Degenerate Art

I was utterly shocked by Sebastian Smee’s irresponsible article ‘The Outsiders’ (February). Anthony Waterlow is yet to appear before a court, so the article is injudicious in the extreme. Smee’s piece is full of unattributed opinions and tendentious connections. At the very outset, he recalls “someone who worked” in Ward A at Sydney’s Long Bay Correctional Complex, telling him ten years ago, that the most common crime committed by its inmates was patricide. The picture is immediately one of dozens of dead dads. Yet a moment later he confesses that, on the same occasion, he wondered about someone’s crime, while realising that the Ward staff “wouldn’t tell me”. Huh?

Anthony Waterlow, writes Smee, “reportedly suffers from schizophrenia”. No footnote with a medical opinion substantiates this claim. He mentions the stabbing and then goes on to fill out a picture of a ghastly murder scene, by quoting a story by Alice Munro about a similar breakdown/murder. Presumably Munro’s story is a piece of fiction. We’re unenlightened on this point, but never mind, as an overarching picture of the extremity of mental illness has been created.

At this point I’ll contribute my own piece of hearsay – hearsay which can easily be checked against medical opinion. I believe that it has been established statistically that the mentally ill are no more likely to commit heinous crimes than other members of our community. It’s a crucial point, because much effort has been put into trying to reduce the stigma that attaches to mental illness, but Smee’s article deliberately advances and extends prejudices in the most irresponsible and highly coloured way.

Inevitably, of course, we arrive at the World of Art and its tendency to tolerate all forms of ambiguity, including those claims that advance the art of the mentally ill as art. We are told by Smee, in emphatic, first-year tutorial style, that Outsider Art is art made by untrained individuals, especially those affected by mental illness. It seems that trained artists never succumb to mental breakdown, but even so, that does not prevent the Monthly from reproducing a picture by John Perceval (a trained artist whose work on occasion looked like Outsider Art) as a prime example of what Smee means by ‘Degenerate Art’. Smee revives the atmosphere of Modernism’s greatest crisis, because he conflates his attack on the mentally ill with an attack on Modern art’s ‘untrained look’.

Smee’s summarising account of his brush with ‘mad’ behaviour is as inconclusive as the frightened alarmism of the rest of his article. Smee is at a party. He attempts to leave with the lunatic’s girlfriend. The lunatic is tall, charismatic and reportedly “bi-polar” (nevermind, schizophrenic, bi-polar, what the hell!). There’s a scuffle. Smee and the girl leave. A week later she asks, “when exactly did you plan to intervene?” Exactly. The essayist is a coward and his ‘essay’ is an 
ignorant, cowardly attack on a vast population of loved ones who suffer the terrible isolation and loneliness of mental illness.

Mike Parr

Sydney, NSW