Exeter, Devon UK • Jun 18, 2024 • VOL XII

Exeter, Devon UK • [date-today] • VOL XII
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Mental Illness and Art

Austin Taylor discusses the link between art and mental health, and looks at the potentially harmful motif of the 'tortured artist'.
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Mental Illness and Art

Austin Taylor discusses the link between art and mental health, and looks at the potentially harmful motif of the ‘tortured artist’.

New research by experts from the University Medical Centre Groningen into Vincent Van Gogh’s letters and medical records suggests that the Dutch artist experienced two episodes of delirium brought on by alcohol withdrawal following the cutting off of his own ear. Van Gogh is thought to have suffered from some combination of bipolar and borderline personality disorder, and this discovery has brought up old questions of the relationship between mental health and art. Indeed, Van Gogh is one of the many artists and creatives portrayed romantically as the ‘tortured artist’, and Vincent-mythologies abound which almost fetishise his mental illness (think eating yellow paint to cheer himself up). The stock ‘tortured artist’ character is a prevalent one, and sadly patronises and romanticises mental illness in a profession which seems to struggle with mental health. To better understand the relationship between art and mental illness, though, it is useful to ask ourselves why this myth exists and whether it is accurate at all.

The tortured artist motif involves the idea of an artist who is inherently and constantly suffering. It is a concept that often involves the inevitable suicide or otherwise tragic death of the artist, and is predicated upon the reductionist conceptualisation of an individual’s life into a sort of three-act play. It has the consequence of often presenting mental-illness as an aid or even a pre-requisite for creative genius. Van Gogh is very much the poster boy for the real-life application of this complex, but artists ranging from Michelangelo to Georgia O’Keeffe have been imbued with this tradition by posterity. The idea that mental illness and creativity are linked is, of course, a very old one. Aristotle is supposed to have said “There is no great genius without a touch of madness”, whilst Lord Byron himself proclaimed, with characteristic pretension, that “We of the craft are all crazy. Some are affected by gaiety, others by melancholy, but all are more or less touched.” This motif is closely related to that of the poète maudit (“accursed poet”), which developed in the 19th Century and was applied to figures including Charles Baudelaire and Arthur Rimbaud. More recently, figures in the literary world such as Virginia Woolf and Sylvia Plath, and musicians like Nick Drake and Kurt Cobain have been coloured with this motif. The idea of the tortured artist has perhaps naturally developed in order to better understand why these people were so talented, and why they suffered so greatly. Nonetheless, it has the effect of fetishising and presenting as inevitable the sufferings of people with serious, but treatable, mental illnesses.

The tortured artist motif has the consequence of often presenting mental-illness as an aid or even a pre-requisite for creative genius

There is an undeniable societal association between artists and suffering; or effectively, artists and mental-illness. As such, there have been numerous studies to discover the truth of this association. A recent study by the Inspire Wellbeing charity and Ulster University found that ‘creative workers’ are three times more likely to suffer from mental health conditions than the rest of the population, and that 60% of the creative workers involved in the study had had suicidal thoughts. A 1992 study from Arnold M. Ludwig of the University of Kentucky found that artists experienced two-to-three times higher rates of psychosis, suicide attempts, mood disorders and substance abuse than comparatively successful individuals in other fields. The clinical psychologist, Kay Redfield Jamison, has found that there are an unusual number of mood disorders amongst authors. These studies would suggest that there is, indeed, a correlation between having a career in the arts and having mental health issues. On the other hand, though, it is noted that these studies often rely heavily on anecdotal evidence- especially the work of Redfield Jamison. Further, a recent 2013 study from the Karolinska Institutet found that, whilst creatives were slightly more likely to suffer from bipolar disorder, they were not more likely to suffer from other investigated psychiatric disorders. There does seem to be some link, nevertheless, between mental illness and a career in the arts. This is quite a complex link, and without over-simplifying it, it may be because the reflection inherent to the creative and thought processes of creatives mean that they are more prone to experiences of mental-illness.

The question remains then whether mental illness actually benefits creativity. It has been argued that disorders like bipolar disorder can offer unique perspectives on life, which can aid creativity. Indeed, it is argued, again by Redfield Jamison, that the depressive bipolar episode – with it’s hesitating and questioning nature – paired with the self-assured answers of mania, can help the creative process. There are aspects of bipolar disorder which do, in fact, seem beneficial to the challenges of being an artist: particularly the ambition and overactivity of mania. It is important to remember, however, the limited nature of these apparent benefits. Producing quality work when depressed or experiencing psychosis (sometimes associated with the manic phase of bipolar) becomes very difficult. As for whether mental-illness is a pre-requisite for artistic talent – the number of renowned artists who were apparently mentally healthy dwarfs that of their mentally unwell counterparts. Of course, all artists will draw upon the breadth of human experience in their art, but being mentally ill does not seem necessary for or to inherently enhance this process.

Van Gogh was, in fact, a talented artist in spite, and not because of his mental illness

Overall, then, there does seem to be some sort of correlation between having certain mental illnesses and having an artistic career. This link is more complex, however, than mental illness being a source of artistic talent. The tortured artist motif, meanwhile, is not very helpful, and largely romanticises mental illness in a line of work that has an issue with it. Van Gogh was, in fact, a talented artist in spite, and not because of his mental illness. As he himself wrote in a letter to his brother: “If I could have worked without this accursed disease, what things I might have done”.

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