“Art and Craft”: When Bad Behavior Is Not a Choice

A fascinating new film examines the complicated relationship between free will and biochemistry.

Where does biochemistry end and free will begin? What is sickness and what is sin? These are the kinds of questions posed by Art and Craft, a compelling and highly entertaining documentary now playing in limited release.

Mark Landis is a talented art forger who successfully fooled at least 46 U.S. museums. But Landis doesn’t try to sell his forgeries — he donates them, posing sometimes as a Catholic priest and sometimes as the executor of a relative’s will.

His aim? To find the human connection and respect that a life with schizophrenia long denied him.

The story begins with museum registrar Matthew Leininger on the hunt for Landis, but quickly turns into a compassionate look into the life of a lonely man who suffers from mental illness.

“We thought we were making a film about art world questions and some guy on the run, essentially. But when we met Mark and understood that the story was not at all like it had been framed [in news accounts] — he was someone who suffered from mental illness — it really pushed us to reframe our approach,” said director/producer/cinematographer Sam Cullman in a telephone interview.

“Our process was to really understand Mark’s motivations and not to excuse the ethically questionable aspects of what he had done, but to understand them,” Cullman said.

 

An audience at the annual conference of the National Alliance for Mental Illness (NAMI) in Washington, DC, on September 4 seemed more than ready to forgive Landis’ behavior. They heartily embraced the film and its star, even though — or perhaps because — questions of free will and human responsibility loom large for them.

Can my child really not will themselves out of bed because of depression? Does my husband really have no control over himself when he cheats or gambles away our life savings during a manic episode? Must my mother really wash her hands incessantly?

These are the kinds of questions loved ones of those suffering from mental illness regularly ask. And while it may be surprising, science seems increasingly to say that the answer to all these questions is “yes.”

Are the Mentally Ill Still Free?

As philosopher Walter Glannon writes for Aeon, “We should not conceive of free will in terms of whether laws of nature and events in the past allow us room to act, but in functional terms — as acting according to our desires, beliefs, reasons and intentions. We are more than just material beings. But the capacity to choose and act freely depends on how the brain generates and sustains the mind.”

Both characters in the film and audience members at the NAMI conference asked why Landis didn’t use his considerable skill to create original art rather than creating problems for himself and others by copying great works. Even in a room full of people well acquainted with irrational behavior, there was a desire for Landis to behave rationally. There was a desire for redemption.

Landis sees himself as unoriginal and unable to create, yet it took imagination and will for him to embody characters like Father Arthur Scott and Father James Brantley — characters who, like much of his speech, are lifted from or inspired by his favorite films.

Surely this sweet, mischievous man is more than just a material being. Yet if his “capacity to choose and act freely” depends on how his brain “generates and sustains the mind,” in which category — sin or sickness — do his antics fall? Where is the line that separates those spheres?

We are subjects, we are objects. We are sinners, we are sick.

Changing the way we think about human responsibility and free will has implications that are being explored in all sorts of realms.

In arecent New York Times blog post, Erik Parens, a senior research scholar at The Hastings Center in Garrison, New York, considers how advances in neuroscience will impact criminal justice. He calls for something known as “intellectual binocularity”: “Through one lens we see that we are ‘subjects’ (we act) who have minds and can have the experience of making free choices. Through the other we see that we are ‘objects’ or bodies (we are acted upon), and that our experiences or movements are determined by an infinitely long chain of natural and social forces.”

So perhaps the answer to the question of sin or sickness is both/and. Perhaps the line between free will and biochemistry is one only God can fully discern. Perhaps our faith, whether in a higher power or in our fellow human, calls for us to extend mercy instead of judgment more often than we do.

The Art and Craft filmmakers have consulted on a recently launched project and website, MarkLandisOriginal.com. Clients can submit family portraits and other photos from which Landis will produce works of art. The idea is to respect Landis’ inability to access the kind of imaginative powers that would allow him to create original works, and still offer him the opportunity to connect with people through his art in a socially acceptable way.

In one of Landis’ more insightful comments in the film, he says of his long stay in a mental hospital as a young adult: “People who follow the advice of those places, they’re mental patients all their lives.” Art and Craft beautifully communicates the humanizing truth that people who suffer from serious mental illness are far more than patients and have far more to offer the world than their marginalizing diagnosis suggest.

Image courtesy of Shutterstock.