Folmsbee: The misconception of art, madness


Sai Folmsbee, Columnist

Vincent van Gogh, a bold, post-impressionist painter, cut off his own ear in a psychotic episode. Ernest Hemingway, a brilliant novelist, shot himself after a battle with crippling depression. When we think of the greatest artists of the past, we often attribute their unique perspectives and groundbreaking accomplishments to suffering from mental illness. But the connection between psychological disorders and creative talent, although appealing, is an utterly misleading myth that misrepresents both mental illness and the creative process. Furthermore, this idea is dangerous, as it romanticizes debilitating disorders and disenfranchises artists from their deserved talent. And considering the recent Northwestern student suicides, it is more important than ever to fairly assess what it means to live with mental illness.

At first glance, there does appear to be a correlation between mental illness and the arts. There are many writers, painters and musicians who have created great artwork while under significant psychological duress. However, most of this relationship is hyperbole. A substantial proportion of the general population already suffers from mental illness, estimated to be about 26.2 percent of U.S. adults, so it is not surprising that artists would be similarly affected. Moreover, we can easily deceive ourselves into finding a connection through simple observation bias. History remembers only those artists whose mental illness led to success, and it ignores those whose work itself was not exceptional, or whose psychological challenges proved too difficult to overcome. That is not to say that mental illness does not affect creativity. Artists who struggle with mental illness can carry those experiences into their work and share it with those who may never personally have to weather the crushing weight of mental distress.

Naturally, the scientific research behind such a complex connection is tenuous, complicated and generally unresolved. However, the best evidence denies such a link. In a recent, 40-year study of 1.2 million people, no significant correlation was generally found between mental illness and the probability of entering a creative profession. But interestingly, it was discovered that individuals who had relatives with mental illness were slightly more likely to be artists. So, rather than those who have psychological disorders themselves, it appears that those who have witnessed the effects of these disorders might be more likely to enter creative professions. This notion is supported by another study which found that relatives of those with schizophrenia, but not those who personally had the mental disorder, displayed significantly higher creative traits.

However, the research in this field is evolving, and it is possible that we may one day discover a connection between artists and mental illness. If true, perhaps the simplest explanation is one of practicality. Individuals with a severe diagnosis, such as major depressive disorder or schizophrenia, may be unable to maintain an average, day-to-day job. Certainly, history has not been kind to those whose minds suffer, and it is plausible that the mentally ill find a structured, non-creative lifestyle suffocating and difficult to maintain. And from this, they may build a career from art, which offers freedom to balance their own demons with an existential sense of purpose. This would, of course, create the illusion that those with mental illness have superior artistic talents, when they may have been simply forced into such a vocation.

Ultimately, it is essential that we avoid idealizing mental illness’ effect on art. It is trivially easy for someone who has never experienced psychological disorders firsthand to daydream about what wondrous worlds occupy the madness of an artist’s mind. But this marginalizes the heartbreaking reality of mental illness. A depressive spell can just as easily bring the creative process to an icy standstill. A manic episode can leave an artist with nothing but incoherent ramblings. Furthermore, we must give proper credit to those who create great art, rather than attributing their success to a damaged mind.

But as with many complex, human phenomena, the science only tells half the story. Just as important is our humanistic approach to understanding what mental illness is. Regardless of the facts, we must be careful not to rhapsodize those with psychological disorders for their creative advantage, nor should we expect better work from those living with it. Art should be judged by its own quality, and artists should be defined by their work, not their disorders. We must not forget that mental illness can be disastrous, debilitating and deadly — and that great art is not made because of mental illness, but in spite of it.

Sai Folmsbee is a Feinberg graduate student. He can be reached at [email protected]. If you would like to respond publicly to this column, send a Letter to the Editor to [email protected].