The Art Assignment


The Myth of the Tortured Artist

Are artists really more tortured than the rest of us? Let's consider this myth and the studies that assess whether there might be a link between creativity and mental illness.

AIRED: October 09, 2018 | 0:10:20

the myth of the tortured artist is

strong the depressive poet the irascible

painter the manic substance-abusing

writer hannah gatsby brings this up in

her Netflix special Nanette and that's

right I'm not done talking about it yet

it's super rare that art history gets

mentioned in the wider world and I have

to maximize this opportunity but anyway

this is what she says about Vincent van

Gogh wasn't born ahead of his time

he couldn't network because he was

mental he was crazy

he had unstable energy people would

cross the street to avoid him that's why

he didn't sell any more than one

painting in his lifetime he couldn't

network this whole idea this

romanticizing of mental illness is

ridiculous it is not a ticket to genius

to ticket to no way did I raise my fist

in triumph when I heard this yes yes I

did romanticizing mental illness and the

lives of artists is an absurdly popular

trope in movies books social media and

in art itself not only is it not

reflective of the lives of most people

who do creative work for a living it can

be destructive and dangerous but since

Nanette I've been trying to better

understand whether there really is a

link between creativity and mental

illness every few years a new study

comes out that looks at this from a

different angle the Karolinska

Institutet found when looking at Swedish

population registries involving over 1.2

million individuals that people in

creative professions were in general not

more likely to suffer from psychiatric

disorders compared to the population at

large however people in creative

professions were shown to be very

slightly more likely to suffer from

bipolar disorder if you're swedish but

anyway if we assume the Swedes are no

different than the rest of us this

finding could resonate with some

retrospective diagnoses that have been

made about creatives of the past like

some have noted that in Edgar Allan

Poe's letters and in his actual writing

he describes symptoms typical of bipolar

disorders like extreme shifts and mood

energy and activity levels he wrote in a

letter I am excessively slothful and one

industrious by fits i thus rambled away

whole months and awake at last to a sort

of mania for composition then I scribble

all day and read all night so long as

the disease indoors now there are

different types of bipolar disorder but

all of them share these kinds of up

periods known as manic episodes and down

one's called depressive episodes Poe

Aven refers to it as a mania but it's

that back and forth wave between extreme

productivity and then crushing

depression that we tend to see depicted

in movies and contributes to the

tortured reputation of artists we have

no idea how an actual professional using

today's criteria might diagnose Edgar

Allan Poe if he time travelled to be

evaluated in person in the present but

people love to puzzle over this question

regardless perhaps to better understand

the person whose work they like who died

at age 40 under mysterious circumstances

or perhaps to try to solve a question

that can never be solved

why a person was able to make the

amazing things that they made clinical

psychologist Kay Redfield Jamison has

written and spoken extensively and

eloquently about what she found to be a

disproportionate rate of mood disorder

or psychopathy among highly creative

people namely renowned writers artists

and composers and she has also explored

how the temperament or cognitive styles

associated with some mental illnesses

can enhance our boost creativity like

during a manic episode someone might

experience the extreme focus

restlessness and little need for sleep

that could be seen as a temporary

advantage when working on something

Redfield Jamison says the

manic-depressive temperament what we

used to call bipolar is in a biological

sense an alert sensitive system that

reacts strongly and swiftly it responds

to the world with a wide range of

emotional perceptual intellectual

behavioral and energy changes which can

be good things

but this manic state while it may be

experienced as pure creativity can in

practice yield work that is partially or

even entirely incoherent and more

critically it can be followed by

episodes of extreme and life-threatening

depression Redfield Jamison made this

chart of the productivity of composer

Robert Schumann for a Scientific

American article in 1995 showing a

relationship between his mental health

states and how many compositions he made

in a given year you see the most

compositions were made when he was manic

and the least when depressed and of

course none at all after he attempted

suicide and later died it's important to

note that Redfield Jamison studies and

the ones she is based her findings on

have been criticized for an over

reliance on anecdotal accounts small

sample sizes and inconsistent

methodologies but even if we consider a

more recent study from 2017 that found a

slight correlation between schizophrenia

and creativity from the International

Center for studies and creativity at

Buffalo State they conclude that while

mild schizophrenia symptoms might

support creativity full-blown symptoms

hurt or undermine it as Redfield Jamison

put it no one is creative when severely

depressed psychotic or dead opening the

door to say that some aspects of mental

illness can be beneficial or desirable

in some way is tricky it can definitely

send us down the path of romanticizing

illness but it might possibly help in

finding new approaches to treatment ones

that admit or try to mitigate the loss

of aspects of diseases that can be

positive but this is different for


musician Jeff Tweedy looks at the

relationship between his productivity

and mental health quite differently I

look at it like the part of me that is

able to create managed to create in

spite of the problems I was having and

spa and you know almost as as if that

was the only healthy part of me and

that's the part of me that I feel like

getting healthier has I've been able to

nurture the more research you read the

more you find that the evidence

suggesting that mental illness

conducive to creativity is incredibly

slight the exception that the Karolinska

Institutet study did find when looking

into the prevalence of mental illness in

certain professions was authors who were

found to have an increased likelihood of

bipolar disorder as well as

schizophrenia unipolar depression

anxiety disorders substance abuse and

suicide make about what you will but

remember that correlation does not equal

causation mental illness does not make

you a good writer it's also worth noting

that other professions have been found

to have higher than average rates of

mental illness a famous 1990 study found

that lawyers had a higher rate of major

depressive disorders when compared with

employed persons generally and a 2012

CDC analysis of data from 17 states

found that the occupation group with the

highest suicide rate was farm workers

fishermen and forestry for me these

studies only raised more questions like

the Karolinska Institutet defined

creative professions as artistic and

scientific which i thought was really

cool because of course creativity is

involved in science although scientists

do also get the rep for being mad but

then i tried to think about what

professions are definitively not

creative like can't you be a really

creative accountant awake in the night

with a brilliant new idea for how to

best account things you can be a

creative engineer teacher youtuber

building contractor barista statistician

mortician truck driver mechanic flight


- forward exit doors - overweight with

noises and two rear exit doors Suns

overhead and lots on the fleur-de-lis -

all exits seriously what are the jobs

that don't or can't involve creativity

data entry assembly line work but then

there's the reality that what you do for

a living and fill out on forms doesn't

necessarily reflect how creative you are

during your breaks or in your spare time

or just inside your head and then of

course you're not always doing the job

you're best at or that suits your

talents the more I try to pin down what

creativity is and whom can be said to

have it the more indeterminate it

becomes there are studies about what

creativity is but I can tell you

decisively that reading them may have

the harmful effect of draining all

creativity from your consciousness but

examples abound of prominent successful

artists who do not appear to suffer from

mental illness they might not be good

candidates for a Hollywood movie whose

three-act structure requires that

they're pretty good then hit rock bottom

and then rebound for a transcendent

finish be it in recovery retirement or

death it's usually death mental health

is something artists negotiate just like

accountants do or lawyers or anybody

else but mental illness is real and

serious and if you need help you can and

should reach out to qualified

professionals who would like nothing

better than to try to assist you in

getting healthier what makes you an

artist or productive or successful or

what makes you successful and productive

and an artist all at the same time is

extremely unclear and unpredictable and

changing whether or not you experience

mental illness you can be a person

sensitive to the world around you a

thinking and feeling an expressive

person able to make things that are

meaningful to other people what are the

things in life that Kindle and support

your creativity maybe by focusing on

that question we can reframe the

conversation about how art happens and

how we can better know and celebrate

this strange and mysterious and sublime

part of personhood


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