Create Minds Think Alike
I was browsing aeon.com this week, as I am wont to do, and I came across the essay The Myth of ‘Mad’ Genius by Christa L. Taylor, a postdoctoral research associate at the Yale Center for Emotional Intelligence. In it, she argues that creativity is not inherently related to mood disorders, and the Tortured Artist motif is simply a trope stemming from the Romantic Era. It’s true popular culture inundates us with stories linking “extraordinary creativity with mood disorders” as Taylor puts it, but she argues this is an “illusory correlation.” Taylor goes further, suggesting not enough research has been done to quantify the madness = creativity mantra, and she then spends the next four pages of her essay explaining why scientific research resulting in quantifiable data is an impossibility. As a case in point she questions whether Van Gogh’s artistic mastery was a sign of lunacy, or simply a result of a brain addled by syphilis. Those who continue to benefit from his artistic genius, including his descendants, the Dutch government, auction houses and private collectors wealthy enough to collect his art no doubt are quite content leaning on the tortured artist (he cut off his ear for goodness sake!) spin for poor Vincent, may he rest in peace. It’s good for business.
So, is there something to the mad genius stereotype? I have to say, being a Lit major, I ran into an awful lot of them in my time as an undergrad; and I’m not talking about my fellow students. Author after author seemed to suffer from demons, either exposed or exorcised on the pages of their work. My girl Dorothy Parker, one of the best satirists of her time, fought demons enough to attempt suicide several times throughout her life. Her poem Resumé, in true Dottie fashion, ridicules the sensitive subject. For some their writing didn’t quite do the trick. Virginia Woolf, the English Modernist writer who is considered the originator of the stream of consciousness as a narrative device was so wracked by mental illness she committed suicide at the age of 59. Author and poet Sylvia Plath committed suicide at age 30 by sticking her head in a gas cooker. Ernest Hemingway shot his own head off, as his father had done some thirty years before. And while F. Scott Fitzgerald died of a heart attack at the age of 44, it was due to years of alcohol abuse. Artistic demons indeed.
Now a light is finally beginning to flicker on the subject of mental illness, and there’s a push for it to be recognized just like other physiological ailments. Artists are using their fame as a bully-pulpit. Some incredibly successful singers, such as Adele and Bruce Springsteen have spoken candidly about their battles with depression, as have authors like Anne Rice, Stephen King and J K Rowling. Rowling has even explained how her experience with depression helped her create the Dementor creatures in her Harry Potter series; sucking the joy out of their victims. Anyone who has suffered a bout of depression can relate to their overwhelming power. Sadly, other creatives were less capable of taming their inner demons. Amy Winehouse and Kurt Cobain come instantly to mind. One of the saddest losses for me was the remarkably talented Robin Williams, whose inner turmoil seemed to simmer so close to the surface, even in his most comedic roles. How anyone so ravaged by whatever came to him in the darkness of the night could bring so much joy and laughter to the world is a mystery for the ages.
The last contemporary artist I want to mention as it relates to mental illness and creativity is Jim Carrey, who has also been very open about his battle with depression. Some people love him, others not so much. I happen to appreciate his quirky artistry. He seems to be cut from the same cloth as Robin Williams; tears of a clown, so to speak. But it’s the new and exciting aspect of Carrey’s creativeness now challenging social norms I’m most excited about. I will write about it in more detail next week. In the meantime, I’ll leave you with a riddle:
Turns out two artists known for their idiosyncrasies paint well. One cuts off his ear and dies in poverty, the other is followed by 18 million people. Who should be considered the more successful of the two?
Until next week…
May is Mental Health Awareness month and if you or someone you know are struggling, please reach out for assistance. Visit NAMI.org for more information
(BTW, the fantastic artwork for this blog is Gustav Corbet’s Self Portrait (the desperate man) 1843-1845)