Words by Naledi Sibisi
The year is 1889 and Vincent Van Gogh creates what will come to be known as one of his greatest works. ‘Starry Night’ was painted from a room in a mental asylum where he was being treated for mental illness after he cut off his own ear. As the story goes, his relationship with Paul Gauguin - an artist he was working for became a point of frustration. As his illness continued to reveal itself, Van Gogh suffered from hallucinations and attacks that would leave him unconscious. During one of these attacks, he cut off his left ear; he would later claim that he had no recollection of the event. ‘Starry Night’ was painted from memory, illustrating the view outside his room window in the asylum; he painted it twenty-one times.
Jose Luis Aragon, a physicist of the National Autonomous University of Mexico along with his co-workers conducted research that concluded that Van Gogh’s work includes patterns of light and dark that follows a mathematical structure of turbulent flow. This is to say that there was a chaos and turbulence surrounding the artist’s mind. The mathematical examination of his paintings suggests that the patterns such as swirling water represent real instability. "We think that Van Gogh had a unique ability to depict turbulence in periods of prolonged psychotic agitation”, Aragon explained. He went on to propose that Van Gogh created these works including: Road with Cypress and Star (1890) and Wheat Field with Crows (1890) during periods when he was mentally unsettled or experiencing the psychotic episodes where he was prone to hallucinations, fits and unconsciousness that may have pointed towards the idea that he suffered from epilepsy. The result would be his ability to accurately illustrate that restlessness.
Over the years, studies have formed links between a number of mental health issues and being in a creative field. Almost a year ago, local hip hop veteran HHP (Hip Hop Pantsula) and more recently, house vocalist Nichume passed away. Both entertainers reportedly suffered from depression, resulting in them taking their lives. It is worthwhile to explore the matter particularly where artistry is concerned. Historically, some of the most famous artists have been known to battle with their mental health under the eye of public scrutiny. Using Van Gogh as a reference point is a valuable place to start considering the fact that he too took his own life in the two years following the attack that led him to cut off his ear. "I am unable to describe exactly what is the matter with me". Van Gogh expressed these sentiments in a letter addressed to his brother a few years before his passing. “Now and then there are horrible fits of anxiety, apparently without cause, or otherwise a feeling of emptiness and fatigue in the head” he continued, “At times I have attacks of melancholy and of atrocious remorse".
You do not have to search far and wide in the history books before you come across countless examples of creative geniuses who were prone to mental suffering. The concept of the ‘tortured artist’ is one that has been used to describe renowned artists (Ernest Hemingway, Sylvia Plath, Virginia Woolf, Kurt Cobain, Amy Winehouse and Mac Miller to name a few) who battled with their mental health openly. The problem is that it normalizes the idea of pain, suffering and mental disorders as a component to produce remarkable works of art; it is a myth that dates back centuries. On Tranquillity of the Mind (De Tranquillitate Animi), a Latin work by the Stoic philosopher Seneca, the mental state of Seneca's friend is examined as well as how anxiety, uneasiness and a loathing of life could be cured. In the dialogue, he attributes the following to Aristotle, “No great genius has ever existed without some touch of madness”. In Aristotle's Poetics, there is a similar translation stating, “Poetry demands a man with a special gift for it, or else one with a touch of madness in him”. The contemporary adaptation of this idea can be found in Kanye West’s 2016 offering The Life of Pablo where he raps “Name one genius that ain’t crazy”.
With more recent scientific advances, studies have been conducted to examine these links between mental illness and creativity. A study conducted by Professor Fredrik Ullén took a closer look at dopamine D2 receptors in the brain. It concluded that the dopamine system in highly creative individuals matched that of patients who suffered from schizophrenia. High amounts of dopamine D2 receptors are the cause of conflicting thoughts which would explain how creativity and mental illness align. Much like those who suffer from schizophrenia, extremely creative people can exercise their imagination at a higher degree and envision rare connections that most people are unable to create or comprehend. While it is apparent that some of the most celebrated artists have been known to battle with mental illnesses, it is dangerous to continue to romanticize the myth of the tortured artist without offering remedies or solutions. Creative fields can directly affect and heighten mental health issues based on how some of these environments tend to be set up. High-pressured working environments, inconsistency and many times, low levels of income along with the instability of the sector can contribute to mental issues being neglected or reduced to emotional reactions.
By demystifying the concept of the tortured artist, we can examine mental illness and suicidal thoughts among creatives more accurately. While many artists and entertainers surrender to taking their own lives, there is an opportunity to address how we approach mental illness by not considering it a by-product of extraordinary art. When we remove the notion that creative genius is the result of madness, we can arrive at more helpful ways to assist artists without stigmatization. Above that, we will also begin to address the idea that a mental illness can become linked to one’s identity which is as detrimental to the well-being of the artist. When we think about the fact that creativity and madness have historically been intertwined, it ignores the possibility of getting better or finding healthy ways to manage one’s mental health for the purpose of their craft. "My fear of life is necessary to me, as is my illness. They are indistinguishable from me, and their destruction would destroy my art". These were the sentiments of Norwegian painter Edvard Munch whose work ‘The Scream’ has become one of the most famous images in the world of art.
Munch is a good example of the way in which the desire to be prominent or memorable as an artist might prevail over the desire to manage one’s mental health. Above that, there is the idea of how imposter syndrome operates in this space. This is to say that exceptional art is the result of chance as opposed to skill; therefore, without the imbalance - the genius would not occur. As more research is applied to the correlation between creativity and mental illness, I believe that we move a step closer towards how to support artists with their battles. “We've got a whole bunch of tortured artists" psychologist Perpetua Neo expresses, "A lot of them draw on their tortured selves to create meaning and create art. Artists can be pretty unhappy people and they are often quite honest about that fact. But at the same time, as a psychologist, I would ask if perhaps they need to believe, to create their identity they need to be an artist with a tortured soul”.
Much like Munch’s fears, the idea of getting better or succumbing to treatment may have a negative effect on what the artist has come to know and the conditions under which they create their best work. It has been reported that manic-depressives often complain about how much slower and less colorful life appears following treatment. This would be the direct result of the high levels of productivity that a hypomanic episode can allow for. While the symptoms such as hallucinations may be treated, the more depressive symptoms might be heightened leaving the artist feeling uninspired or unable to create. Ultimately it boils down to more research, education on how to treat the subjects and an awareness of the pressures that artists face - particularly in an era where substance abuse is often overlooked or reduced to bad energy. If there is indeed a correlation between mental illness and creativity, there will be a bigger crisis if we ignore the need for it to be treated like any other illness.