Artists ‘likely to suffer from a mental illness’

Responding to a card sent by his friend, the painter and fellow Dutchman Arnold Koning, Vincent Van Gogh wrote a four-page letter discussing, among other things, his disposition. Dated January 19th, 1889, part of it reads: “I received your postcard in the hospital at Arles ‘where I have been quartered following an attack of something the matter with my brains, or otherwise fever, which had nearly passed off already.”
Throughout much of his short life, Van Gogh suffered acutely from all sorts of mental ailments, which often manifested themselves into manic episodes of depression. Many were so severe, he was left incapacitated. At the severe end, he was hospitalised. In the absolute sense, it led to him talking his life at the age of 37.
He is often thought of as being the quintessential tortured artist, someone whose talents were so great they were unbearable as much as they were enjoyable. And so while we remember and celebrate him as one of the most original artists in the history of art, we also think of the dark, lingering fog of despair and illness that lingered over him like an albatross.
The idea of madness permeates throughout the world of art – the weight of one’s genius manifests itself not only in the timeless work it produces, but also in a discordance of being – my art is my life but also my demon. I cannot live with or without it.
To scientists, this romanticised notion is just that – fanciful at best. While it is certain that there are plenty of artists, past and present, who have suffered from mental illnesses, to say that it is acute in creatives is speculative at best. We like the idea because, a clean-living, happy go lucky artist sounds, well, dull.
However, there is some credibility behind this, as a new study, published in the journal Nature Neuroscience, suggests that there is a very real and genetic link between creativity and mental illness. Icelandic researchers found, for example, that painters, musicians, writers and dancers are 25 per cent more likely to suffer from bipolar disorder or schizophrenia than so-called non-creative counterparts.
Speaking to the Guardian, Kari Stefansson, founder and chief executive officer of deCODE genetics, said the findings of the research suggest that there is a “common biology” between certain mental disorders and an extraordinary ability to be creative.
“To be creative, you have to think differently and when we are different, we have a tendency to be labelled strange, crazy and even insane, he said, later adding: “It means that a lot of the good things we get in life, through creativity, come at a price. It tells me that when it comes to our biology, we have to understand that everything is in some way good and in some way bad.”
The findings make for interesting reading but the connection still needs to be bolstered by further study. Some argue that the evidence is not yet sufficient enough to say with relative confidence that mental illnesses and creativity go, for want of a better phrase, hand in hand.
It’s also dangerous, argues the psychologist Judith Schlesinger, author of The Insanity Hoax: Exposing the Myth of the Mad Genius. Speaking to The Verge recently, she said that emphasising the link can discourage creatives with mental illnesses from seeking help or treatment, thereby perpetuating their suffering. Their rationale is artistic – why, however painful, should I take away the source of my inspiration?
The debate, no doubt, will continue.
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