No Easy Answers

I recognise neither myself nor my essay in Mike Parr’s angry letter responding to ‘The Outsiders’ (February). I wrote the essay not to exploit the Waterlow tragedy by using it to further an agenda; rather, I presented an openly subjective, enquiring piece that tries, tentatively, to approach the conundrums at the heart of mental illness and creativity.

If I may address Parr’s objections: In the immediate aftermath of the murders of Nick and Chloe Waterlow, it was police who reported that Anthony Waterlow, who was wanted for questioning, was believed to be suffering from schizophrenia. No one in the intervening weeks or months contradicted this. Nevertheless, I was careful to write that he “reportedly suffers from schizophrenia”.

Nowhere do I suggest that the mentally ill are more likely to commit crimes. I simply acknowledge that the mentally ill do sometimes commit crimes, and that mental illness is often a significant cause. Certainly the law recognises this and makes allowances for it. It does not follow that I am adding to “the stigma that attaches to mental illness”.

Nowhere do I use the term “degenerate art”, a vile piece of terminology coined by the Nazis with tragically destructive consequences. So how the reproduction of the John Perceval painting (in which I had no hand) can be seen as a “prime example of what Smee means by ‘Degenerate Art’” is beyond me.

Nor do I recount attempting to leave a party with a “lunatic’s girlfriend”. He was not a “lunatic”, she was not his girlfriend.

When Parr writes that “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’,” he travels so far from anything that can be found in, or inferred from, my essay that I am at a loss as to how to respond. What attacks?

Finally, of course the Alice Munro story is fiction. Munro does not write anything else. I used her story because, unlike Parr, I tend to trust great fiction more than ideology or art theory when approaching difficult, unpalatable, paradoxical truths. Munro’s story reminds us of the impossibility of rationalising violent loss. But just as importantly it makes us reflect on the “charisma” associated with certain mental illnesses.

Is this an idea we want to buy into? Doing so may or may not help reduce the stigma attached to mental illness. But is it otherwise helpful to the mentally ill, who may deny themselves medication if they feel that it interferes with their creativity, their “charisma”? And is it helpful to the families of the mentally ill?

As my essay makes clear, there are no easy answers.

Sebastian Smee

Boston, USA