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Creativity and madness


Does it trivialise mental illness to suggest that the best artists produce their most important works while they are on the brink of madness?

This was the suggestion made by author AL Kennedy in her recent Radio 3 Sunday Feature. Throwing around examples like Van Gogh, who can’t have been sane to cut off his ear, and Sylvia Plath, who was known for her mania and was said not to get on with her medication before she committed suicide, the link between mental health and artistic worth seems tangible enough to deserve a good probing.

Assessing what is, in the first place, normal mental health, she spoke to Dorothy Rowe, psychologist and writer, who told Kennedy we guess at reality, making our own structure of it.

Our brains are such that we cannot see reality directly, it’s impossible for us to do that.

When we find out our reality is wrong, our mental state is thrown into disarray.

Performance artist Bobby Baker said the instability of being an artist made contributed to her breakdown. Economic pressures were the most stressful – this forced creativity can heighten production for some but can also heighten stress, a contributing factor in mental illness.

James Rhodes studied psychology and chased a big salary in the city before giving it all up at 28 to do what he had always known he wanted to do: play piano. Two weeks after his first concert, he had a breakdown and spent nine months on a locked ward. The piece of advice that stuck was from a psychiatrist: “Do what you want to do.” This wisdom is equally valuable in art and mental health.

There is, then, an admission that certain artistic people need to perform or produce for their wellbeing. AL Kennedy goes further, saying many artists’ creation has been defined as a kind of obsessive disorder, a compulsion they can barely control. So, after being diagnosed with tuberculosis, Chekhov chose to continue work rather than seek treatment. Acutely tuned senses, restlessness, intensity of focus, reduced inhibition, depression, a sense of the visionary and heightened imaginative powers are all hallmarks of both the creative and mentally ill individual – a number of recent studies support this link. And yet decades of studies have also questioned conventional definitions of madness, treatments of the “insane” and the long-term effects of “normal” behaviour.

Kennedy, in conclusion, said:

Being in our lives and living them by necessity is a creative act then why not make it a beautiful act…It can help us be together, here and alive…an I believe to call any part of that madness robs us all.

Michael Friedman, associate professor at Columbia University Schools of Social Work and Public Health sums up the pros and cons of the ‘myth’ in his article for HuffingtonPost.com. He says it’s a source of pride and hope for people with serious mental illness and quotes Kay Jamison, who has written extensively about her personal experience with bipolar disorder, who says “As a result of [manic-depressive] illness I have felt more things, more deeply; had more experiences more intensely; loved more, and been more loved…”

Downsides include the glorification of mental illness preventing it from being treated seriously by society. While some creative people may reject treatment to protect their ability, other people may not want to explore their creative potential for fear of what they might uncover. The myth also says nothing of the healing power of art for people with serious mental illness.

He concludes:

The myth that creativity and madness are inherently linked has a certain romantic appeal, but it does little — if anything — to promote human well-being.

Van Gogh Self-Portrait with Straw Hat 1887-Metropolitan” by Vincent van Gogh – art database. Licensed under Public domain via Wikimedia Commons.

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