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  • Writer's pictureAndrew McIlroy

Long live the ‘lunatics, inebriates and idiots’: How the tokenism of ‘inclusion’ fails artists

The ‘Kew Lunatic Asylum’ built between 1856 and 1872, a complex of majestic Italianate and French Empire styled buildings set high on a landscaped hill, it’s back to the gold enriched city of Melbourne was the first purpose-built asylum in the Colony, intended by its architects at the Victorian Public Works Office to portray a benevolent and civilised city while housing its growing number of “lunatics, inebriates and idiots”.

Kew Lunatic Asylum, Melbourne c1890 Photo: Willsmere

Many years later as a young child growing up in Melbourne, I knew the asylum’s locked iron gates, towering white painted facades and large empty windows hid a dark truth, imprisoning the tortured souls even of my own and I thought safe, somewhat idyllic suburban neighbourhood.


Early each morning an oversized, lead-lined blue van with ‘Spastic Children's School Bus’ emblazoned across its sides, gathered up the ‘spastic children', their piercing screams and futile banging against the metalled walls, holding me in my bed. 

These were the luckier ones I was told, not all children taken to ‘sheltered workshops’, shamelessly dressed in prison garb got to come home each day.


Despite being only a child and living in a deeply prejudiced Melbourne of the 1970’s, I still knew this segregation of my friends to be wrong.

The 'Spastic Centre School Bus' delivered children daily to Kew or surrounding 'sheltered workshops' c1965. Photo: State Library of Victoria

Notwithstanding the initial grand plans and ideals, Kew Lunatic Asylum’s overcrowding, regimented discipline, unimaginable violence, poor sanitation, disease and death went unchecked despite several enquiries, including a Royal Commission, continuing throughout the 20th century as a “Hospital for the Insane”, “Mental Hospital”, and “Psychiatric Hospital” until it closed for good in December 1988 as pharmacological treatments improved and a more enlightened society embraced the deinstitutionalisation of those in its care.  (‘Willsmere History’)


For a long time, the societal response to severe psychiatric or physical disability was incarceration but as institutions were shut down attitudes changed.  Still as many patients were discharged, often with little place to go, and descend into a life of homelessness or crime.


But then as now, many of those diagnosed with severe anti-social or neuro disabilities were frequently no less normal or able than anyone else muddling through the challenges of life with some degree of illness, or indeed none.


The lesson of history has shown that many such people - perhaps today deemed ‘on the spectrum’ - were highly intelligent and creative with extraordinary cognitive abilities.  

Those afflicted by autism for example, while often considered socially awkward, possessing a degree of sensory hypersensitivity and hyper-perception and a tendency to focus more intensely on details so as to be ideally suited to a life as an artist.

Vincent Van Gogh was hospitalised at Saint-Paul-de-Mausole at Saint-Remy in 1989-90. Photo: Van Gogh Museum

Add here too that those artistically inclined do not always get formal training or study in fine arts. Therefore, these artists' unique style of art represents their own inner world and individual takes on the world around them.  (Theories of Autism, ‘Psychology Today’, Princeton 2020).

Should not this be assessed as any other attribute in the making of art?


There was a time when critically assessing the contributions of Michelangelo, Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, Emily Dickenson, Albert Einstein, Andy Warhol, Vincent Van Gogh, Judith Scott and Tim Burton among other significant artists, writers and scientists - stigmatised and marginalised at times in their lifetimes - one could speak freely of the influence of their psychological and physiological disorders, hypothesised today as likely due to autism.

But perhaps less so today it seems.

Vincent Van Gogh painted Almond Blossom (1890) from his hospital window. Photo: Van Gogh Museum

Vincent van Gogh, Garden of the Hospital in Arles (1889) Photo: Oskar Reinhard Collection, Switzerland

When I sat down to write this morning, my intention was to expand upon a few ideas bubbling around in my head on the rise of talented neurodiverse artists in contemporary art and culture.  But I grew concerned rather quickly when my thoughts collided with the fractious debates of diversity and marginalisation, identity and tokenism. 

Tokenism, broadly speaking, is including a small number of under-represented groups in an effort to appear diverse. These people are often symbolically and interchangeably used to represent an entire group of people. 

Judith Scott (1943 - 2005) was an American fiber sculptor. She was deaf and had Down Syndrome. Photo: Art21

Regrettably, our public art galleries too often fall into this quagmire, with the display of works often manipulated to satisfy some misplaced policy of ‘inclusiveness’ and to avoid controversy.

It is in many places today ill considered or even offensive to speak of an artist’s disability (amongst other things), a writer’s dyslexia or a scientist’s psychological disorder in the success or failure of their art

But should not the celebration of diversity and difference be ‘warts and all’, embracing the role of disability in making art paradoxically risk segregating these artists from their peers, contrary to the very principle of ‘inclusiveness' itself?

Andy Warhol is believed to have had Asperger's Syndrome and is mentioned as likely autistic. Photo: The Collector

Many curators, critics and commentators today appear silent on these things while heralding race, gender or identity of others over all else, opting to treat say disable artists just the same as anyone else, or perversely risk accusations of unfair bias (discrimination).


In my view, the arts industry needs to squarely end its culture of tokenism by embracing artists that honestly represent contemporary culture; not solely because of their origins, gender or identity, but because amongst other things of the insight they uniquely may convey - however it comes about.


Perhaps it is time to ditch the language and guardrails of 'inclusion', to speak more freely (or fearlessly) of the very characteristics and human qualities that actually go into or sit behind the making of art, in turn ensuring in time a more honest representation of our society – and artists - in our galleries.


Let’s not lock them from sight again.


The entrance to Kew Lunatic Asylum in Melbourne Photo: Willsmere

Photo: State Library of Victoria

Andrew McIlroy is an artist and writer, living and working in Melbourne, Australia


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