Artistry and mental illness: some off-script considerations

  • Note: first presented as a talk at the 2019 Kolla Festival.

Tim Minchin, the comedian and musician, once said that an artist is a mentally ill person with an audience. He got a laugh. He was joking, of course. He is a comedian. But some jokes are also true statements, and others aren’t exactly true statements but still have a lot of truth in them, and I suspect that he understood this joke – and most people who hear it understand it – to fall into one of those two categories.

We definitely have that stereotype, don’t we? The mad genius artist. Van Gogh. Nijinsky. Syd Barrett. And the basic thought behind this stereotype is presumably something like that being mad / mentally ill involves having a very different angle on life, and having a very different angle on life is a prerequisite for producing art, or at least great art. There’s surely at least something to this thought. There is, I think it’s fairly well-established, some connection between artistry and mental illness. What I want to do here though is suggest it’s overblown, oversold, and just sort of casually explore some reasons for thinking that. Particularly the strong claim that you have to be, in some important sense, mad in order to be a great artist – that claim I want to take down; that claim I really think is wrong. Here, to start off with, are a few basic counter-thoughts: First, if great art needs a different angle on life, it's not any old different angle that will do, is it – it has to be a rewarding one. And it seems to me that for an angle on life to be rewarding, it has to have some kind of logic to it, some kind of sense or rightness to it. No? Then, secondly, artistic endeavor is often itself therapeutic, clarifying, antidotal. Art therapy, drama therapy, music therapy – these are not obscure terms these days. Mental health treatments sometimes also involve poetry or journal writing. Also, being an artist – or certainly an artist who completes work and gets it to an audience – typically requires a huge amount of discipline, self-control, organisational skill; it requires, in many cases, good social skills too; it requires a honed ability to take in new information, learn from mistakes, etc. It requires, in other words, a lot of sanity, a lot of functionality. I struggle to think of famous artists who created their great works of art while suffering from serious mental illness. I mean, in the same periods of their lives. Take the examples I already mentioned. Nijinsky clearly went mad at the end of his life, but Joan Acocella, in her introduction to his diaries, points out that, by then, he was hardly dancing or choreographing at all, and during the period when he was really productive and successful as a dancer and choreographer, he was perhaps a slightly unusual person, but he was not in any sense mentally ill. Syd Barrett took a lot of drugs during his brief productive period, which you hear pretty clearly in the music – it’s perhaps easy, in many contexts, to confuse the effects of narcotics with the effects of mental illness. He started developing clear mental health problems only in the second half of 1967, at which point his music career began to quickly fall apart as well. Van Gogh – well, he’s a better candidate. It seems likely he was bi-polar, and certainly depression is a major theme in his work, and he worked while depressed. He had psychotic episodes too. Did he cut off his own ear? Well, many scholars doubt it – they say it was probably cut off by Gauguin in a fight or even a dual, only Van Gogh didn’t want Gauguin to be blamed or punished and so claimed he’d cut it off himself. Probably it does make sense to say Van Gogh was a bit mad, and his madness was central to his art. Of course there are some people who suffer from mental illness and are great artists. Being mentally ill doesn’t preclude being a great artist. But does it help particularly? I mentioned that idea that being mentally ill can involve having a very different angle on life, and having a very different angle on life is a prerequisite for producing great art. OK, assuming that’s true... it’s also true that a person can have a very different angle on life for plenty of other reasons – perhaps because of their unique and strange experiences, or the course of study they’ve undertaken. Aside from that? Well, kinds of mental illness that result in obsessiveness, single-mindedness and workaholism might help. You’ve got to stay focused somehow, got to get the work done. Similarly, the kinds that result in extreme, utterly blinkered self-confidence and grandiose ambition might help. Generally speaking, you’ve got to believe you can do something extraordinary, or you won’t try. Kinds of mental illness that result in unrestrained self-promotion could also help – well, they could certainly help with becoming known as a great artist, even if they couldn’t help with being a great artist; it seems to me though that they could actually help with being a great artist too, in that they could help with getting opportunities to develop into one. I mean, if you have no qualms about stealing other artists’ material, using people as mere contacts, leeching off your family or partner, cheating to get a grant or a cushy and prestigious teaching post, that could help you get on as an artist. Many kinds of mental illness might also put you in strange positions, socially and emotionally. They might result in people treating you very differently, for instance. That might then enable you to see different sides to those people, and seeing those different sides to them could be helpful in your art. The truism here is just that social and psychological insights are a big part of high-quality artistry. So, for sure, there are ways in which particular mental illnesses might assist you in your artistic endeavours. But again, all of these advantages particular types of mental illness can give you, you can get in other ways. You don’t need to have a mental illness to be treated differently, or to find yourself in the kinds of strange situation that give you insights. You don’t need to have a mental illness to be ruthlessly self-promoting – simply growing up in a dog-eat-dog environment can make you that way. Extreme self-confidence can result from persistent enough positive feedback, and grandiose ambition from attending a school like Eton, being repeatedly told by your elders and mentors what great things you’re meant for. And you can be a workaholic out of fascination, or love, or material need. I can’t think of any specific type of artistic advantage that could only come from mental illness. And the fact is there are an awful lot of great artists who are not plagued by mental illness. It's worth stopping and considering for a moment who has an interest in perpetuating this stereotype of the mad genius artist. Certainly the artists themselves do. They can use the stereotype as an excuse for outrageous behavior – for treating other people like shit, or for not performing their everyday, mundane tasks, or for failed stunts of one kind or another. I’ve read and heard many accounts of great artists, particularly very famous ones, behaving outrageously in these ways; I struggle to believe that, when they do, there isn’t somewhere in the back of their head, if not central to their conscious thinking, the knowledge that it will be forgiven them, it will have to be, because they’re a mad genius artist, and this is the price you pay if you want to associate with one of those. On top of that, artists can use the stereotype to just generally set themselves apart from other people, assert their superiority. They can use the distinction between mad and normal rather like the distinction there is in the Harry Potter world between wizard and muggle. A claim the artist might make by playing up the stereotype is something like: you, normal person, could never, under any circumstances, do anything like what I do, or see as I see, experience as I experience, because you’re just a normal person, marked as such by the completely normal, healthy ways in which you do life. And it’s not just a matter of asserting an inherently superior status, it’s a matter of projecting a whole image – the image of an essentially dramatic, tragic, enigmatic figure. It’s an image ready-made for myths and legends. It’s an image that draws attention away from the grinding, unvarying hard work and the other kinds of boringness and ordinariness that just do necessarily fill the lives of even the greatest artists, as they do all lives. So artists certainly have an interest in perpetuating this stereotype, even if not the most enlightened interest there ever was. There’s really a lot they can milk out of it, basically. Who else? Well, their biographers might do, reporters and interviewers, film directors looking for a good juicy subject. Basically, all the merchants of sensationalism have an interest in invoking the stereotype, and, by invoking it, they perpetuate it. Fans of artists have similar incentives too. We often enjoy the sensationalism of the mad genius stereotype – that’s why there are merchants of it. Plus it can help us get others interested and so perhaps convert them to the cause of our fandom. Also just as the stereotype helps our artistic heroes side-step charges of cruelty or irresponsibility or whatever, it helps us to defend them. Listen to the fans of Michael Jackson or R Kelly on the defensive – they make frequent reference to the mad genius stereotype. There’s another, sadder way in which we, the fans, the normal people, benefit from the stereotype – it frees us from the burden of trying to match the achievements of our heroes. Creating great art, or even just trying to, typically requires a huge amount of effort and the taking of big risks; it requires really putting yourself out there, exposing yourself to failure and rejection and ridicule. Life will be easier and more comfortable for us if we stay where we are, and suppose we could never do anything like what our artistic heroes have done because we are not blessed with their beautiful insanity. For similar reasons, conservative society has an interest in perpetuating the stereotype – you can't be an artist, it can say to young aspiring artists, you're an ordinary person, you are not like the mad genius artists we see in the movies, so get real and get a proper job! Also, the association between great art and madness means that conservative society can justify completely ignoring the opinions of the artists it reveres and lauds and boasts of. Our heroes of culture and entertainment these people may be, but we don't need to take their pronouncements too seriously, as in the end they were bonkers. They were creative, but not sound in their thinking. They can stimulate our discussion, maybe, but certainly not lead it. As artists are often among the most incisive, powerfully-spoken critics of the status quo, this dichotomy between mad artists and normal, sound-thinking people is one that can, when you think about it, really help the establishment.

Another sad one: mentally ill people have a stake here. They want to believe in this thing that redeems their illness, dignifies it. Of course there are also interests vested in the discrediting of the stereotype. Most obviously, for those of us who plainly aren't mad and don't want to be, but have artistic ambitions. Nevertheless, it’s striking, isn’t it, what a broad coalition of groups have interests in perpetuating the stereotype of the mad genius artist. Another one that a friend of mine, the artist Lucia Fiorani, pointed out to me: all kinds of eccentric people have an interest in perpetuating the stereotype. Behaviour of theirs that would otherwise be condemned might be humoured if they’re artists, or thought of as artists. The mad artist stereotype offers a kind of safe space for eccentrics. This is, I suppose, a benign version of the interest that artists looking to get away with immoral behaviour have. Of course, part of the reason the stereotype exists is just misdiagnosis. Mere difference can have the appearance of madness. Artists are often people who see things and do things very differently. In consequence, sometimes they’re seen as mad, even when they aren’t. And we can make a stronger point than that: probably often the artists judged mad are far more rational than the people doing the judging, and it’s precisely their greater rationality that makes them appear mad. There’s that fantastic remark that the playwright Nathaniel Lee is supposed to have made after his five years in the infamous Bedlam mental asylum, ‘They called me mad, and I called them mad, and damn them, they outvoted me.’ Emily Dickinson expressed a similar sentiment in one of her poems:

‘Much Madness is divinest Sense - To a discerning Eye - Much Sense - the starkest Madness - ’Tis the Majority In this, as all, prevail - Assent - and you are sane - Demur - you’re straightway dangerous - And handled with a Chain -’

It’s easy to think of ways in which the social majority can appear mentally ill, isn’t it? Willing to die for a god that doesn’t exist, or a ruler that exploits them ruthlessly. Or even just totally preoccupied with money or social status, as if these were worthwhile ends in themselves. Is that mad? I’m pretty sure it could be argued.

Whether or not it is, another important point is surely that mental illness is not unusual or the preserve of only a tiny minority. I think there is some form of madness, or ready propensity for madness, in just about everyone. Artists who embrace the stereotype perhaps underestimate this. According to research published in the journal World Psychiatry, more than 50% of people globally will have a diagnosable mental illness at some point in their lives. I personally wouldn’t be surprised if that figure were too small. Wealth and social comfort are no doubt very helpful in shielding people from forces that would cultivate in them new mental illnesses and render the expression of their congenital ones anything other than mild or muted. But it’s there – probably most of us could, pretty easily, slip or be pushed into one kind of mental illness or another. Perhaps a large part of the relationship between art and mental illness derives from the fact that it is, as already mentioned, precarious being an artist. I mean, maybe the typical artist’s life could bring out the madness in you, if anything could. Artists often sacrifice basic security – whether in the form of a reliably paying job, or a safe but dull life – for their art, and so end up enduring hardship and privation that have a mental impact. The work of many kinds of artists is extremely solitary, introspective work – that’s maybe in itself unhealthy; we’re social creatures; we need almost constant connection, interaction, integration. And think, if you do dedicate your life – to some significant degree – to the creation of art, and put your heart and soul into this art, and it gets rejected, dismissed, maybe even sneered or laughed at, what could that do to you? There are huge dangers involved in being an artist, and they’re perhaps not spoken about enough. Fame as well, if it comes – that does strange things to people, and surely especially so if the fault lines are already there. Art may only recently have become part of mainstream therapy, but people – nascent artists – have long been discovering it as therapy. How many of the great artworks of history are the products of self-therapy? There are other connections that occur to me… Maybe what link there is between artistry and mental illness can be largely explained by another, more basic link – between artistry and sensitivity. So that hypothesis would be that a) being an artist requires being especially sensitive to the horrors and wonders of the world you inhabit, and b) being especially sensitive in this way means you’re more easily driven mad. Which seems plausible. Thinking along these lines, there are other links perhaps worth highlighting. It might also be that experiences that give artistic insight are of kinds more likely to cause/unlock insanity. Artists often – not always – come from extremely troubled backgrounds. Those troubled backgrounds maybe give them more insights, which are then vital in their art, and cultivate in them a greater sense of motivation or even urgency, which helps them actually complete their work. Another tendency artists have is to be temperamentally liberal, open-minded, open to new experiences - often in the extreme - and that comes with risks. Risks of being exposed to maddening forces. One example: the domestic arrangements in the film Cabaret. Another example: narcotics. Another: fighting in the Spanish Civil War. We are at risk here of replacing the largely inherent, unattainable status of 'mad' with other largely inherent, unattainable statuses – 'sensitive', 'troubled', 'open-minded'. We are at risk of replacing one exclusive label with other exclusive labels. I believe there are kinds of artistry available to the insensitive, untroubled and even the fairly closed-minded. Or better, I believe all of these qualities are more complex and subdividable than is generally understood. You can be very closed-minded in many ways, but still open-minded in an important way. Great artists come in so many shapes and sizes. Just focusing on great writers, compare Dostoyevsky and Wodehouse, Ferrante and Borges, Anaïs Nin and W. G. Sebald, etc. Think of Svetlana Alexievich, whose books are carefully woven tapestries of the very diverse testimonies of all kinds of people, mostly non-artists. I’m inclined to think it’s reductive to insist on any traits as necessary for someone to be a great artist. I started with Tim Minchin – his joke that an artist is a mentally ill person with an audience. Minchin has a song, 'Rock & Roll Nerd'. Take a moment to watch him perform it.

Obviously it becomes increasingly clear as the song progresses that Minchin is talking about himself. Now, you could make a good case that Tim Minchin is a great comedian, a great musician, and that there has never been a greater musical comedian. I’d make that case. I wouldn't set too much store by the stereotypes. I suspect there are as many possible types of artist as there are people. And, what's more, if a lot of artists seem to be people of a certain kind, that indicates a need and an opportunity in the art world for people not of that kind.