While we celebrate the output the fundamentally unwell artist creates, we often ignore the conditions they suffer under; because art.
The more I study literature, the more I see the subtleties of the “tortured artist” trope. I’ve seen obvious evidence of this sentiment for a while now — well, ever since I started being vocal about mental illness in tandem with my love of art. They’re hard to miss: “mentally ill people are more creative,” “[insert artist here] channeled his or her mental illness into something beautiful (read: consumable),” etc.
Maybe this sounds a little harsh. I know people mean well when they speak of Sylvia Plath and Virginia Woolf’s literary achievements with the same level of fascination as with their ultimate suicides, Van Gogh’s envisioning of Starry Night while he was in a manic episode, and dubbing everyone from Janis Joplin to Jim Morrison to Jimi Hendrix to Kurt Cobain to Amy Winehouse members of the “27 club” as if that’s some mysterious, artistic honour, but intentions don’t equal outcomes.
Our fascination with mentally ill artists is difficult for me because I see the admiringly sympathetic head-tilts in class when professors speak of T. S. Eliot’s nervous breakdown illustrated in The Waste Land, how Friedrich Nietzsche’s struggles with manic-depressive illness contributed to his outlandish ideas, and Maurice Ravel’s heartbreaking mental deterioration during his composition of Piano Concerto in G Major.
These artistic tour-de-forces obviously warrant study, and the context of their creation is important too. I worry, however, that it conjures a notion that mental illness is somehow worth having if one can be productive, creatively or otherwise, or if not that, then the notion that the only mentally ill people worthy of our sympathies are the ones who can channel their divergent world views into work that can be admired by all and used in scholarly exercises in interpretation meant to broaden intellectual horizons and explore alternative understandings of the world without having to embody the struggles that lead to those world views.
In other words, it’s downright appropriative. It’s consumption cloaked in artistic appreciation. At times, it’s unintentional, but worse yet, it is usually acknowledged in academic circles that we do this. But it continues.
Individually, I know we all identify with aspects of these artists’ work, and that’s wonderful. I think that should be the crux of study — humanising artists instead of putting them on a pedestal. The artists we study are undeniably brilliant, but the act of discussing how their mental illnesses impacted their creative processes and products can be construed as, “they wouldn’t have been able to create work of this magnitude had they been mentally healthy.” This is why people romanticise the “tortured artist.” If people think mental illness is the path to groundbreaking art, of course it’s going to be idealised.
Individually, I know we all identify with aspects of these artists’ work, and that’s wonderful. I think that should be the crux of study — humanising artists instead of putting them on a pedestal.
We have to turn the conversation around. The intellectual study of art and humanisation of artists are not mutually exclusive endeavours. I think that’s why I gravitate toward the study of creative writing as opposed to literary criticism, analysis, and interpretation. In creative writing, we use poetic devices and discussions of poetry to broaden horizons, but we do it in a way that says, “With practice, here are some ways you can combine your study and your own experience to create something of equal yet individual importance.” Attempting to interpret art is important as an intellectual exercise, but to stop there is to operate under the assumption that there is something that separates artist from student. And that something is usually mental illness. If it’s not that, it’s socioeconomic privilege or on the contrary, overcoming unimaginable odds in pursuit of artistic greatness.
Sure, artists definitely create out of necessity and attempts to gain control over their circumstances, but to call them “geniuses” is to dehumanise them. We can celebrate their accomplishments without saying, “you have to overcome extraordinary odds to create something this great.” Once we stop doing that, I think the admiration for something we feel is unattainable for us “mere mortals” will transform into admiration for people who have reached a pinnacle of artistic achievement that we can reach with enough practice. Art is not a product of mental illness. It’s a product of practice that can undoubtedly be informed by personal tragedy, but personal tragedy is by no means a prerequisite. In my opinion, artistic devices help us shape our experiences, and our experiences shape how we use artistic devices, but artistic devices are available to all people, not just those who have a specific set of experiences.
On the flip side of that, however, is that the excessive admiration of the “tortured artist” creates another layer of stigma: mental illness should be channeled productively and recovery should be pursued as a means of increasing that productivity. And of course, this bleeds into all types of productivity, not just the creative kind.
When we celebrate creation or productivity in the face of unimaginable struggle — mental or otherwise — we erase the extreme toil these activities take on the ill or otherwise disadvantaged person.
When we celebrate creation or productivity in the face of unimaginable struggle — mental or otherwise — we erase the extreme toil these activities take on the ill or otherwise disadvantaged person. “Look at all [insert successful person here] did in the face of such hardship and tragedy! Everyone who suffers from [insert similar ailment of successful person here] should be able to do the same thing.” All the while, we ignore the fact that most of these people are productive as an escape from their health or at the expense of their health for whatever reason — societal pressure, expectations, feelings of worthlessness when not being productive, etc.
Take David Foster Wallace, for instance. His cocktail of medications was what allowed him to be productive, but the side effects forced him to stop treatment. After failed electroconvulsive therapy, he killed himself and left a manuscript for his loved ones to find. We erase his extremely problematic behaviour — stalking and inappropriate sexual advances — and celebrate his genius because he was such a prolific and groundbreaking author. Point being, we let mentally ill people who are productive get away with a lot more than ordinary mentally ill people. We look at mentally ill people exhibiting similarly problematic, worrisome, and unhealthy behaviour and say, “Well, that’s inexcusable because you aren’t contributing to society in some way” even if that contribution would make them more ill. We want them to get better so they can contribute, not because they deserve a better quality of life simply because they’re human beings. At times, we even fail to help them seek help. Instead, we write them off as societal liabilities. *Cough* Thanks, American brand of capitalism. *Cough*
When mentally ill artists say they are more productive on “good days,” we say, “see? If you got better, you’d be able to do so much more” as if that’s why a person should strive to recover. Mentally ill people don’t need to contribute something to society to be worthy of existence.
I repeat: mentally ill people don’t need to contribute something to society to be worthy of existence. We can be inspired by beautiful art and success in the face of illness without expecting that of all people who face the same hardships. If the only reason you want a mentally ill person to get better is so they can be more productive, congratulations. You’ve internalised stigma because you definitely wouldn’t say the same about someone with an obvious physical sickness.
Productivity and creativity should never come at the expense of mental health, and when we celebrate the work of mentally ill people, we should never celebrate the ways in which creation was a product of deteriorating mental health. We should not force productivity from those who have nothing left to give, and when people personally decide to be productive when they have nothing left to give, we should not view them as a “success story.” They are humans first, mentally ill second, and successful last. We must treat them as such in that order.
Artists get to tell their story how they want, but we don’t need to tell budding artists that they must have similar stories in order to be great. We don’t need to romanticise the way mental illness played into their work. We don’t need to separate artistic study from artistic processes. We don’t need to undermine an artists’ hard work by reducing their contributions to products of mental illness. And we certainly don’t need to couch their worth in terms of how productive they were in spite of their seemingly insurmountable mental health.