Sade / Marat
Mental asylums are to artists in this century what military service was to novelists in the nineteenth: institutions so deadening the survivors spend their later lives avoiding boredom by any means: furiously painting, writing. Many will bring to the outside the gift that got them through inside: the ability to see the world stripped bare. If you’ve ever spent a Sunday afternoon staring at a blank wall you’re going to take that need for a gift: the consciousness of consciousness. In the hands of an artist or a writer it becomes a tool of the profession.
So I’m supposed to be pleased that the Brugmann Psychiatric Hospital in Brussels has initiated a research project in association with a few local museums. Your doctor writes out a “museum prescription” that allows you to visit a museum, free. This is the first I hear museums are a controlled substance, however, the Royal Museums of Fine Arts are not included. That leaves out David’s Death of Marat, the Oxycontin of Painting.
Delphine Houba, Brussels Deputy Mayor for Culture, explains:
“For some people it’s not easy to open the door of a museum, they don’t feel at ease, they don’t think that it’s for them,”
adding, “We don’t want them to be stigmatised or to feel different.”
No mean trick. Just the meanest. The American sociologist Erving Goffman, in his classic study Stigma, draws a distinction between “stigma” and “stigmatization.” Stigma is the objective condition that defines certain classes within society, a “social fact:” being blind, or mentally divergent, or non-binary. Stigmatization is a performance directed at the bearers of stigma.
This is where Houba slips: when she conflates stigmatization and stigma, “to be stigmatized” with “to feel different.” Someone needs to tell her the stigmatized don’t feel different, they are different; projecting sympathies upon them can be a form of stigmatization. The Brussels experiment originates with a similar experiment at the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts, and I can’t think of that place without shuddering at the memory of an East Asian woman who was trying to figure out the difference between types of admission, and the vicious humiliation she received at the hands of some fair-haired staff member. No doubt Huba and her colleagues would sincerely commit themselves to help this woman overcome the unfortunate condition of not being White and Anglo-Saxon. Or Flemish.
If the mentally divergent are given the opportunity to be like any other museum-goer it’s because that’s been the aim of museums for the past one-hundred and fifty years: to grant the visitor the opportunity to adopt a proper attitude toward class and culture. This is an instance of what Goffman, calls “covering:” the bearers of stigma are encouraged to participate on an equal footing with normies so long as they meet the normie’s own values, and the only values acknowledged are the values and competencies claimed by those in authority. For millennia the mentally divergent have been thought supremely competent in areas like Art, but now they are preemptively dispossessed of those competencies, and that’s what sets the Brugmann Hospital project apart: after all, it’s not unusual for mental institutions to offer craft and cultural activities as a matter of course, including supervised visits to museums and other cultural institutions. The point is to encourage a sense of autonomy and confidence. The outcome, if not the purpose of the Bruggman program, is the reverse: The mentally divergent are preemptively cast as museum-challenged in the same way an amputee finds it “not easy to open the door of a museum.”
Sociologists have a name for this: Reification,
“The process by which the effects of a political arrangement of power and resources start to seem like objective, inevitable facts about the world.”
If museums don’t get visitors that must be the failing of the visitors themselves, not the museums, and this failure derives from hard, unalterable facts, such as the fact that an amputee has trouble opening a door, or that an East Asian woman can’t follow the labyrinthine fee structure at the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts. In one extreme form, reification is called Medicalization, “the process by which something gets framed as primarily a medical problem.”Of course, Psychiatry has a long history of framing social imbalances as medical problems but in this case, it appears, the psychiatrists at Brugmann are less than impressed by the proposed program. The same can’t be said for Houba who, before becoming Deputy Mayor for Culture, chaired the Board at Brugmann Hospital. She brings a medical outlook to the problem of building museum audiences; that doesn’t make her a doctor, or the Brugmann Project a medical intervention, let alone science. In the end the stigma Houba seeks to address as Deputy Mayor for Culture is not a medical one: it's the inability or unwillingness to pay for museum admissions, and that affects People of Color or transgendered people or the mentally diagnosed equally: the inability or unwillingness to pay is a stigma looking for a stigmatized. This is certainly the case at the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts, whose fee structure is so carefully hidden, so manipulative, that it's an open invitation to discrimination. And I don't know the situation as well for Brussels, but I suspect that stigmatizing folks for the inability to pay is not something the Belgian medical profession is quite as open to there as the museum profession anywhere. Only a museum administrator would argue that not feeling at ease in a museum is a pathology on par with a mental diagnosis. The inmates are running the museum.
November 2, 2022
Jennifer Rankin, “Museums on prescription: Brussels tests cultural visits to treat anxiety,” The Guardian ( September 17, 2022); https://www.theguardian.com/world/2022/sep/17/museums-on-prescription-brussels-tests-cultural-visits-to-treat-anxiety
Erving Goffman, Stigma. Notes on the Management of Spoiled Identity (New York: Simon & Schuster, 1963).
Danielle Carr, “Mental Health is Political,” The New York Times (September 20, 2022); https://www.nytimes.com/2022/09/20/opinion/us-mental-health-politics.html
Paul Werner, “Museumwatch. I went to the Museum and a hockey match broke out.” WOID. a journal of visual language, XVI-39/40 (April, 2007).