Scientific American is asking us to think about "what it means to be sane." I know that, and here it is: you are sane when the people around you think you are.
This becomes really interesting when we start to think about art. My guess is that half of all visual artists and literary writers are not really very sane. As a bipolar, I've been interested in research on this. So let me ask, if your teenage boy came up with this --
would you be alarmed? Believe me, some people would. They would be thinking, my God, is this how he thinks about women? Is he a danger to society? That boy's sick! Some people live in a context in which many things are defined in certain conventional ways, and the boundaries may be narrow. It is claimed that one in 20 Americans owns a painting (or reproduction) like this --
It is pretty. The colors shine, the barn is in good repair, the scene is tranquil and includes both sky and air. There's a cow, and ducks. I'm trying to concentrate here, and it's hard, because . . . it is, though I am impartial in that I don't want either of these in my living room. But I want to make a point not so much about Art, as about being careful how we decide who's acceptable, what's sane.
Does either one of these paintings represent reality? No. You know they don't. Each is an artist's dream, so to speak, a rendering of the way their brains image things. The first painting, you can tell it's a woman. It is by de Kooning, and sold for $137.5 million dollars in 2006. Now, that is insane, but the collector who bought it thought it was a good investment, and something fun to do with his extra money, perhaps.
The second painting is "realistic," you might say. You know those are ducks, even as you know nothing really looks like this outside a Disney sound lot. Thomas Kinkade, who painted this and many many other paintings like it, recently died wealthy, though with an estate in considerable disarray. Neither one of these artists was someone you want raising your grandchildren - both took alcoholism to its illogical extreme. It may have killed Kincade, in fact; the autopsy results are still pending.
Now the image below would have been created deliberately, perhaps by a commercial art student who is staying out of trouble, but the original might be a sort of accident, like colorful shavings collecting on the print shop floor, or it might have been carefully devised. I don't know. There are many, many copies of this in your body; you would not be alive without them. It would identify you as human if the issue were in doubt. And it is just the same, I understand, in every one of us.
As you may know if you're a med student, it's the structure of adult human hemoglobin.