The Living Museum
USA 1999, 80 min.
The Living Museum was founded by Polish artist Bolek Greczynski and psychologist Dr Janos Marton, and is located at the Creedmoor Psychiatric Centre, Queens, New York. This observational film explores the underlying philosophy of the centre and the experiences of its patients/artists, and ultimately, the healing power of art.
The underlying philosophy is that art and madness are a natural combination, and that art as therapy can make a difference to those suffering from various mental disorders. The film explores these ideas through a sympathetic, and often moving, portrait of six of the patients/artists.
The six artists have produced different works that are both intimate and personal, but at the same time speak of more generalized experiences. Issa has found a political voice and his work speaks, not only of his “psychosis,” but of his experience of being Afro-American. He is eloquent, talks rationally of his projects and makes us think twice about our stereotypical images of the mentally ill. Eileen hears voices all the time and uses her paintings and drawings to clear her head. For Eileen art is prayer, and each painting is heavily imbued with religious meanings – for her, if not us. John turns everyday garbage into art which is often explicitly sexual. I was most struck by Helen, an out-patient who describes her works of carefully drawn pastel lines on black paper as “Zen-like.” Her story is a sad one in which she takes on board the notion that she herself is responsible for her illness. As I watched her nervously tell her story, I couldn’t help thinking that Dr Marton’s belief that artistic ability is the compensation for madness seemed a very small consolation for such a painful life.
Marton also argues that The Living Museum allows these people to take a leap from the identity of “mad” to that of “artist,” and that it is this leap that is liberating and healing. Certainly, what we are shown provides strong evidence for such a claim. But the film is about more than mental illness: it is about the nature of art, and of creativity. Although it does little to challenge any notion of a direct link between madness and creativity, it does raise questions as to whether such a connection can (and should) ever be broken. It is an engaging film that manages to take the issues seriously without being bleak.