Mindful Artscapes: The Crazy Artist

The Romanticized Crazy Artist: Does Genius equal Madness?

One of our favorite myths is that we pay a price—mental illness—for being profoundly creative, or brilliantly inspired. We love to romanticize about (and fear) the archetype of the crazy, deranged artist. I think this happens because we love the notion of someone going to the edge of consciousness to intuitively search for what the rest of us sane people can’t or wouldn’t want to seek. Deep in our collective unconscious is the belief that the creative genius has to pay for her gifts from the muse with her sanity. Ancient Greeks believed that the muses would inspire poets’ and artists’ creative imaginations but also touch them with divine madness. We have all experienced moments of brilliance and insight while deep in our creative mode, but do we have to fall off the edge of rational thought to really be a creative genius? Is there a price to pay as Virginia Woolf, Amy Whinehouse and others have experienced? Or did they manage to create extraordinary art in spite of their emotional and mental struggles? Why are we so prone to equate creativity with madness? We all can come up with many names that fall under this notion: Georgia O’Keefe, William Blake, Jackson Pollack . . . but we could also name many more artists who were creative geniuses and not ill. Often it is the turbulent life styles, and/or the chaotic life experiences, that famous artists find themselves in that create psychic instability, not mental illness.

In our own creative lives we know how hard it is to find balance with creative work and having to make a living. Most of us have experienced the stress of staying awake all night because creative ideas are flowing through our minds even though we have to be at work the next day at 8:00 a.m. Many of us know the emotional lows and highs of a creative drought.

Some of the clients that I work with who suffer from bipolar, schizophrenia, chronic depression and other disorders are artists and some are not. When they are ill, they create nothing, for they are ill. When they are better, they then can afford the time, energy and space to be creative. Many studies have been done—some proving and some disproving—that there is a link. I personally feel that because artists allow themselves to openly feel, explore and express their feelings that they sometimes do not have the awareness to not become their feelings. We have emotions and emotions flow through us, but we are not our emotions. We need to stay present and aware even when we are diving deep into the unconscious. That awareness and mindfulness does not dull the dive, it expands it and opens it further as Rumi, Leonard Cohen and many other artists have observed.

Emotionally unstable people are not more creative; they suffer their emotions, and creative people are not more emotionally unstable; they express their emotions in creative ways. We are all touched with manic feelings that allow us to enjoy the gifts of heightened senses, ability to make fluid, fast, flexible, creative connections and receive new original thoughts. However, when the manic feelings cross over into mania this creative edge falls into chaotic, disturbing and painful thinking and feelings. There is a creative edge we can all reach without having to pay the price of falling off. The falling off is not where the brilliance happens. In the falling off, we drop the gifts that we glimpsed—often never able retrieve them again. As Sylvia Plath said, “When you are insane, you are busy being insane—all the time . . . When I was crazy, that’s all I was.”

Edward Munch said he wanted to keep his sufferings when he was told that he could get treatment for his depression. Maybe for some artists, treatment may destroy their art, but I don’t believe this is because their inspiration comes from their illness. I believe their inspiration comes from the same place that it comes from for all of us—nature, reflection, passion for a subject, curiosity with life, openness, diversity, and The Muses. For some artists, psychiatric treatment may dampen their emotions and dull their minds. If I was on heavy psychiatric meds, I am sure that I would not be moved to create. It breaks my heart when I see what was once a lively, highly emotional child come to their Art Therapy session transformed into a lifeless robot because they are now on a steady dose of meds to help with concentration and behavior. But this is a different subject. The cultural notion that genius and insanity are linked, is an unhealthy, patholgizing myth. Elizabeth Gilbert on her Ted talk gives a passionate argument why this is destructive for artists and society. Believing in the stereotype of the mad artist is as destructive as believing that every successful businessman is a sociopath.

Romanticizing destructive emotional and mental extremes might be good material for creating images and stories; however, it does not make for creating good humans who happen to be creative artists. This kind of thinking stops us from accepting “neurodiversity” and promotes the ongoing fascination and voyeuristic view that mental illness is exotic. I believe we are all on the spectrum of a mental or emotional illness. We all suffer, lose perspective and need the ability to deal with life at times. The pathologizing of artists and pathology-driven analysis of the arts is a fascination, fueled by fear. Many, many artists struggle everyday with poverty, addictions, health issues, social and cultural issues and they create brilliant work.

Many artists live in comfort and privilege and they also create brilliant work. We need to challenge and change stereotypes that don’t serve us. Haven’t we lost enough artists? I choose to believe The Muses do not want to imbue us with madness, but with brilliance. Artists need support not patholgizing.


Artfully, Karen


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