First published: Summer 2005
It was the German Romantic poet Novalis who observed that plain factual knowledge is merely inert: what brings it to life is the ‘subjective constitution’ of knowledge, the way the individual subject assimilates and orders his or her perceptions and conceptions, drawing them into a cogent scheme of understanding. At the extreme, so Novalis contended, our familiarity with the realm within – the realm of thought, imagination, spirituality, reverie and dreams – can give us access to the infinite expanses of the universe itself, for, he claims, the private microcosm has a special affinity with the macrocosm: ‘World becomes dream, dream becomes world’.
In the course of the twentieth century – thanks to the experimental arts of Surrealism, as well as to the technical research undertaken by psychiatry and psychotherapy – our culture has learnt to attend seriously to the extremes of psychological experience, made known to us through the expressions of certain nonconformist individuals whose mental perspectives run at a startling tangent to those ratified by the consensus. Gradually we are beginning to see that our single, shared and apparently secure view of reality is in fact only one possibility out of thousands, and that humans have much to learn from the discrepancies between separate orders of understanding, and especially the disparate ways of handling the relationship between subjectivity and what lies beyond it.
First identified in the 1940s, the clinical condition known as autism represents a state of mental and emotional withdrawal from the social world; in it, the individual subject shuns contact with others and, at the extreme, retreats into an intimate, self-engrossed cocoon. Autistic symptoms include anxiety attacks, impulsive and sometimes violent acts, and private rituals and fixations which severely inhibit social interaction. At one time, such self-absorption was regarded as untreatable and associated with mental retardation. However, psychotherapists began to find ways to by-pass the autistic defence-system and initiate dialogue. The American therapist Bruno Bettelheim, for instance, told fairytales to autistic children in an endeavour to offer narrative structures that might co-ordinate their unruly impulses. For their part, art therapists have coaxed autistic persons into externalising their subjective experience through playing a musical instrument or making a drawing, creative activities which establish symbolic patterns through which expression, and therefore communication, can be channelled.
Art has indeed proven to be the key to unlock the autistic citadel. Many autistic persons have found a positive link to the social domain through their image-making, and, over the past decades, several remarkable autistic artists have emerged. Creators like James Castle, Nadia C., José, Jessy Park and Stephen Wiltshire have made their mark thanks to the expressive impetus of their drawings, which configure aspects of our common reality in a way which goes far beyond mechanical resemblance or empty conformity to a simplistic style. To glimpse their alternative modes of outlook and understanding is to peer into the dark glass of Otherness and divine a wondrous, if sometimes tragic, coherence.
This is an article extract; read the full article in Raw Vision #51