Q. I've been told that there is a link between creativity and mental illness. In school we learned about Van Gogh and other artists and how their mental illness enhanced their artistic ability. I've found some blogs that discuss this. Is there any truth to it?
A. This is a question that I can sink my teeth into-- it is also a topic that needs to be explored in detail rather than the half-baked theories that one can find scattered througout the net about this issue. I have some thoughts about the link between creativity and mental illness, but I can't promise you a clear answer. I do hope that a good debate will come from this.
As you may know, I have two main interests… art and psychology-- specifically mental illness and the insane. In many ways art and psychology share a strong connection. One could say that you can’t explore one without exploring the other. Thus, it goes without saying that I enjoy reading about both and how they may or may not be linked. However, I am often alarmed by the material I find online that attempts to prove the link between creativity and mental illness-- articles suggesting that all artists are mentally ill and that great artists are insane. I am also alarmed by the number of people who tell me about their experiences in school learning about artists like Van Gogh, the mental illness that they had, and the assumed connection between creativity and mental illness. Thus, I would like to know the opinions of others about this subject. Do you think there is a link?
As for me, I know from personal experience-- having worked with mentally ill individuals-- that one could easily establish a link between creative prowess and mental illness or complete insanity, but that is not to say that the link would be based on fact nor would it be an honest reflection of every artist. In my opinion, these links often serve no purpose other than to enforce a stigma about artists in general-- stereotypes that are fueled by popular culture and people who emulate what they observe on TV.
Based on my work in the field I can say that the artwork created in institutions and rehab centers for the mentally ill can spur us to think about our own state of being-- but not anymore than the art we observe from mentally healthy (if there is such a thing) individuals outside of the institutions and rehab centers. We often attach some form of mystery to the art of these institutionalized individuals instead of accepting that someone in an institution can be talented or skilled in a subject such as art-- just as artists outside of the institutions are often associated with having some form of devine gift instead of being acknowledged for the years of experience and practice that they have embraced.
Don’t get me wrong… as a former mental health professional I have personally observed some captivating artwork as it was being created. At one time I pondered the idea that perhaps those individuals were exploring truths beyond my recognition. However, I reminded myself that the individuals I worked with often displayed total disregard for cultural convention and what you and I may consider ’normality’-- both in their lifestyles and in the manner in which they created art... among other things. Thus, that 'extra spark' or 'enhanced ability' that I discovered in their work was nothing more than a reflection of that-- enhanced by my own desire to discover something more than just a person creating a painting or drawing.
The individuals I worked with were free from inhibitions as to how they expressed themselves with a chosen medium. They were not confined by the studio inhibitions that an art student may spend years breaking him or herself from after graduation. However, that is not to say that all of the work was great. The majority of it was mediocre at best… but for whatever reason I had focused on specific images that had caught my eye. I found that we should approach these works as art created by individuals rather than viewing them with the hope of discovering signs of any specific mental illness or aspect of insanity-- OR hidden truths.
With that said, the unconventional nature of the individuals I worked with would often influence their ability to push the limits of the medium of their choice, so to speak. The individuals I worked with, some of whom were criminally insane, would take chances with their art that some of us would never consider. Thus, it is easy to see why some people view artwork created by the mentally ill or insane as overly unique compared to other art that they have viewed… and thus associate creativity-- or high creativity-- with mental illness. It does not shock me that so many people gaze upon these works with amazement. However, it is dangerous when we attempt to project facts based on our curiosities alone-- and that is what I find so many people doing in regards to this subject online, in classrooms, and elswhere.
People tend to have a romanticized image of mentally ill individuals in general… and an ever growing collective curiosity for the ‘genius’ of the insane. In my opinion, this is largely due to the roll that mentally ill characters have played in popular novels and films... and the fact that so many of us emulate what we observe on the screen or take what we see as truth. Think about the popularity of ‘Girl, Interrupted’, ‘Silence of the Lambs’ and other novels and films that portray creative individuals with various forms of mental illness and insanity and you will find exactly of what I speak. I think it is obvious why the public associates creativity with mental illness and genius with insanity. However, I also know that the history and debate concerning the connection between mental illness and creativity can be traced back long before the first television. Is there a link? You tell me.
(I'd like to add that I don't think it is fair when people try to say that creative individuals-- artists, musicians, poets... etc.-- are more apt to be mentally ill when compared to people who rarely tap into their creative-side in that way, so to speak. I think it is safe to say that we all have some form of mental illness. We all have personality traits and experiences that we have to deal with. We all have flaws. An artist might suffer from depression or some other issue... and he or she may explore those problems within the context of his or her art-- which makes the issue more public than private-- but think about how many other people may suffer from the same problems in private. Just a thought.)
Feel free to comment if you have an opinion about this issue.
Take care, Stay true,