Madness & Art. A reflection

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Revisiting Amsterdam and Brussels made me think of the time I spent inside the Van Gogh and Renne Magritte Museums. It reminded me of how much I miss art galleries. Exploring the work of geniuses. Of the insane. And then I thought about madness. And, in turn, it made me think of the Portuguese poet Fernando Pessoa – so I’m starting this post with a part of one of his poems, part of his masterpiece Message.

Sem a loucura

Que é o homem

Mais que besta sadia

Cadáver adiado que procria

Fernando Pessoa, A Mensagem

Apparently, the English translation stands to the below

Without madness what is men

But a healthy beast,

Postponed corpse that begets?

Fernando Pessoa, Message

From the moment I read this poem in high school, these verses would stay with me forever. You know why? Because for the first time ever, the mad and insane side of my personality was being recognised as a humane feature that distinguishes us from other “beasts”. I felt that part of myself who I kept hiding beneath a mask of seriousness and rightness was somehow stamped with a seal of approval.

I had always felt somehow ashamed for wanting to do little crazy things. And really innocent ones for that matter. Just walking outside in the rain without an umbrella. Scream until I have no more air left when by the ocean. Just let my body roll over a nice long patch of lawn. Smell the lawn. Smell the books like I was smelling flowers. Kissing a tree if I felt like it. More. I wanted to express myself, through the clothes I was wearing, the makeup I decided to stick with every morning since then (almost, I’m less of emo now that I am an adult). I wanted to paint in my canvas whatever came to my mind. Scribble all my school books with drawings that made no sense to no one other than myself. I wanted to go on adventures – real and imagined – not to grow old, get someone, marry and simply have children. That was what insanity represented to me. What others told me insanity was. I wanted to live free of prejudices, of standards of “normality”. Because what does normal really mean?!

Insane me coming out at Renee’s Magritte Museum in Brussels. I’m half Salvador Dalí there, in Magritte’s. Genius? or mad?

We have a choice because we are humans. What is it that really differentiates us from other animals? I don’t know if you realised this before but it’s indeed our madness, our insanity. It was because of years of questioning habits, and making new ones, questioning what was beyond the horizon line, and go out and discover new lands, questioning what are those shiny things in the dark skies, and go after them. It was the insanity of men wanting to learn about our body that took them to steal corpses from morgues, and yet that’s how medicine started. The idea of humans being able to fly… madness. The idea of us being able to communicate to someone on the other side of the world, live, madness. Would any of the things that brought the human civilisation to where we are now have happened, without some degree of insanity, of madness?

But of course, these are all things we consider “useful”, “productive”. The most boring words of our vocabulary.

When we talk about Art, so many people raise their hands and draw the line. Such a “useless” thing. A “waste” of time. “What do you learn from that?”, they used to ask me. What useful things do you produce from it?

But Art, from my perspective, is what truly, what really separates us from our fellow animals. I mean my cat can be extremely curious, discovering new corners of the house and the garden. I actually think she can imagine things as well, when hiding inside a box, as if the prey was on the other side to be hunted. But my cat cannot create Art. Neither my dog. Neither the bloody king of the Jungle, yes, I’m talking about Simba.

Only we can do that. And please save me the videos of pigs painting canvas.

So when did we humans became so insane that we would dedicate time to such “superfluous” things, like writing, painting, composing music…instead of hunting for food (back in the day) or use the free time we have to do things that may not produce anything else than…Art?

My answer to that is, from the very beginning. Because for some cosmical reason for us, surviving, was never really the point. We wanted to leave a mark. To register our presence. What our eyes could see. I’m not sure what this says about our species. Are we vain? Pretentious? Arrogant? Perhaps… but I think there is something deeper. For some reason, we were cursed with the idea of our own existence and the capacity to question it. Why me. Why us. And what is this around us?

So the Sapiens left their mark with their rock paintings. They had these little sculptures of deities. But even when civilization became more advanced, and we started to use plates to eat, these plates were decorated – I always get so excited when visiting archaeological sites and museums to see that cracked vase had some patterns designed to it. Jewellery was worn by both men and women – and the designs didn’t change much. Constructions weren’t random or simple. Quite the opposite. Carvings on walls, telling stories, representing things. What a waste of time… when they could be just gathering food. NO. Of course, it’s not a waste of time. It’s thanks to this that we can build part of our History. That we can understand our ancestors better. And we can find that more than biological process, we share the same need for more than that. For Art.

I don’t know how I would live without it. Without my pictures. Without books. Without music. Without film. I can’t imagine a world where Surrealism did not exist. A world without Beethoven or Tchaikovsky. A world without dance. It would be like living in black and white. But I wouldn’t know that, right? A dreamless life.

My insane time dedicated to art has been what has saved me from madness. The words of a writer that describe so well what I felt once, and I would have never been able to put to words. A painting that calls memory to me, that catches my attention, goosebumps in my skin. A song that simply erases the dark thoughts in my head. Me, with a brush or a pencil, putting my soul into something that I simply can’t share any other way. Is this madness?

The myth remains – all genius comes with a certain amount of madness. Quite frankly, I think that is perfectly all right if that madness isn’t the kind that makes you a criminal or suicidal (we know how often that happens…). That would be a sickness, and we’re not here to talk about that.

This is all to say that those verses made me feel that it was normal to be beyond-normal. To be the odd one, the one with the crazy ideas or urges. It was all right because that is our essence. The only thing there is left for us, as humans. Madness. Insanity. How boring would life be without them?

What do you think? I promise I won’t cut off a ear.

Love, Nic

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