October 23, 2006

"From that moment on, he began to try to understand it by painting himself."

A painter responds to a diagnosis of Alzheimer's disease.
Alzheimer’s affects the right parietal lobe in particular, which is important for visualizing something internally and then putting it onto a canvas,” [neurologist Bruce] Miller said. “The art becomes more abstract, the images are blurrier and vague, more surrealistic. Sometimes there’s use of beautiful, subtle color.”
The artist, William Utermohlen, when he had his wits about him, steered clear of the modern styles of his contemporaries. ("Everybody was doing Abstract Expressionist, and there he was, solemnly drawing the figure.") Now, disease draws him into forms of expression he shunned.

But what do you think of the implication that modern art has something in common with the diseased mind? This resonates horribly with the Nazis' condemnation of "degenerate art." I don't know why the linked article -- in the NYT -- doesn't deal with this disturbing problem.


Mark said...

I wonder if there is such a thing as degenerate art. I do think there is such a thing as degenerate behavior, so I suppose it would follow that a person might also produce degenerate art. It's pretty hard to distinguish what might be degenerate from much of what is produced now...at least what I saw produced in my art school classes. My stab at definition of degenerate art: if it inspires a feeling of ugliness, weakness, apathy, pessimism, hopelessness, or something like that in the viewer, it's degenerate.

Revenant said...

I wouldn't say modern art has something in common with "the diseased mind". I'd say it has something in common with lack of ability to paint.

mcg said...


mcg said...

Well, modern art also has something in common with paintings by chimpanzees. And yet I don't really find myself falling into the faulty logic that somehow all modern artists are chimpanzees. I am, however, quite comfortable with assigning approximately the same value to both.

Be said...

That exhibit was at the Busch-Reisinger a while back. I remember seeing it and feeling a little sick at how spot on the artist's work was.

Lived with and ended up caring for a former English professor who'd been diagnosed with the disease when I moved in. Amazing how Utermohlen's painting followed what my former landlord/friend/'fairy godfather' described to me.

No great insights into any of this. I'm only at the emotions that were evoked by images after so long a time.

Maxine Weiss said...

Art is not a democracy, it's an oligarchy!


Peace, Maxine

Ron said...

I have a feeling I'm misremembering this so don't take it to heart, but on a program about sevants they talked about how people with no interest in art suddenly became inspired painters after developing the early stages of alzheimer's. Then they deteriorated past their ability to produce the art, so it was a brief couple years of artistic motivation and was gone.

ignacio said...

mcg: What do you know about chimpanzee art? My favorite chimp artist was Bozo, whose pictures resembled technicolor Franz Klines. Chhimpanzee art is known for "the transgressive gesture," which at a certain point may mean ripping the painting to shreds.

Willem de Kooning suffered from Alzheimer's, yet continued to paint. Some claimed his assistants finished these rather pallid versions of his earlier art.

amba said...

It's just another variation on Romanticism -- the equation of art with madness and disturbance and protest against mundane, bourgeois normality. As academics might say, "the valorization of the aberrant." The presumed revelatory deeper wisdom of abnormal psychology and neurophysiology.

Ann Althouse said...

Amba: There used to be so much more of that.

Paddy O. said...

I think it's wrong to say that all modern art has something in common with a diseased or degenerate mind. However, it's perfectly right to say that some of it does. Modern art, especially, is a view into the artist's soul, peering at their emotions, their sense of self, their being in this world.

Some artists, Kandinsky comes to mind, pursued a deepening spirituality through his art, expressing a developed self. This comes out in his paintings, but is more explicitly expressed in his writing.

Some souls are diseased and degenerate, not finding a higher reality but instead wallowing in their own darkness.

My recent trips to art shows of late have suggested that modern art is indeed stuck in the wallowing expression of diseased souls who are celebrating their low state. There is a poverty of spiritual yearning, and instead an embrace of persistent darkness.

Modern art has a unique capacity to speak from soul to soul. But, all too often artists despise their own inner spiritual mediocrity. Even if artists are quite astounding in presenting what is in there they don't get past this mediocrity. Rather than using all their existence -- art, mind, body -- to rise above it they instead express a futility about inner progress.

Instead of depending on a tiresome irony or persistent darkness as the last gasp of expression Utermohlen seems to be coming at it for much the same reasons as the early modern artists -- he is an explorer of unknown realms. His art explicitly is of a diseased mind which he is facing with his art.

That it matches other artists does say a lot about those other artists. But I think it is a very bad sign if artists are no longer willing to bring moral considerations to what they are doing and who they are. Seems doing just that was at the foundation of modern art.

Balfegor said...


Sadly enough, I actually think the chimpanzee painting on that article there is more appealing than your average Picasso. The colours are better, even if the subject is more abstract (and perhaps it is because the subject is more abstract -- no "uncanny valley" problem).

Re: degenerate art -- it wasn't just the Nazis, recall. The Soviets were pretty much the same in that time period, criticising Shostakovich et al. as "degenerate modernists."

All the same, I think there is a kind of "degenerate" art, which, like the art of the artist here, involves the degeneration of technical ability. Revenant says:

I'd say it has something in common with lack of ability to paint.

And isn't that the sense people often get from modern artwork? That these people are artists with the will to create art, but the ability only to make stuff that seems terribly cheap. I was wandering through the Hirschorn museum in DC a few weekends ago (the big drum on the mall), and was struck by how crude the construction seemed in so many cases, like pottery fired wrong or something. There was, perhaps, a touch of "found art" about it -- artists pulling art out of the way things just happened to fall (because they couldn't get them to fall the way they wanted). But so much of it just seemed all too cheap. Thrown together.

I also wandered through the National Portrait gallery (a few weekends before that). That's a lovely museum, incidentally, a few blocks north of the mall, and really immense -- a much larger display collection than any of the other museums around there, I think. So they have some excellent old works. But they also have some new works, some of which are excellent (including the results of what I think was a recent American portraiture contest). And some of which seem "modern" in the "cannot draw" sense. Faces and figures where the artist clearly never learned anatomy. Not drew it deliberately skewed, but -- plainly -- made all the mistakes a beginner makes. Worst of all were the flat faces, where the artist had clearly gone to efforts to create a sense of perspective and dimension with copious shading, but where the overall effect was nothing but flat, because the underlying structure just wasn't quite right, and didn't quite cohere.

There's a failure of technique there, sort of like the failure of the artist's mind's eye in the article.

Oh, and there's one artist -- I think he/she may be in both the Hirschorn and the portrait gallery -- whose work I cannot abide. A bunch of giant paper-mache heads, it looks like, spinning on threads. The heads are these awful lumpen sightless things. So. Ugly.

Balfegor said...

Incidentally, while I am whining about the degeneration of artistic technique, let me also complain about 19th century pictures of Native Americans: They are, in the main, horribly and crudely done. There's a whole room of them in the Renwick, and some more in the National Portrait Gallery, and they are almost all bad.

Hazy Dave said...

If he'd written instead of painted, it'd be less likely to end up in an art gallery, but it might constitute an equally engaging portrait of a mind in decline. (I'm thinking of Flowers For Algernon.) On the other hand, it might just read like a typical blog. (I was going to reference Glenn Greenwald, but I don't read his stuff often enough to make an informed snark, so fill in your own favorite.)

As for the Nazi reference, I don't associate physical degeneration with fascist (Nazi or Communist) declarations of "degenerate" art or music, so the shared terminology doesn't bother me. As for the implication that many people opt for simple art forms (abstract expressionism, punk rock) because (at least in part) they have no ability to produce more complex works, there's probably a lot of truth in it. An art degree or the right amount of charisma may help one obfuscate the point, but there's always the danger that some deeply expressive piece of art is going to turn out to be painted by a chimp or an elephant or a computer program.

Revenant said...

That these people are artists with the will to create art, but the ability only to make stuff that seems terribly cheap.

That's my sense of it, yes. There seems to be a mentality in modern art that coming up with ideas is the hard part and technical skill is pedestrian. I couldn't agree less.

Herb Levy said...

While this news item may seem to give credence to the idea that a "diseased mind" somehow creates abstract art so that there may be some relation to the Nazi's concept of "degenerate art", there are other examples of professional artists with Alzheimer's whose late works belie this concept.

Willem de Kooning, noted earlier in another post, was best known for his abstract expressionist paintings. But while his later, post-Alzheimer's paintings are clearly related to his earlier abstract works, they are greatly simplified.

So it may well be that the illness did not drive Utermohlen to create abstract paintings. Instead, it could be that the illness caused both Utermohlen & De Kooning to lose the motor & perceptual skills needed to create in their mature styles long before they lost the personal drive to continue painting, so they made related works that lacked the detail and sophistication of their mature works.

As to the various issues raised about taste and modern styles; there are at least as many crappy realist paintings as there are crappy abstract paintings, probably more since there's a much longer history of people making realistic art.

Balfegor said...

there are at least as many crappy realist paintings as there are crappy abstract paintings, probably more since there's a much longer history of people making realistic art.

Oh to be sure. E.g. the paintings of Amerindians I complained about above. Or, indeed, the majority of student work, or even my work which is no better. The thing about crappy realist paintings is, though -- you don't generally get people standing around proclaiming these crappy realist paintings to be great art. Unfortunately, for crappy modern art, you get huge numbers of people standing around praising the genius of shoddily-made crap.

Herb Levy said...

The thing about crappy realist paintings is, though -- you don't generally get people standing around proclaiming these crappy realist paintings to be great art.

Actually this happens all the time. People often respond as much to the "brand name" on a gallery label and not to what they're actually looking at.

You just have to go to any museum with a unrepresentative collection, often founded on a private collection from a family who bought based on name recognition and based on personal taste.

I don't want to bad mouth any small institutions, they've got enough problems, but back when the LA County Museum of Art had rooms (and not huge warehouse-rooms like in Indiana Jones or Citizen Kane) labeled things like European Art 1400-1750, you could hear people swooning over paintings that few other museums would have bothered to exhibit.

Or take a look at some of the paintings that have been shown by modern methods to have been misattributed to painters like Rembrandt, Vermeer, or any other well-known great master. Until the day after these works were identified as fakes, people were written about, published, and looked upon as "great art." Probably the most interesting case of these are the Vermeers painted by Van Meegeren that were only identified as fakes when Van Meegeren admitted he'd painted them when he was accused of treason for selling one or more of them to Herman Goering during WWII.

Herb Levy said...

obviously, "these paintings were written about etc" rather than "people were written about etc in the above post.

Balfegor said...

I don't want to bad mouth any small institutions, they've got enough problems,

Oh pish posh. Everyone understands it's not their fault. And in any event, I've already badmouthed the Renwick and the National Portrait gallery. Let me go on and badmouth the National Gallery of Art -- they have a number of pieces in their collection, especially landscapes, that are really not much good.

But as noted earlier, there's a large-numbers problem here. There's a huge volume of art between 1600-1920 (or so), and in general, museums only display the good stuff, so you don't generally have people standing about praising the mediocre stuff as great art. That there are exceptions doesn't change this. And it doesn't change that the reverse is true of modern art. In every museum of modern art I've ever visited, there have not been more than ten pieces that didn't seem like utter crap -- crap in that the artist's technique was amateurish and painful to look at, like hearing a pianist flub a passage in concert. I do not mean that the art has to be "polished" -- I like Rodin and Rembrandt and (some) Schiele as much as the next fellow, and they all have loads of work that is rough or sketchy -- but that an artist should have some mastery over his medium.