Art is one of the earliest forms of creative expression. From the prehistoric cave paintings of our Palaeolithic ancestors to the provocative graffiti of contemporary artists like the UK’s elusive ‘Banksy’, art has given people a means by which to escape the, often harsh, realities of their everyday lives since time in memoriam. Some pick up the paintbrush in an effort to claim a sense of power and use it as a way to highlight the injustices of their environment. Others use it as a means to escape the relentless grind of drug abuse, mental illness and economic instability.
A Road Much Travelled
This romantic image of the ‘tortured artist’ is almost as old as art itself. For centuries past, the apparent link between living an emotionally turbulent life and possessing the ability to produce masterful pieces of art has been highlighted time and again. Van Gogh was reputed to be a brilliant but troubled man, tormented by his own perceived social and sexual inadequacies. Jackson Pollock, Claude Monet, Francisco de Goya and Edvard Munch (https://www.edvardmunch.org/) are just a few other examples of the archetypal figure of the ‘tortured artist’.
Works such as Munch’s ‘The Scream’ or Francisco de Goya’s ‘Saturn Devouring His Son’ offer a revealing insight into the mental state of these artists at the time. Combine this with the documented facts about the artists’ lives and modern day diagnostic testing and it would be fair to say that the majority, if not all of these artists were suffering from some form of mental illness.
Francisco de Goya was a known hypochondriac and regularly suffered from psychotic episodes and clinical depression, whereas Munch required intermittent hospital admissions throughout his life on account of his mental illness. Many also regularly indulged in illicit drug and alcohol use. Van Gogh was partial to absinthe, whilst Jackson Pollock was a notorious alcoholic. However, they also shared another commonality – each one used art as a way to express and ultimately transcend, if only momentarily, their fears, demons and anxieties.
Creativity and Adversity
The fact that such characters are ubiquitous in the world of art naturally gives rise to the question, is there a genuine link between creative genius and mental illness? Could it be that having artistic talent puts people at greater risk of developing a drug addiction or mental illness (https://www.mind.org.uk/information-support/types-of-mental-health-problems/), or could it be that such afflictions are actually a necessary component of creativity? Despite countless studies into the subject, the truth is still subject to much debate. After all, it would be wrong to suggest that every person who picks up a paintbrush will experience mental health problems, or that every person who experiences mental health problems will feel an overwhelming urge to pick up a paintbrush.
What is clear however, is that art is a great equalizer of people; it’s accessible to all, and artistic talent doesn’t favour only the fortunate and the affluent. Therefore, it can be of no surprise that so many people who face challenges in their lives are attracted by the emotional freedom art can afford them. Art speaks to people on a primal level and allows them to express emotions which may be too unpleasant, too intangible or simply too perplexing to otherwise express.
Whether inspiring, evocative, political or downright offensive, whatever form it comes in, art provides solace and escapism to some of the most vulnerable sections of our society. It gives power to those who feel powerless and a voice to those who have no other way of being heard, allowing them to express their own artistic vision of the world and share that vision with others. Art not only inspires hope in people who may have shared similar experiences, but it also provides a unique insight into how another person’s experiences colour the way in which they perceive the world. The ways in which that perception may differ from our own is just part of what makes art so utterly fascinating.
Burden or Blessing?
Although the results of studies into the subject remain inconclusive and there is still much to learn, history and science does suggest that people who experience mental illness often have an innate attraction to artistic expression, and many find that they possess a natural ability in it. There is also evidence to suggest that many creative people are genetically or environmentally predisposed to developing mental illness.
Whatever the truth may be, it appears that the link between artistic ability and mental illness is somewhat paradoxical in its nature – perhaps one simply cannot exist without the other. If we accept this to be the case, that art is in essence a ‘symptom’ of mental illness, then we must also accept that it is just as certainly a part of its ‘cure’.
This article was first published at The Writing Project
Guest Author Bio
Hollie is a freelance writer for hire, and has been working in the print and digital media industry since 2012. She specialises in copywriting and ghostwriting for small businesses, private clients and the odd multinational corporation. She has worked on numerous projects to date including articles, blogs, product descriptions and press releases, right through to eBooks and our traditional friend – the printed book. Residing in a white-washed Victorian cottage on the edge of the Cotswolds in the UK, when she’s not working (which is practically never!), you’ll usually find her supping cider and putting the world to rights in one of the local pubs. She particularly loves to write about anything that helps to make sense of this crazy thing that we call human experience and hates having her photo taken. To find out more about Hollie, and how her services could benefit you, check out her website:
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