlights or citations, remember that you must now click or tap on the first word, and then click or tap on the last word.
One moment ...
Project items

Items saved from this article

This article has been saved
Highlights (0)
Some of your highlights are legacy items.

Highlights saved before July 30, 2012 will not be displayed on their respective source pages.

You can easily re-create the highlights by opening the book page or article, selecting the text, and clicking “Highlight.”

Citations (0)
Some of your citations are legacy items.

Any citation created before July 30, 2012 will labeled as a “Cited page.” New citations will be saved as cited passages, pages or articles.

We also added the ability to view new citations from your projects or the book or article where you created them.

Notes (0)
Bookmarks (0)

You have no saved items from this article

Project items include:
  • Saved book/article
  • Highlights
  • Quotes/citations
  • Notes
  • Bookmarks
Notes
Cite this article

Cited article

Style
Citations are available only to our active members.
Sign up now to cite pages or passages in MLA, APA and Chicago citation styles.

(Einhorn, 1992, p. 25)

(Einhorn 25)

1

1. Lois J. Einhorn, Abraham Lincoln, the Orator: Penetrating the Lincoln Legend (Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1992), 25, http://www.questia.com/read/27419298.

Cited article

Art and Madness: New Riffs on an Old Theme
Settings

Settings

Typeface
Text size Smaller Larger
Search within

Search within this article

Look up

Look up a word

  • Dictionary
  • Thesaurus
Please submit a word or phrase above.
Print this page

Print this page

Why can't I print more than one page at a time?

Full screen

matching results for page

Cited passage

Style
Citations are available only to our active members.
Sign up now to cite pages or passages in MLA, APA and Chicago citation styles.

"Portraying himself as an honest, ordinary person helped Lincoln identify with his audiences." (Einhorn, 1992, p. 25).

"Portraying himself as an honest, ordinary person helped Lincoln identify with his audiences." (Einhorn 25)

"Portraying himself as an honest, ordinary person helped Lincoln identify with his audiences."1

1. Lois J. Einhorn, Abraham Lincoln, the Orator: Penetrating the Lincoln Legend (Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1992), 25, http://www.questia.com/read/27419298.

Cited passage

Welcome to the new Questia Reader

The Questia Reader has been updated to provide you with an even better online reading experience.  It is now 100% Responsive, which means you can read our books and articles on any sized device you wish.  All of your favorite tools like notes, highlights, and citations are still here, but the way you select text has been updated to be easier to use, especially on touchscreen devices.  Here's how:

1. Click or tap the first word you want to select.
2. Click or tap the last word you want to select.

OK, got it!

Thanks for trying Questia!

Please continue trying out our research tools, but please note, full functionality is available only to our active members.

Your work will be lost once you leave this Web page.

For full access in an ad-free environment, sign up now for a FREE, 1-day trial.

Already a member? Log in now.