Every so often some researcher will publish fresh info on the mental or physical problems of creative folks. The general implication of some of this stuff is that you have to be just a wee bit sick in order to be creative. They often show that many historic artists had something wrong with them. The latest outbreak comes from clinical pathologist Dr. Paul Wolf of the University of California. He cites that illnesses, rather than being obstacles, can be the paths to genius. He mentions the likes of Einstein, Warhol, Newton, Cezanne, Goya, Michelangelo, Turner and Berlioz. According to Wolf these folks suffered varying degrees of depression, autism, myopia, anxiety, chronic pain, gout, stroke and dementia.
Another recent outbreak has to do with sight. According to John Morley of the St. Louis School of Medicine in Missouri, the presence of cataracts leads to Impressionism. Citing Monet, Renoir and Cassatt, he implies that eye problems helped them to paint the way they did. Cezanne is mentioned for a diabetic condition that caused the colour blindness that shows in his work. Van Gogh’s probable epilepsy spurred on his hallucinatory imagery — the fuzz and swirls around the stars in Starry Night. Edvard Munch had “floaters,” that also floated around in his paintings. Michelangelo’s manic depression, now reverse engineered by the experts, affected the way he saw things — according to Morley you can tell by the sad figures on the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel.
Monday morning quarterbacking aside, what about the others who pioneered Impressionism without benefit of cataracts? Gauguin, Bazille, Sisley, Pissarro, Morisot, Seurat and Signac didn’t have cataracts that I know of. As a matter of fact, what about many of my friends who don’t appear to have anything wrong with them at all, but still find it within themselves to create magnificently and with originality? Actually, it’s possible that the clear-sighted individuals with no known diseases may be the ones who are doing most of the good stuff. Historically speaking, we artists have been through a hundred years where “artist” has been aligned with “nut case.” It hasn’t always been so. I, for one, am working to have this current connection declared null and void. It’s always struck me that the artists I admire are some of the healthiest folks I know — physically, and yep, mentally. I could be wrong, of course, and the thought of it makes me depressed.
PS: “Had better treatments been available to certain artists of the past, they might not have found their inspiration.” (Dr. Paul Wolf)
Esoterica: At Oxford University, Ioan James has a book in progress on Asperger’s Syndrome, a form of autism. James argues that the obsessive and repetitious behavior often associated with autism has had a positive result for about twenty successful creators he has studied. “Perseverance, perfectionism and disregard for social conventions and the opinions of others could be seen as a prerequisite for creativity, and these are also behaviors associated with Asperger’s.” I’m happy to report that virtues such as perseverance, perfectionism, and disregard for social convention can also be learned and are frequently self-taught.
Fixations on the unusual
by Onita C. Asbury, Pocatello, ID, USA
My reaction to your letter about genius and artists and their illnesses is that maybe the story about them would not have been as interesting to folks in the “press” — even in their times. And now anyone who wants to write something with “general” interest must find something odd to write about. My comment doesn’t include your letters which stay interesting, fun and definitely on the subject. Almost all of the news media reports and discussions among friends and colleagues are about the horrible, shocking or ugly rather than the ordinary and comfortable. I, also, get seriously depressed about it. But I look at the beauty in people, landscapes, flowers, light with shadows — all that artistic stuff — and get over it for a while.
(RG note) Thanks, Onita. And thanks to everyone who added their light to this subject. Michelle Moore, who is helping with the editing this summer, pointed out a huge volume of responses to my letter. “All good,” she said. So this clickback is a little longer than usual. For those who wrote and were not included, your letters have been carefully archived for possible future use.
The eye of the artist
by Hank Lobbenberg, Toronto, ON, Canada
If anyone is interested in studying eye diseases of various artists, I would suggest The Eye of the Artist by Marmor and Ravin. It includes Degas whose sight worsened to the point that he changed from oils to pastels to sculpture. It is incredibly fascinating because it is written by an ophthalmologist and an art historian and it gives valuable insights into a number of artists including Vincent Van Gogh.
Lupus proves helpful
by Lori Levin, Pennsville, NJ, USA
“How sick are you?” actually made me laugh. I have a condition called Lupus and I see it as a positive. Lupus forces me to keep a very healthy lifestyle and to balance my day. In my studio it forces me to make use of every moment and to appreciate the beauty before me all the more. Without my little sickness I don’t know if I would be as successful. Since I don’t have the choice in the matter, why worry about it! Maybe someday I will be listed with those artists you’ve mentioned as someone that was made better by certain pathology. If not, my crazy artist friends and I will just keep creating away the day and laughing all the while. Frankly, I think it is the rest of the world that is sick and nuts.
Illnesses provide cultural contributions?
by Nan Mayer, Charlottesville, VA, USA
I am in the midst of Peter D. Kramer’s book Against Depression. He is a Psychiatrist and well-versed in art history and he agrees with you, pondering the “denigration of art that arises from joy and contentment merely the insistence on grief as depth ” in a spirited discussion of Bonnard’s work. He analyzes curator’s biases in specific museum exhibitions and devotes a whole chapter to the (he says inevitable) question, “What if Van Gogh had taken medication for his mental illness; would the world have been deprived of a great artist?”
Challenges faced demand respect
by Laura Foster, Edmonton, AB, Canada
I am happy for you that you have many well and happy (mentally and physically) friends who are very creative artists. But please don’t hold it against those people who have chronic conditions of various kinds who learn to live and thrive and be creative against the obstacles, mentally and physically. Like with any other talent or profession, artists who are extra challenged need to be respected for their strength and perseverance to endure the extra challenges they face everyday.
Foot fungus guides creativity
by Lisa Honda
I have long suspected that my creative endeavors were the direct results of a life-long battle of severe form of Fungus on my baby toe. After completing a desperate and aggressive topical and oral fungal treatment, I noticed a shocking decline in productive efforts. My paintings often appear to lack a certain “spark” they used to have. Jurors have privately commented that my work is somehow just not the same. I’m depressed, distressed — creatively repressed. However, I am now sneaking into a gym where I do not have membership and using public showers once again — without flip-flops. I hope it works.
See the world through another’s eyes
by Vane Solis Herrerias, Mexico
I am always shocked how people with less talent are always undermining what others did and are saying that their accomplishments exist because he was sick, or crazy. They should be wowed by the way that they were able to do it all in spite of their sickness. When Frida Kahlo suffered from an accident and was kept in bed, she painted and used all her pain to create something unique. But the pain didn’t make her creative. It was just a tool.
It is certain that the majority of well known artists had something wrong with them. Whether it was their eyes, something in their heads, their basic chemistry or even pain and depression, but that was not the reason they painted. They painted the world they saw fuzzy, blurred and in the wrong colors.
by David C. Benjamin
I am a retired Professor of Microbiology who spent his entire 35 year career in academe doing research. I have adopted art as a pleasurable hobby. Researchers (scientists — medical or otherwise) are creative individuals. To be successful in research you “must” be creative. There is a greater frequency of musicians among mathematicians. Physicists, chemists, and biophysicists — all must think in 3-dimensions and abstractly. Creative people, including researchers (at least the good ones), suffer no more from mental or physical ailments than does the entire human population. They are only more visible.
Years of hell
by Marni California, Abergele, UK
I am an artist who lives with Chronic Fatigue Syndrome. Over the years I have also suffered from episodic clinical depression. These challenges have had very little to do with my vision as an artist; indeed, along with my various weaknesses, illness hindered my return to art for years. Remember that academics, like critics, have a living to make. This living is often at the expense of creatives, thus most of the ‘findings’ of academics are to be taken with a coarse grain of sea salt. I’m with Adam Phillips, the Welsh psychoanalyst who made a Southbank, U.K. show with Melvyn Bragg in 2005, who reports that sanity is just not ‘in.’ Nor is being positive. After years of hell, I know which I prefer.
by Susan Miller, Boone, NC, USA
My experience applied to your arguments against the flawed reasoning, expressed in two medical research opinions, that illness creates art is that the thinking (or lack of it) behind such opinions utterly ignores the experience of the larger medical community, that art creates health. In fact, it has been demonstrated widely that art is one of two uniformly successful therapies available to doctors, hospitals and facilities designed to help the ill and elderly find their way to better health. The other is gardening. It would seem that both help us reach deeper into the life process itself, and through it we find the resources we need to heal. A long-ago friend, a psychiatrist, once admitted this to me: “I cannot heal you; I can only help you heal yourself.” I think it is fascinating that one of the best-known of all artists, Monet, was both artist and gardener. So, if my observations are accurate, it could be argued that for Einstein, Warhol, Newton, Cezanne, Goya, Michelangelo, Turner and Berlioz, and who knows how many others the creative process might be what kept them alive, perhaps suffering less pain, but certainly giving us the great gifts of their work. The source for their vision? The answer to that has remained elusive for millennia. But I can’t make myself believe it was illness.
by Robert Anderson, Metchosin, BC, Canada
The major error is the assessment by western thought, intent on categorizing, which categorizes any of the conditions you mention as being “illnesses,” or that there is something “wrong” with the people who have those conditions. The ability to see more, to see deeper, to see beyond what “most” people can see, is not an illness, it is a condition, a heightened awareness. Humans who spend time in the wilderness, alone, without man-made mechanical noise around them, often discover that their own brain finally begins to recover its ability to discern things. Their senses have always been bringing in the same data but which their conditioned minds have refused to allow through for processing.
Painting in a happy mode
by Mark Davis, Boise, ID, USA
The idea that an artist becomes an Impressionist because their eyesight is failing is ridiculous. Artists’ styles vary based on their life experiences and their preferences as well as the idea that as every person’s handwriting is different, so naturally would be their style. When I was in art school, I produced a few works that were nearly photo-realistic, but at some point I decided that art, to me, was more than just capturing an image in photographic reality, and my work has loosened up significantly since then. I believe I paint better when I am not depressed because I seem to be more open to inspiration, not to mention the fact that my paintings seem more energetic when I am happy.
Normal versus artistic brain
by Ron Stacy, Sidney, BC, Canada
The normal brain, when presented with a problem, has one area of the brain spring into action while the artistic brain has many areas light up to deal with the same problem. This indicates that the normal brain is linear and the artistic brain analyzes the problem from many viewpoints. Artistic people simply think outside the box and, knowing that it makes sense, aren’t afraid to appear odd to the rest of the world. I’d sooner be one of the artistic people than the other, even if the linear people are in the majority. Artistic people are often considered eccentric or odd, because they don’t ascribe to the standard mores or processes developed in the linear mindset and considered normal. It could also be that the artistic population is more sensitive to their surroundings, so are more likely to be traumatized by the goings-on of the world.
Artists go to ‘The Well’
by Marion Barnett, UK
I’m an artist diagnosed with chronic depression. Fits all the clichés. However, I also fit some of the clichés attached to depressive types. I’m not good at networking, which is one of the ways that artists get their work ‘out there.’ I’m self taught, which may not be a problem in my own mind but it attracts the epithet ‘amateur.’ It originally was a good thing, but now is the artistic equivalent of damnation, particularly as I’m not an ‘outsider’ artist — I’m too well read for that! Finally, when you mention art and depression, the word ‘therapy’ pops up almost automatically. No, I don’t see my art as therapy; I see it as work, just like any other artist. So, I thought, what to do? Finally, I formed a self determining community for artists with mental health issues. The group is called ‘The Well,’ and it meets in Norwich, U.K. The original intention was to have one wee group, but the idea was so well received that an umbrella group, ‘Creating Community,’ is being formed to spread the concept further into East Anglia, and possibly wider into England. I don’t think you can entirely abolish the concept of artist as nutcase, but if you do suffer from mental illness, you can make it work for you.
First experience wearing glasses
by Alfred Muma, Powell River, BC, Canada
When I was in my twenties needing my first pair of glasses. The optometrist was reluctant to give me glasses as he was concerned that if my stigmatism was corrected my painting would be changed and my unique blurry style would change into a clear photo-like image. I was touched by his concern but it was ill-founded as my style didn’t change because I could see clearer but over time because I changed media and found new ways to express my creativity. What excited me with my first pair of glasses was the floor jumping up at me, door frames out of proportion and the detail of the natural world so sharp for the first time. But I didn’t change my style until later when I started exploring a new media for me, watercolors. It was the medium that dictated how I painted. And always has been. I can paint realistically but never have felt the need to. In short I don’t want to as exploring and constantly finding new truths, looking with “artists” eyes on the world, seeing different realms of reality, is the exciting part of being creative. So perhaps we artists aren’t ill we just like to explore the visual world and because we spend all of our time doing just that, we see constantly things fresh and thus to everyone else “different.”
Thyroid gland linked to creativity
by Laura Wambsgans, Bakersfield, CA, USA
Long ago I was diagnosed with Thyroid disease. My doctor said that most of his patients were artists in some discipline. Because the numbers were so slanted he headed up a study at UCLA to look at the connection and it became clear that somehow the Thyroid gland and creativity are linked. If you have 10 artists at a table and ask, “Does anyone have Thyroid disease?” 7 will raise their hands. I posed the question at a stone carving workshop in Italy and sure enough over half the group raised their hands.
by Mark Hope, Wasaga Beach, ON, Canada
I can make another twisted connection. A few years ago I read an article produced by Harvard University’s psychology department that essentially made the proclamation that being left-handed was in fact evidence of mental deficiency. The premise was that according to Euclidian genetics, if left-handedness was a genetic trait then approximately 25% of the population would be left-handed. The article presented “evidence” that showed only about 10% of the population was left-handed and that those who are left-handed had become so because of prenatal chemical imbalances. It went on further to indicate that being right-handed was the natural state. It drew correlations between handedness and creativity and other issues such as dyslexia, attention disorders, autism etc. Who writes this crap? I am a lefty, I paint, sculpt, do photography, and write, among other things. I do have a touch of dyslexia but it’s never been an issue. If being left-handed means I’m mentally challenged, then I am glad that I am.
Art as devotion and courage
by Robert Newport, Los Angeles, CA, USA
As a retired psychiatrist, now artist, I have thought much about the creative process. There is a large literature devoted to this topic. My own belief is that when we call somebody else sick, we are managing our own anxieties. A doctor diagnoses disease in a patient in order to help the patient and to manage his or her own (usually unconscious) fear of illness. Others have their own agendas as well, though they may not be as useful to the patient. In my experience, all human beings are both creative and encumbered by some degree of anxiety, whether they are conscious of it or not. It is the hand of fortune that turns someone into an “artist.” Most of my artist patients over the years felt that their illness was a hindrance to their work. In many cases I was able to help them use their artistic abilities in the service of their therapy. That these artists mentioned were able to create such beauty is a tribute to their devotion and courage rather than to their illness.
Celebrate our distinctive traits
by Siobhan Ohmart, Ireland
Once again the boys and girls in the psych labs have decided that creativity must be a result of some aberrant physical or psychological defect. I wonder what sort of defects result in scientific genius? This kind of thinking harks back to silly schoolyard resentments where if one child cannot perform as well in one area it will be because the ‘gifted’ one is a ‘weirdo.’
Nelson Mandela said, “Our deepest fear is not that we are inadequate. Our deepest fear is that we are powerful beyond measure. It is our light not our darkness that frightens us.” It frightens others as well. I hope that as artists, writers, sculptors and yes, engineers, scientists and mathematicians come to realize that just as many non-creative and non-scientific folks have problems and that we instead let our own lights shine and learn to celebrate the gifts of others as we should our own.
by Mike Vandy
Worse than the mental illnesses of people like Van Gogh or Munch (which certainly were responsible for the specific art they produced), is the overall mentality of the modern movement. The mentality I’m referring to is the constant attempt to transcend the “falseness” of the physical world. The belief that the world we see isn’t real, such that we have to break down the visual world into its Platonic forms. This idea produced a continual series of reductions that end up in non-objective abstraction.
I wouldn’t call this mentality an illness, but it was a fanaticism that produced very odd takes on things. My favorite example is Mondrian, who reduced reality down to horizontal and vertical lines, plus red, black, white, and grey. He thought that these were the essential building blocks of visual reality, a language of sorts. His mature art is produced from this language, and his mature art never varies from this language. The end of the road of reductive art is the end of the road for the reductive artist. On some level, this kind of reduction represents mental illness. It is the obsession with reduction which he (and others) strove for that is the illness.
If insanity is defined by the inability to see reality, then much of modern art was a headlong plunge into Platonic form-chasing, zooming past reality to the unreal, that ended up with reality reduced to almost nothing. An interesting exercise though, and the art produced is fantastic in as much as it so accurately reflects that philosophical journey of the modern artists’ minds. Through single artists we see a representation of this entire journey. Each one picked up on the cue left by the former generation. But as a whole, and viewed from a historical perspective, it is all quite crazy. However, I still think modern art is fantastic.
You may be interested to know that artists from every state in the USA, every province in Canada, and at least 105 countries worldwide have visited these pages since January 1, 2006.
That includes Nora Gross of Dartmouth, NS, Canada who wrote, “Painting is cheaper than a psychiatrist.”
And also Edward Berkeley of Portland, OR, USA who wrote, “El Greco’s elongated figures were attributed to severe astigmatism.”
And also Peter Shulman of New York, USA who wrote, “I have always found the common perception that ‘if you are an artist you must be a bit nuts’ very helpful when dealing with gallery owners, museum curators and especially clients. Making minor demands such as exhibit layouts and such are usually complied with rather than upsetting the ‘crazy artist.’ ”
And also Pamela Gilmour of Hollywood, FL, USA who wrote, “As an art therapist I cringe at the idea that an illness aids in the creative process. It’s the age-old correlation of romanticizing the artist’s profile.”
And also Melinda Copper of Monticello, FL, USA who wrote, “Well, they did say Degas’ work got better as his eyesight deteriorated and I know people say I should stop before I locate my glasses!”
And also Brian Young of Forres, UK who wrote, “I think sometimes we are inclined to do things in the studio (both kinds) which impress our friends and contemporaries, rather than go looking for the spark of danger and excitement. Maybe as painters we would produce different work if we had an audience looking over our shoulders and egging us on!”
And also Clint Watson who wrote, “A favorite painter of mine, Kevin Macpherson, teaches ‘squinting’ as a technique for students to learn to ‘blur’ their subject and focus on the major shapes. He jokes that squinting is only necessary for those who were not blessed with poor eyesight, as he is.”
And also Steve Hovland of CA, USA who wrote, “Through therapy I have gotten the ability to use all of my emotions as a source of creative power.”
And also Paul Kane of Bloomington, IN, USA who wrote, “It’s the tyranny of the norm. They are attempting to redefine normal as good. Normal can be controlled, is control. Good can’t be. Good has a wildness to it.”
And also Greg Packard of Montrose, CO, USA who wrote, “If normal is what main stream is today, then I would rather be sick!”