Norwegian artist Edvard Munch, who suffered deeply from anxiety, wrote this in his diary: "My fear of life is necessary to me, as is my illness. They are indistinguishable from me, and their destruction would destroy my art." Munch's famous painting, The Scream, is believed to reflect the deep anxiety of modern man.
I discovered the above quote by Munch in a fascinating CNN article titled The dark side of creativity: depression + anxiety x madness = genius? The article lists many famous artists who walked the line "between extreme talent and torment." Artists like Van Gogh, who famously cut off his ear and later committed suicide.
Are artists more prone to depression and mental illness? Some studies have shown an "unusually high number of mood disorders" in artists. Consider such luminaries as Ernest Hemingway, Leo Tolstoy, Virginia Wolf, Sylvia Plath and Jackson Pollock. Or more recently, the writer David Foster Wallace and comedian/actor Robin Williams. What demons did these creatives struggle with, and did their torments inform their art?
I am blessed to be free of mental illness and clinical depression, but I am not immune to down times. Further, I sometimes entertain a bit of obsessive/compulsiveness. For example, if my hand writing in a card or letter is not just right, I'll tear it up and start over. If a well executed cartoon of mine has a minor mistake, I'll begin anew. I'm happy to wipe off major passages of my oil paintings until I get it right.
I suspect there's a small distance between perfectionism and madness. I've written the slogan "Done trumps perfect" on my office grease board, but I don't always follow it. I have often wasted time "perfecting" some written work or piece of art, when I really should have moved on.
The studies aren't entirely conclusive, but there appears to be some link between mental illness and creativity. The CNN article shared this insightful quote from Scott Barry Kaufman (an American psychologist and writer): "It seems that the key to creative cognition is opening up the flood gates and letting in as much information as possible. Because you never know. Sometimes the most bizarre associations can turn into the most productively creative ideas."
The poet T. S. Eliot had this to say on the subject: "Anxiety is the handmaiden of creativity." My wife once joked about all the artistic geniuses we'll never know thanks to the invention of Prozac.
Fortunately, there are many ways to treat mental illness and depression. Is it possible to emerge from the dark caverns of emotional angst into the ocean of beauty and light around you. Proper sleep, diet and regular aerobic exercise can do wonders for everyone's mental health, including those with underlying mental illnesses. Therapy and medication can also provide relief and a return to health.
I don't know if T. S. Eliot was right. Is anxiety the handmaiden of creativity? I've met plenty of easy going, happy artists who don't seem anxious at all. Yet others do seem to suffer for their art.
The joy of their art is tethered to a sort of angst to create. To get it out and express it. Maybe that's the price of admission for some. But then again, maybe art and creativity are how they heal themselves? My wife once joked that "prozac killed a generation of artists." I laughed at the jest, but then I had to stop and think. Maybe she's right?