Thursday, August 26, 2010

The certified swindle

There is a fascinating article in the July 12 & 19 New Yorker magazine about the art world and forgeries, but it just as much could apply to the world of psychiatry, which is still trying (badly) to gain respectability as a science. The comparison between psychiatry and art dealers is not an exact fit, but it's close. Psychiatry and pharma are trying to justify the existence of the "schizophrenia gene" and to utilize brain scans that will put us endlessly in their thrall, just as this article explains that fingerprints are the holy grail in authenticating works of art. Many people will take advantage of the public's wanting to believe in certainty.

In the early twentieth century, as J. P. Morgan, Henry Clay Frick, and other wealthy Americans bid up prices of Old Masters, the search for a foolproof system of connoisseurship intensified. At the same time, the flood of money into the art market led to widespread corruption, with dealers often paying off connoisseurs to validate paintings. In 1928, the art dealer René Gimpel complained, “The American collector is prey to the greatest swindle the world has ever seen: the certified swindle.”

The public has long been suspicious of connoisseurship. As John Brewer recounts in his recent book “The American Leonardo,” about a Kansas City couple’s battle, in the nineteen-twenties, to authenticate a potential Leonardo, this distrust had to do with more than the system’s reliability; it also had to do with doubts about the authenticity of the art world itself, with its cult of prized artists, its exorbitant trafficking in aesthetic pleasure, and an élite that seemed even more rarefied than most. In 1920, the Kansas couple, Harry and Andrée Hahn, sued the powerful art dealer Joseph Duveen for half a million dollars after he told a reporter that a portrait they owned could not possibly be a Leonardo. The Hahns argued that connoisseurs offered only “air-spun abstractions and nebulous mumbo-jumbos,” and that “smart and tricky art dealers” ran a “racket.” Even the judge in the case warned jurors to be wary of experts who relied on means “too introspective and subjective.” (Though none of the leading connoisseurs considered the painting a Leonardo, and later technical evaluations confirmed their judgment, the trial ended in a hung jury, and Duveen paid the Hahns sixty thousand dollars to settle the case.)

The desire to “scientificize” connoisseurship was therefore as much about the desire to democratize it, to wrest it out of the hands of art experts. Before the Hahn trial, rumors surfaced that there was a thumbprint in the paint. One newspaper asked, “WILL THUMBPRINT MADE 400 YEARS AGO PROVE PAINTING IS LEONARDO DA VINCI’S ORIGINAL?” But identifying the author of a painting through fingerprints still seemed far beyond the reach of science, and the process of authentication remained largely unchanged until Biro came up with his radical idea.

And so it goes, too, for psychoanalysis. In Gary Greenberg's excellent article in September's Harper's Magazine The war on unhappiness: Goodbye Freud, hello positive thinking, the seeds for our current brain disease model of mental illness were being planted in the wake of Freud's appearance at Clark University in September 1909:

In 1926, less than two decades after Freud's visit, the doctors of the New York Psychoanalytic Society declared their independence from their European forebears by decreeing that only physicians could practice psychoanalysis. Back in Vienna, Freud was livid. Medical education was exactly the wrong preparation for a psychoanalyst, he wrote, as it abandoned study of "the history of civilization and sociology" for anatomy and biology, culture for science. A psychoanalyst trained this way was bound to have the wrong idea about psychic suffering: that it was an illness to be isolated and cured by the doctor. This was a form of piety that Freud could not tolerate. "As long as I live," he wrote, "I shall balk at having psychoanalysis swallowed by medicine."

Over Freud's dead body, this is exactly what has happened, to the financial benefit of virtually everyone at the Anaheim conference. The New York Psychoanalytic Society's marriage of therapy to medicine secured us a place at the health-care trough.

Those of us in the trenches of the mental health industry that has resulted, think psychiatry looks pretty ridiculous at the altar of Mammon and it should have taken Freud's original advice. Marian Goldstein sums up the up situation in her recent comment on Ron Unger's blog: A friend of mine once told me about a psychopharmacologist (married to a shrink, btw, the perfect couple… ), who’d said, he would love to cure Jesus with Haldol. He meant it. Seriously.

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