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Sian S. Rathore

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The Artistic Temperament and Creativity

Posted: 5/04/2012 16:21

The Guardian recently published this piece about creativity and suffering. It is true that over the years we have associated madness and despair with creative output, somehow linking creativity as a condition comorbid to most mental disorders; there is a myth of the beautiful mind, of the unique insight that a person in mental distress has that enables creativity that those who have not suffered cannot possibly achieve.

We all know about the insanity that Van Gogh, Virginia Woolf and Sylvia Plath lived with, and we perhaps are guilty of believing their work is made more beautiful because of our knowledge of their suffering. However I tend to wonder if we overlook the integrity of such works in light of their illness, and how condescending this really is. I sometimes wonder what else we know of Sylvia Plath, other than the fact she was a depressive poet who killed herself. I wonder if she was much more than poster girl for introspective depression we paint her as, much more than the stiff-starched collar of misery we make her wear.

The question of there being a link between creativity and mental illness has been the subject of much debate for a long time now. So much so that mental illness has almost become fashionable amongst the creative elite to the point where mental illness is not subtly inferred, more audaciously proclaimed. It is now not unusual for writers to mention their prescriptions and diagnoses openly in poetry almost as if they are badges of honour. I am not arguing that mentally ill people should not be allowed to use their struggles in their art, far from it: creativity is cathartic and a lot of community mental health teams and psychiatric inpatient / outpatient services offer music and art therapy, and perhaps the obsessive thoughts that come with conditions such as mania, depression, anxiety disorders, psychotic disorders etc. lend themselves to the creative process, however the presence of these disorders should not be the foundations upon which people build their creative careers.

I feel there is a pressure on the "sane" amongst us to dwell upon problems that don't exist in order to be taken seriously as a "struggling artist". There is nothing glamorous about mental illness, there is nothing to be glorified. Certainly, being mentally ill is not something any artist should aspire to, and it breeds a culture of Wikipedia psychiatry and offensive self-diagnoses on the part of the otherwise mentally healthy creative community. However this is not a new thing.

Salvador Dali's Paranoiac-critical_method was a famous technique employed by surrealists in which the artist induces a state of paranoia within himself in order to create something tinged with the delirium and distress of delusion, to make something truly creative, truly unique. More recently famously bipolar Daniel Johnston admitted in the 2005 documentary about his life and work, that sometimes he would sometimes skip a few days of his antipsychotic medication because it made him more creative and energetic, this way he could produce a huge output of work and perform with the blistering heat of bipolar mania. After all, any bipolar person will tell you that the beginnings of a manic episode (before the hallucinations and delusions kick in) are fantastic for creative output, so much so that the person living with mania often will not seek help, because they cannot see a problem in how they are functioning when their creativity suddenly rockets into brilliance.

However, one should not build a writing career off the back of a diagnosis of severe and enduring mental illness, or assume that a diagnosis will somehow bolster their chances of being known on the scene as another suffering poet. For the mentally ill, creativity can often be an escape, or an outlet used for exorcising mental abnormality. For the creative, mental illness is not - and should not be - a pre-requisite.

 

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