Aristotle once said, “No excellent soul is exempt from a mixture of madness.” This line very well summarises our association of art with insanity, which is ever so prevalent in the clichéd trope of the tortured artist. Every artist seems to have a certain hint of madness that drives their creativity and makes their work unique. We all know Lady Gaga and her ‘crazy’ outfits, but this madness is much deeper than a runway look.
Van Gogh is more appealing to the masses than Da Vinci, because we love the story of him going insane and chopping a part of his ear off, and for that, we have a deeper appreciation for his work. But how does this artistic madness manifest in the 21st century? Concerning the last few decades, this is a product of the toxic artistic industries, especially the entertainment industry. For instance, with the recent developments in the legal proceedings taken towards ending her conservatorship, Britney Spears’ mental breakdown of 2008 when she shaved her head is being talked about on every tabloid and social media site.
What’s important to understand here, is that contrary to popular belief, madness is not the driver of creativity. Although it can indeed often inspire, and this kind of manic state can be presented through artistic expression, it isn't the cause of it. Even happiness can be expressed in a song; craziness doesn’t have to be the prerequisite for creation. This hint of eccentricity in one’s work may excite us. But when we start thinking of these performers and artists as individuals, we realise that this kind of maniacal state is extremely harmful to them. The pressures of being an artist, whether in music, film or drama, are no surprise. A constant spotlight that shines brightest when one is at their lowest- for instance, the paparazzi taking advantage of an artist’s vulnerability- exacerbate the situation to an extent that the common man will never understand. Sure, we all have battles, but rarely are our mental struggles used as clickbait for a catchy headline, out for millions to observe and subsequently judge.
What we recognise as a characteristic in an artist, is actually a really a deep-rooted problem that manifests in many forms- depression, anxiety, and especially prevalent among singers- substance abuse. From Elvis in the 70s to Amy Winehouse’s manic depression and drinking problem, which led to her untimely demise in 2011- substance abuse has been an escape for performers from the toxicity of the industry. Winehouse’s problem led her to write the hit song ‘Rehab’, where she sings about not seeking rehabilitation for her addiction despite being urged to by her father, to preserve her pride. Perhaps if her problem was better dealt with, and proper treatment for her disease was provided, she would’ve written many more hits and not suffer the terrible fate she did. Even in the kid-friendly world of Disney, stars like Miley Cyrus and Demi Lovato have had their moments of weakness, struggling with mental illness that attracted a whirlpool of attention.
The links between creativity and mental illness don’t only prevail in the performing industry, but among writers and poets as well- most famously Sylvia Plath, who wrote about her descend into a depression that ultimately consumed her in the most brutal way possible- when she put her head in the oven with the gas on, being only thirty years old at the time. Psychologist James C Kaufman has explored the link between creativity and depression and writes about how poets, especially women, are more susceptible to mental illness.
All these examples act as abundant evidence that surely states that all artists possess an underlying hysteria, right? Well, there’s no established connection between the act of creation with mania itself. Despite this, there are a multitude of reasons why mental issues appear to be concentrated in careers that are artistic in comparison to those which aren’t.
Mental health, for instance, is stigmatised, and the discussion around it is never comfortable. Deciding to be open about your struggles may sound good in theory, but it isn’t easy to just tell your peers that you’re having such thoughts. Especially in a world where the human psyche is still being explored, and what we know as of now isn’t taught to us in schools, and neither is the art of dealing with one’s emotions- these signs can be hard to recognise even within ourselves. One may be completely oblivious to the extent of their problems, such as in the case of Amy Winehouse who undersold just how much addiction had affected her. The lack of open discussion subsequently leads to artists, musicians, poets, etc. cryptically exhibiting their innermost thoughts- through iconic self-portraits or even metaphors of bell jars.
Additionally, poetry, music, dance, or however one may channel themselves, serve as an escape from reality. The human world is stark in comparison to the work of visionaries of the past or even the contemporary world. Artists tend to lose themselves in their creations, attempting to achieve oneness with the utopia they foster. To be in a constant state of vexation with reality may lead them to create their own, and this false reality is bound to consume the artist themselves to the point where they cannot differentiate between what’s real and what isn’t. These individuals are inclined towards being perfectionists, and the feeling of dissatisfaction with a piece you pour your heart, soul and body into is enough to drive them to madness. Nina in ‘Black Swan’ is the epitome of this theory, as she slips into the depths of psychosis and a hysterical urge to achieve perfection in her prestigious role of the lead ballerina.
Creativity and madness are both products of the unconscious mind. Art along with its nature of subjectivity simply acts as an outlet for one’s thoughts. Artists tap into the unknown, and writing lyrics or painting a piece that accurately displays their thought process is equivalent to scratching an itch at the back of your brain. This may be why a disturbed individual turns to art for comfort. But it isn’t anything to glorify, as mental illness in reality just might hinder an artist’s ability to create to their fullest potential. Taylor Swift put out more albums (accounting for some of her most critically acclaimed work) in the serenity of quarantine, in contrast to her being forced into a state of hiding for years due to the mental repercussions of public scrutiny and an eating disorder just a few years earlier. Her improved mental state was not an obstacle to her innovation either, as her recent works revolve around fictitious yet emotional lyricism.
Our association of creative individuals and their proneness to some form of madness is varying, as it comes down to what creativity or madness means to us. Creativity is never limited, and mental states can be improved with professional help. This theorized version of the tortured and misunderstood artist is only that- a theory. Hysteria is not inherent in art rather a product of many different factors which coincide with it being expressed creatively, and this connection is bound to remain a “maybe” until the link between the two can be concretely proven.