All artists are tortured geniuses, right? That’s the common trope, isn’t it? I’m using the word “artist” here in a very inclusive sense to mean anyone who does anything remotely creative; actors, comedians, writers, poets, musicians, painters, and everybody in between. People who create something and set it free into the world.
There are people with very obvious pain (Amy Winehouse, Kurt Cobain, Janis Joplin), and those whose pain takes the world by surprise when it comes to the fore (Philip Seymour Hoffman, Robin Williams, Alexander McQueen, Chester Bennington). There is an outpouring of anguish at a talent gone too soon, at a light snuffed out in the world, and often about how creativity or intelligence comes with it’s own burdens of gloom and darkness.
But is it a delusion?
As the poet John Berryman put it, even he had to fight the “delusion that my art depended on my drinking.” That delusion was what he had to break, he felt, if he ever wanted to get sober. – Confessions of an Unredeemed Fan on Longreads.
The answer is; I don’t know. All I do know is that when I feel depressed I like to squish at the uncomfortable parts of myself, the parts that are painful, to see why I feel the way I do and also to write about it. It is extreme introspection. It is the hurt, the happiness, the pain, the heartbreak, the joy, and the beauty which make for good writing content. As Ernest Hemingway said:
‘Write hard and clear about what hurts.’
I was also brought out to thinking of this by something said by Hannah Gadsby in her Netflix special Nanette. She is a comedian who talks about being on anti-depressants, and about the unsolicited advice she received from a man who told her that she shouldn’t take medication, because it was ‘important that [she] feel’. This is problematic in so many ways, not least being that taking medication doesn’t make you unable to feel (as pointed out by Gadsby in her example of Van Gogh and The Sunflowers), but also that the burden of creativity also comes with the burden of mental health issues – in whatever form that they may take.
I fought a battle with myself, in the last funk I was in, asking myself – should I be grateful for my depression?
That might sound like a very strange thing to say, and now – on the other side of the funk – it does feel a little odd. But then, it made perfect sense. In having my illness, I have fuel for the fire that powers some of my poetry and writing, it gives me material. Does that mean I should be grateful for it? It helps me write.
One sufferer describes how:
‘The majority of my writings are inspired by my struggles, and they wouldn’t be there if I didn’t have a life riddled with mental health issues.’
Whilst this isn’t true for me, it has certainly given me some fodder and a certain ability to describe things that perhaps others wouldn’t be able to. So therefore should I be thankful?
But I realised that that is part of the problem – it’s a question that only springs up when I’m in a funk, so therefore is it a product of the funk itself? I could probably end up going in circles on this one.
Mary Sukala sums this up rather well when she says:
Mania might provide a surge of ideas and the laser focus and drive to make those ideas a tangible reality. It does not, however, provide innate talent or a deep-seated passion. – Mary Sukala on The Mighty
Albeit she is discussing the manic side of a mental health condition, rather than the depressive side. This thing that we have does not make us into something, but rather is merely a part of what we choose to be. It doesn’t define us, or any innate talent we might have. I think this is something we must hold on to. Just because there is a strong correlation between mental health and creativity does not mean that one does not exist without the other. Correlation does not prove causation.
I think we can all be proud of our creativity, and the things that we are able to create with it, without necessarily associating it with a mental illness. I think the idea that artists are doomed to suffer is toxic, because it suggests that without suffering there would be no art. This is all very well for those who do not have to suffer, but for those who do, it can be a very dangerous idea to press and recycle. It could lead to people not seeking alleviation from their suffering, for fear that it could reduce their creativity. Artists are not something to be put in a glass case and ogled at just because they create pretty things, and they should not be discouraged from seeking any help they might need, just because that is what “artists do”.
What are your thoughts on this?