The slightest hint of naïvité or primitive genius is usually greeted with the butt-end of a joke. Who wouldn’t find the greasy ape-man of an eccentric artist, as example, in Dario Argento’s 1969 The Bird With the Crystal Plumage funny? The mad recluse lives among the stacks of his juvenile folk-paintings on the second floor of a medieval Italian ruin only accessible by a ladder he must send down to the rarest visitor, and the gross-out kicker is for dinner the hair-ball misanthrope offers his guest a dead cat! At least since 19th-Century Romantics began to distance themselves from the unself-consciousness of naïvité, the artist portrayed as a primitive visionary of the Forest Gump variety has been considered a laughable, stereotypical caricature. Trying to act naïve and unself-conscious is such a brain-teaser, David Foster Wallace compared it to being “promised lavish rewards if you can avoid thinking of a green elephant for ten seconds.” Wallace described the current reflexive condition as an aspiration to “the self-conscious appearance of unself-consciousness.” The resulting essay, “E Unibus Pluram,” hints at the danger of such a reflexive awareness gone awry. Our well founded suspicion that our culture’s grand illusion of sincerity can’t help but to fail to appear uncalculated and effortless results in a mental paradox: the inner critic begins to see itself as the bogey, unable to halt its own monologue. Instead of the transformative power ascribed to faux naïvité by Romantics, Wallace finds in its place a vaguely disturbed subjectivity that has turned against itself.

At the end of the 18th-Century, the German Romantic Friedrich von Schiller was similarly concerned with the extremely self-conscious terms by which supposedly naïve subject matter (e.g., anything from the natural beauty of a flower to the anti-social behavior of madmen and criminals) is aestheticized in art. Self-reflection was wildly idealized by Romantics who believed that the mind within the mind could overcome the unself-consciousness of nature and that artifice should supersede naïvité. Schiller’s unprecedented distinction between poetic types, in Naïve and Sentimental Poetry, definitely favored the “sentimental” over the “naïve” poet (who like nature simply acts out of “necessity”). The naïvité of primitive originality was considered solely inspirational: “Our feeling for nature,” Schiller half-jokingly offered, “is like the feeling of an invalid for health.” The poet-philosopher made the distinction that naïve genius was not something to aspire to, but that we should instead be inspired by it. For Schiller, the problem with aspiring to unself-consciousness was that doing so required nothing short of the successful perfection of the “highest illusion”. Even if such a grand illusion of unself-consciousness was possible, Schiller contended, it would always be on the verge of failure: there would always be the slightest slip of the gear; the most minute inconsistency in the chain of code; always the possible hassle of an overlooked error in the cumbersome masterpiece of perfected naïvité to worry about. Even if the grandest of all illusions was the mere illusion of failure, there would always be a gnawing concern over the likely failure, even of failure. Schiller believed that the human mind was specifically defined by its reflexive impulse. Any attempt to aspire to unself-consciousness was, so it followed, equivalent to attempting to indefinitely fake a coma.

Nevertheless, our culture’s hunger for the grand illusion of sincerity shows no signs of flagging. To a contemporary writer like Wallace, who feels no less burdened than Romantics did by the responsibility of subjective consciousness and the consequent loss of alleged innocence, the cognitive noise of faux naïvité remains a significant issue. With Wallace, who is mostly concerned with speculating about the possible psychological effects of television’s funhouse of smoke and mirrors on the contemporary U.S. fiction writer, the sense of pleasure that comes from the inevitable inability of the actor to convincingly maintain a state of unself-consciousness is misleading. The eagerness with which the grand illusion of naïvité — which he calls “a vacation from self-consciousness — is sought after, and the degree to which its artificial illusion is addictively embraced as “terribly, gloriously natural” troubles Wallace. “Self-conscious unself-consciousness,” the terms Wallace coins to play up the inherent self-contradiction of aspiring to naïvité, proposes a dangerous brand of mental escape for him. As a novelist, Wallace is in the business of writing about the “sweaty palms” of twisted psychology. His interest in the failure of acting to approximate an unself-conscious pose is in the particular way it manifests dysfunction in the characters he wants to write about (not least of all himself). Like Schiller, Wallace is thinking about hyper-reflection in sharp contrast to the oxymoron of acting natural. The difference for Wallace is that, on television anyway, acting natural is the highest aim. Our options for dealing with the psychological paralysis proposed by aspirations to unself-consciousness are severly limited. There is, in Wallace’s opinion, something strange about a pop culture that still hungers for the illusion of naïvité — especially considering the psychological suicide required to make the grand illusion believable.

It’s not that the level of cultural paranoia brought about by a notion of reflexivity turned against itself is that much greater than it once was. Romantic Sci-fi and Horror writers like E.T.A. Hoffmann were already incredibly concerned with the loss of identity that comes with the specter of artificial beauty. In “The Sandman,” for example, Hoffmann’s narrator is horrified to learn that he has unwittingly fallen head-over-heels in love with an automaton mannequin he’s mistaken for the most talented and spellbindingly beautiful woman he’s ever seen — a woman whose “every movement seems controlled by clockwork.” More contemporary Sci-fi and Horror writers, like Philip K. Dick, have for the most part, simply continued to plumb the psychological identity crisis that has accompanied technology’s aspiration towards the perfect simulation of nature. Dick’s 1971 A Scanner Darkly is, in fact, entirely devoted to the paranoiac story of a futuristic undercover Southland California narcotics officer’s surveillance of a “crystal freak” drug dealer, it turns out is one and the same as himself. If the mirrored glasses of the contemporary super-cop are meant to convey a psychological interiority which is a perfectly blank reflection of the world outside, the cartoonish “scramble suit” disguise of Dick’s future-cop, which randomly projects every characteristic human feature, is the vague blur of subjectivity that results from an aspiration to represent the “Everyman”. In a satire of the “mindfucking” self-conscious paroxysm of his day, each half of the character (cop/dealer) is the other half’s worst nightmare. In this dark, anti-Romantic version of self-consciousness, the mind is divided against itself. The result is a never-ending suspicion and paranoia of one half of the mind over what it fears the other half is thinking. Self-awareness becomes a horrifying and traumatic experience wherein personal reflection is swallowed whole by the unfathomable layers of conspiratorial menace and deceit. If it is possible to distinguish between Hoffmann’s Romantic sense of optimism for subjective experience vs. Dick’s modern pessimism for self-consciousness, it is only in the vague sense that the technological duplicity of artificial beauty in Hoffmann can somehow still inspire love, however creepy, while the dark, suburban squalor of Dick’s yawning Anaheim wasteland of “neon ooze” and “McDonaldburger” fast-food joints is void of all hope.

Recent art, far from distancing itself from the paranoia of reflexive paralysis that accompanies the grand illusion of unself-consciousness, has instead chosen to develop incredibly sophisticated intellectual strategies for faking naïvité. Everything from Art Brut’s pose of raw “clairvoyance” to the false earnestness of Pop Art’s Realism is (arguably) designed for the specific purpose of coming off as simple and unpretentious. With Art Brut, for example, the aspiration to naïvité was totally overt: culture was seen as a direct impediment to direct experience. While what was most striking about the supermarket Brillo box of Pop Realism was not the supposed news flash that all cultural production was artifice — everyone already new that. There was another far more compelling point to be made: to the late 20th-Century consumer, artifice was far more familiar than nature, and consequently felt more real.

The trouble with aspiring to naïvité in art, however, (besides the obvious condescension of purposefully underestimating the intelligence of one’s audience), is that the artwork, inevitably rejecting any unstated goal of perfect unself-consciousness, becomes all about how impossible it is to actually sustain the illusion of naïvité. Whether it is the failure of success or the failure of failure, failure is the common denominator. Yet, regardless of how self-contradictory it is for the artist — whose practice is, after all, nothing but artifice — to attempt to construct an unaffected pose, the illusion of naïvité is still very much favored over self-conscious reflection. In a classic reversal of the Romantic distinction between art and nature, one of the notable concerns in the cerebral ice of the various strategies prevalent in art of late has, for example, been to try to make one’s practice appear no different than its subject matter: Photographs are meant to look like advertisements in fashion magazines, or like photographs other artists have already taken; paintings are supposed to look like graphic design or bathroom wallpaper; sculptures are made to look like showroom furniture, or a garage full of the kinds of things found in a suburban garage; etc. Deeply personal signifiers are revealed to have the most artificial and impersonal interiority. Elizabeth Peyton’s faux naïve paintings are a case and point. Their implied significance relies heavily on her coy layering of irreconcilable contradictions. As paintings they are neither subtle, nor bold. The drippy washes and paint from the tube off-handedly suggest uncalculated spontaneity, while the studied, sketch-like brushiness casually signals a mastery over her own signature style. As cooly understated and amateurish as they appear, the paintings are, after all, intended to register as fine art. Likewise, Peyton’s subject matter is meant to represent the most private pubescent longings and desires, yet the Tiger Beat references reveal an interiority that is the most vapid exteriority of mass cultural iconography possible. Beyond vague allusions to teenage mythology, all one is left with, at the end of the day, is the idea of the artist (and by extension everyone else) as an empty psychology desperate for a trendy, pre-fab subjectivity. If anything, Peyton’s Pop Psychological poke at our cultural shallowness (are we really that shallow?) is a frightening exaggeration of the emotional devastation proposed by a hopelessly paralytic concept of self-consciousness.

Granted much stock is well placed in the possibility for optimism through self-deprecation. Without a doubt, Peyton’s tongue-in-cheek celebration of cultural decadence takes its place at the end of a long line of tragi-comic responses to the psychological burden of self-reflection. Yet, if Peyton’s take on psychological paralysis is meant as a post-critical — post-political — reflection on the kind of cynicism brought about by the confusion of cultural conventions for naïvité, the singer-songwriter Leonard Cohen (To quote Nirvana in the spirit of Peyton: “Give me a Leonard Cohen afterlife / So I can sigh eternally”) remains openly critical of pop culture’s aspiration to unself-consciousness. Viz., the unabashed sarcasm of the title-song from the 1992 album, The Future: “...and all the lousy little poets / coming round / trying to sound like Charlie Manson.” After a while acting insane becomes unreflexive, a nature unto itself. Afterthought and prethought are hopelessly mutated. Once they have become one and the same, the madman Charlie Manson is inseparable from his fictive personality. The trick for the “lousy little poet” in Cohen’s song is to convincingly conform to the empty vessel of an already artificial cultural symbol for transgression. As with Peyton, the trick, in other words, is to make an unnatural image feel psychologically real, or natural. Romantic reflexivity, which was more interested in making the natural image feel unnatural, is once again reversed. Contemporary consumers of images, as Wallace points out, are made “self-conscious” only of the success or failure of their ability to approximate the synthetic appearance of a pre-packaged ideal image with any hint of natural grace.

Dr. Hans Prinzhorn’s collection of schizophrenic drawings from early last century addresses the reflexive paralysis that results from aspiring to unself-consciousness, and (perhaps inadvertently) suggests a counterpoint to the idea of naïvité as a worthwhile goal. Early in the 1920s when Prinzhorn wrote “Suddenly we find the bricklayer fully prepared to fight the world with magic and witchcraft,” it was an example of modern natural science’s discriminatory absorption of Romantic ideals. Schiller’s distinction between poetic types, for example, provided psychology with the underlying assumption of a human mind that was mappable. Contrary to Romantic ideas about sentimental artifice, however, the natural science of Psychology, like all natural science, aspires to essential principals. The universal visual language Prinzhorn wanted to establish through his study of schizophrenic art was based in the popular belief that the innocent perceptions of mental patients were somehow free from the jaded pessimism ascribed to artificial and modern acculturation. As such, the feeling was that they couldn’t help but represent the most earnest, heartfelt and unadulterated world-view. To Schiller, the consequent categorization of the mental patient as a genius, in Prinzhorn’s Ten Schizophrenic Masters, would, more than likely, have come off as hopelessly over-simplistic. However inscrutable the psychological impulses behind the schizophrenic art (Prinzhorn quit trying to establish his principal of universal art after 1922), the self-involved and sophisticated drawings in the Prinzhorn collection are anything but naïve.

Drawings by mental patients like Emma Hauck and Johann Knopf, for example, are so obscure it’s difficult to attribute any kind of personal investigation into them. All there is to indicate the presence of reflection of any kind is the clearly obsessive compulsion to complete the task at hand. In Knopf’s drawings, as well as Jacob Mohr’s, image and text are so repeatedly overlapped they are inseparable. In Hauck’s drawings, line is written upon line until each sentence is so hopelessly entangled with the last that their individual significance is irrevocably obscured. These mangled columns of ink and graphite are totally inscrutable as anything except abstract pictures. Page after page in notebooks hand-drawn by Josef Heinrich Grebing are filled with mysterious symbols and icons, like the lurid calligraphy found in old alchemical journals. In Knopf and August Johann Klose, words are crammed into every corner of the page so insistently, sentences snake around pictures observing their perimeters so faithfully, and entire paragraphs are perversely squeezed into the oddest shaped spaces left between floating hieroglyphic shapes with such incredible diligence, it is hard not to think of these drawings as anything but the handiwork of the demented mind. It’s as if each of the pieces proposed an obscure solution to a problem that does not exist. Not only is there confirmation of a conscious mind actively at work making relationships between words and pictures, there is also a sustained methodology evident in the stylistic similarity between different drawings by the same mental patient. Whatever the mysterious problem at hand, the preoccupation with finding some sort of a solution for it suggests urgency — a passionate, even if quiet, desperation that verges in Hauck’s case on outright mania.

Yet, if these drawings are removed from the context of the psychiatric institution it would be hard to characterize the intense persistence and regularity of the mark-making. Is the obsessive-compulsive quality in a drawing by Hauck or Knopf the result of a profound agitation which comes with having an infinity of time on one’s hands, but only a ridiculously small sheet of paper to work with, or is it rather the effect of a very sensitive and patient mind assiduously at work? Either way, for all of their supposed self-involvement, the more belabored drawings (which Dr. Prinzhorn categorized as “Unobjective, Unordered Scribbles”) are not very self-conscious looking at all — as if they were never intended for display, but are instead the incidental result of the mental patients dogged pursuit of some unfathomable inspiration.

To aspire to the supposedly unself-conscious naïvité of a schizophrenic drawing, like those by Hauck, is a very different goal from that of being inspired by her drawing to make one equally sophisticated and beautiful. As radical as the difference is, however, the partly self-induced cognitive dissonance that results from our paranoid culture continues to prevent us from clearly distinguishing inspiration from the negative illusionism of aspiration. To aspire to Hauck’s naïve condition is to yearn for the illusion of an unreflective state-of-mind. Hauck’s drawing, on the other hand, may have a clear motive, it may even represent childlike whimsy, but it is nevertheless extremely intricate and complex. If we are to believe Schiller, naïvité doesn’t need to be characterized (as insane, transgressive, adolescent, or what have you) in order to inspire ideas, thoughts, meaning, etc. — it simply can’t help itself. What is gained, for example, by knowing that Emma Hauck’s scribbled columns of graphite are letters to her husband begging him to hurry and come and save her from the insane asylum? Aren’t the words “sweetheart come”, frantically written over and over again until they are virtually illegible, enough? The obsessive gesture of Hauck’s jagged hand-writing is inspiring. It does more to effect us psychologically than any speculation about the objective intent of her letters possibly could.

The suggestion that art can be complex without being overtly literal about its intent suggests a possible explanation for what the author Maurice Sendak might have meant when he wrote fondly of his friend Theodor Geisel: “Only after years of friendship was I completely won over; Dr. Seuss was serious about not being serious.” Even though any number of different takes on Sendak’s insight into the whimsical inner mind of Dr. Seuss are possible, beyond the fact that we live at a time long since defined by anxiety and the paralysis of indecision, what isn’t really ever made clear is the reason why anyone would take “not being serious” so seriously. And, maybe Sendak’s point is simply that the reflexive activity of making meaning, no matter how seemingly frivolous, is sometimes reason enough. Like Dr. Prinzhorn’s schizophrenic art, it isn’t necessary for the problem proposed in a painting by Dr. Seuss to be overt in order for it’s charmingly peculiar resolution to engage our curiosity.

One of the bigger breaks for Romantic thinkers and story tellers was the realization that nature is not evil, sinister, or anything of the kind, but it is our human fantasy that projects the nefarious phantoms of its imagination onto nature. Likewise, our reflexive psychology was also considered impulsive, and didn’t always require a clear motive — forget whether or not it was good or bad to think about not thinking, the ever vigilant mind within the mind was simply our psychological condition. In Wallace’s updated version of self-reflection, however, the oxymoron of acting natural threatens to paralyze our popular conscience. Considering the continued significance of the Prinzhorn collection, it is not surprising that these drawings might, once again, offer up some insight into the paradox of human psychology, and propose an alternative to the brain-drain of Wallace’s “self-conscious unself-consciousness.” When reasons are not immediately available, and they aren’t in any number of the drawings in the collection, it does not make the artwork any less of a curiosity. Even without the hook of pop psychology by which to judge the validity of solutions, ample evidence of complex choice- making is readily available. Often, in fact, all it takes to indicate reflection in these drawings is how inexplicably important it must have been to complete the strange and idiosyncratic task.

Beyond Reason: Art and Psychosis: Works From the Prinzhorn Collection, Berkeley: University of California Press, 1996
Philip K. Dick, A Scanner Darkly, New York: Vintage, 1991
E.T.A. Hoffmann, “The Sandman”, Tales of Hoffmann, Penguin, 1982
Friedrich von Schiller, Naïve and Sentimental Poetry, trans. and intro. Julius A. Elias, New York: Frederick Unger, 1966
Maurice Sendak, The Secret Art of Dr. Seuss, New York: Random House, 1995
David Foster Wallace, “E Unibus Pluram: Television and U.S. Fiction,” A Supposedly Fun Thing I’ll Never Do Again, Boston: Little Brown and Company, 1997

© Daniel Mendel-Black, originally published in Spring Journal #3, 2003