Monday, July 21, 2008

My Art Advice: Is Creativity linked to Mental Illness?

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,

Brian Sherwin


Anonymous said...

Most of the famous artists that are used as examples of creativity powered by mental illness were drug addicts. That influence should be considered. Creative people are often attacked by these theories but people don't understand that mental illness is everywhere and can be found in any industry. I read that over 400 medical doctors commit suicide per year. Should we think that all medical professionals are mentally ill? These bunk theories sell books and should not be taken serious.

Linda Jacobs said...

So many shades of greys here for definitions and explanations. But there is a similarity - that we all can agree on. Brain function? Over sensitivity? Is there research/scientific fact that compares artististic minds with mentally ill minds? My simplified theory is that people's brain shift into other hemispheres i.e. right and left. And something goes haywire with mentally ill people. Something goes haywire sometimes with creative people, but because they are using a physicality i.e. painting, computer, body, musical instrument the "kaos" starts to repair itself? or all that kaotic energy gets channeled i.e. sublimated. Although that is no guarantee that craziness will go away. The mystery of the mind/body experience - ?.

martinRoxArt said...

A simple responce to the question is "No". However making art does require passion, dedication and a pursuit of something that is not "visible" to anyone else until the artist makes it so. Artists do have a different way of looking at the world than non-artists, in that the activity of making art is to re-interpret what is seen/experienced. Personally, I believe everyone is born with creativity but it is consitioned out of us by the all of the other pressures placed upon us. Artists would seem to be able to cling onto this and allow themselves to make things in later life.

Anonymous said...

I have heard of that too. and it seems that, if you want to use the phrase "mental illness" (and I think mental illness should be defined so every person reading the article knows what mantall illness means) peoples experience bad or good, if those moments caused insanity in one form or another, does affect and show up in artist artwork.

Anonymous said...

Great topic Brian!

This is one that i am also very interested in, I studied art therapy before deciding to simply go for the art part. Now I am a professor of art and in some ways have a difficult time with the fact that I am going to be sending young minds out into a world that is not set up to support them as artists.

Being an artist is not a job, its a lifestyle. That being said, our society, especially in the united states, does not understand this lifestyle nor are there channels to support the artist. An artist, who truly lives and breaths art is going to have a difficult time relating to the larger society because this mind frame is not one that is understood.

Being an artist is difficult for financial reasons as well, most artist are poor and have a hard time making ends meet, this can be depressing. There is the lack of public health care in our country which is an additional burden for the artist who is solely pursuing her/his creative endeavors. If there is a small mental health issue such as depression, it is more difficult for it to be treated due to the lack of health care. This can then perhaps lead to self medicating. Which of course would relate to the sigma of artists being drug addicts or alcoholics.

Creating art forces the creator to constantly look inward and analyze the self, it is much more difficult to repress, avoid inner turmoil in this situation than it is for the larger population who come up with a zillion things to keep their issues hidden deep within themselves.

My second thought here is related to "creative genus" or genius for that matter. I do believe that the closer a person is to being a genius the greater their chances are of having a mental illness. The reason I say this is that our society is not set up to have us question things. The world is an ugly place, getting uglier everyday. When a person is extremely intelligent they are constantly aware of these things, they cant block them out of there consciousness as easily as a person of lower intelligence can. These realities that we face in this world are quite difficult to swallow and the fact that many walk around blind about it or develop complex ways to repress reality is also hard to observe. I can see these things as having a large impact on mental health.

There is another point I was planning on making here, but dont have time right now. Hopefully I can find time to make it later.

Again, great topic Brian!

Anonymous said...

People also don't take into account what older art materials were made out of. They were extremely toxic, whereas a lot of pigments today have been recreated non toxic. So, if you research the history of art ingredients you will find that they were very brain damaging. That's just ONE other outside source to take into account... The stigma is whack! but then again so are many other stigmas.

Carla B

Anonymous said...

Back again for more input on this topic. Great point Carla has made related to toxicity. I actually discuss this in my classes and in these cases I do discuss artists who have been a little "wacked out" due to the toxins they ingested over the years. Van Gogh is the most well know one as far as I know. His colors he used are known for causing neurological issues. Plus many other artists have developed insanity from their chosen pigments. Its quite sad.

Martinart makes a good point as well in regards to being born creative and having it lost due to societal pressures. SO lets say this is true. Why do some of us continue to keep this and others do not? Is it due to something in the environment- such as supportive families? Or is something in the brain? Or something totally different?

I think it was considered kinda important to be a little crazy in the days of abstract expressionism. Artist were all working with the unconscious. It was "in" to be a drunk or a drug addict, anything to let your mind reach that "other" state. It was about process and being uninhibited.

Now a days I think this is far less acceptable for the artist because art is often more conceptually based. Artists working this way use their conscious mind more so than the unconscious. Art is more interdisciplinary. Its not about just sitting in ones studio and painting all alone and working solely from what is within. Not to say that these are absolutes because they are from it. But it just seems to me to be more of the current trend.

Balhatain said...

Drugs can alter the mind... which can lead to a creative person exploring ideas further based on those experiences. However, we also have to remember that not every drug addict explores their creativity-- so I don't think overly creative individuals are more apt to take drugs when compared to someone who is not that creative. We also have to remember that drugs don't always enchance the ability of an artist... just as mental instability has destroyed more than a few art careers.

As mentioned, you can find drug addicts from every background and in every profession. So I also think it is unfair that artists are labeled with that stereotype when so many other people tend to use drugs as well. For examples, look at all of the sports figures who use various drugs. Look at the problem with meth in small communities throughout the United States.

Artists that use drugs are perhaps more open about it because the art community tends to be more open and liberal about such issues. However, with that said I must add that the majority of the artists I have known stay clear of drugs and many have stated that they live rather dull lives aside from their work. Most gallery owners don't want to put up with addicts either.

People assume that an artist lives an exciting life full of thrills, but that is not always so. Most of us work so long in the studio that we don't have time to seduce every person we come into contact with or any of the other stereotypes that surround the image of 'the artist'. :P

People tend to be attracted to vice though... and to destruction-- be it driving by a burning house a second time just to get another view... or finding an artist who was also an addict more interesting to read about than an artist who avoided drugs. Horror movies are some of the most popular films. Thus, one could say that most of the population is mentally ill in some manner based on our viewing desires alone.

Also, when thinking about artists and mental illness and how that illness may enhance creative ability we tend to select artists who have perhaps displayed that connection-- We have to remember that there are also artists who started to create mediocre works after enduring lengthy bouts with mental illness.

In other words, I don't think that mental illness... be it minor or major... is the key to creating great art. Nor do I think that drugs-- which can cause mental illness-- can unlock hidden abilities. True, some great works have been created under the influence... but there are just as many, if not more, great works that have been created with no addictions attached.

Anonymous said...

I think people are looking for mountains in mole hills. If there was a definite connection between creativity and mental illness don’t you think there would be more successful artists coming from the institutions? Part of this mess was started by the surrealists and other artists from that generation who found inspiration in the art of the mad. The art critics picked up on it so it is now dictated as fact. That is why the myth of this connection is part of the foundation of the contemporary art world.

Anonymous said...

Governments support these studies. I think governments support this myth because they don't want the masses to take the message of an artist seriously. Hitler thought that all modern artists were insane and he locked many of them up. Our own government has tried to pull funding from art with a message with the excuse that money should not be given to wackos and should instead be given to the poor. Governments try to pit the art community against the working class all the time. They don't want people to get it. They fear that the public might agree with what is being expressed. These studies are just another example of that hardline against the art community. Think about it! How many studies have there been about mental illness and politicians? What about mental illness and CEOs? What about mental illness and military generals and commanders? Where are those studies?

martinRoxArt said...

Quite a discussion on this then!
Lots of points that I agree with have been made. Wanting to become an artist but with other "real world" committments did make me feel quite ill in the past, but I decided I had to rationalise my situation. Therefore, "the madness" was placed under control, which is the difference between someone with mental health issues acting compulsivley and someone acting rationally. From my own experience, I had to back away from pursuing art full time in order to earn a living to keep my family housed and fed. I had to sort out my priorities and decide on what I valued most when this crisis struck me very hard about 30 years ago. The reality is that very few artists do make a living from their art and in my case, however stupid you might consider this stance, I felt that I could easily place constraints on what I make by becoming "commercial". Call me "precious", but I realised that the compulsion for me was to make art and not to make money from it. I have exhibited and sold work, but the appreciation by others is the reward, not the money so much. It can(and very nearly did) take me over and so I feel the artist has to learn to control the impulse to make art and to make time and space in which this can happen. Because I work a "thedayjob" disassociated from the world of making art, I actually get a real buzz when I can spend time on my art projects. This does not mean I don't think about it during my day to day life, I'm often logging thoughts and ideas without actually making anything. Then I'll bring these back to the studio for later use. I know that to family and friends this is slightly odd and eccentric looking. They know that when I'm "in the studio" I can appear to be distant and pre-occupied, which I most definitly am when working on a project. I work on my art late into the night until the thing resolves itself. This is hard work, pure and simple, and so it should be if it is to have any value. Once the work is complete I usually hate the sight of it! Normality then returns until the next project gets underway and I feel the excitement returning and the ideas begin flooding back. So, I would describe myself as a creative person with some eccentricities, but with no addictions(well, apart from I do smoke tobacco) and a desire to express myself through art.