The Corpus Callosum

Role Reversal is Psychiatric Art

There have been many collections and compendia of artistic works by
persons with psychiatric illness.  They are interesting.
 In fact, it was a chance encounter with such a book that
first got me interested in psychology.

Thre is a story there, which I won’t tell here, other than to say that
it is a good argument for supporting public libraries.  Bored
teenagers in a new town are better off in a library than in other
places they might end up.

Anyway, now I encounter the art-psychiatry connection again, but with a
twist.  Rather that art produced by the patient, it is art
produced by a doctor, depicting his emotional impressions of the things
that patients told him.

Edith lives with bipolar disorder and a dissociative
disorder; she has been in recovery from alcohol and drug dependence for
over 20 years. I asked her if she would like me to make a painting for
her, and if so, what should it show.


considers this to be “outsider art.”  By that
he means that it is art that is done by someone with no formal artistic

I’m not quite sure what to make of this.  Regular readers may
have noticed that I am not a big fan of self-disclosure.
 Showing something like this to a patient would seem to me to
be a non-standard practice in this regard.

I began painting two years ago with no purpose in
mind other than to
understand more completely the emotional experiences of my clients.
Prior to that time, it had never occurred to me to put paint to canvas.
Having had no training in painting or sculpture, I did not consider
what I was doing as creating “art”; rather, I was seeking to represent
an experience or a feeling. Only later did I begin to wonder what it
was that I had created…

…On looking around my office at the forty or so paintings displayed
there, a client asked how many I had sold. The thought of selling these
paintings made me feel uncomfortable, even insulted. I explained to the
client that the paintings are part of my relationship with my clients,
and to sell one would feel like a violation of the bond between us…

Psychiatrists are taught to examine their own emotional responses to
patients, as a way to understand them and what they are going through.
 But tradition dictates that these reactions are shared only
very judiciously.  Dr. Rustin’s use of his own artwork goes against that
tradition.  That does not make it wrong, but it is grounds for

Dr. Rustin does not describe any kind of investigation into the
therapeutic value of this activity, nor does he offer any consideration
of the possibility that it could be harmful.  It is not
immediate obvious that it would be harmful, but for now I would have to
say that such activities be undertaken only with the realization that
it is unexplored therapeutic territory.


  1. #1 April
    August 22, 2008

    Yeah, I’m not sure how this would be helpful for the patient— in fact, it might exacerbate the situation? Weird.

  2. #2 HP
    August 22, 2008

    1) It’s not “outsider art” if it’s done self-consciously and with intent. It’s just plain old “amateur art.”

    2) As a client, I’d be very bothered if my therapist offered to paint a picture of what he thinks of me. But not as bothered as I’d be if he brought his acoustic guitar to my session:

    “Oh, Howard, I know you think you’re depressed,
    But you really just got Anger issues.
    Calm down, there’s no need to get upset,
    But if you need ’em, here’s a box o’ tissues.”

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