Art and “Madness”: Fact or Fabrication?

Van Gogh, Self-Portrait 1889
Van Gogh, Self-Portrait 1889


The idea of the artist as inherently troubled is far from new. As far back in time as classical antiquity, a perceived link has existed between artistic ability and what the Ancient Greeks crudely deemed “madness” . This association, which has been sustained throughout history by notorious examples including Caravaggio, Vincent Van Gogh and Peter Howson, has functioned to provide a dubious explanation for that inimitable quality possessed by great artists. And in fact, the stigma of “madness” is not only limited to practitioners of the visual arts; the entire doctrine of the arts is often tarred with the same brush. But how has this theory come about, and how far can it be considered a genuine anomaly or simply the product of romantic fabrication?

The theory appears to be supported by copious examples. Some of the world’s greatest artists, musicians and writers have experienced a form of mental instability. Van Gogh famously ate paint and cut off his own ear, Caravaggio killed a man over a tennis match, Tchaikovsky was known to hold on to his head whilst conducting for fear that it might fall off… the list goes on. Historical example, therefore, would seem to imply some sort of correlation between psychological turmoil and creative prowess. Perhaps emotional anguish, short of debilitating clinical mental illness, actually provides fertile ground for artistic creativity; after all, creativity is surely stimulated by emotion, which is often experienced in the extreme by those suffering from mental illness.

But even if “madness” is a stimulus for creativity, it is not sustained by creativity. Although a relatively new practice, art therapy has been shown to help many of those who suffer from mental illness by providing a means of psychological catharsis. The work of the Abstract Expressionists during the mid 20th century operates under the same theory; the canvases acting as a visual outlet for their innermost thoughts and feelings, preventing those feelings from becoming ultimately overwhelming. And it’s worth noting that most practitioners of the arts that have been considered mentally ill struggled creatively when the symptoms of their illnesses were at their most severe: Jackson Pollock, an alcoholic, created his famous “drip paintings” during a period of abstinence, Peter Howson found himself unable to paint during the filming of BBC documentary “The Madness of Peter Howson” due to acute depression, and Robert Schumann too was rendered void of creative output by an overwhelming bout of depression.

And let’s not forget that there are also repercussions of making this association. Attributing creativity to something not only outside the artist’s control but also potentially crippling undermines both the artist’s skill and art itself by suggesting it to be the product of psychological malfunction. Much more seriously however, the concept trivializes and romanticizes mental illness.

So what can be made of this alleged connection between art and so-called “madness”? It would seem that if there truly is a connection, it is not the one that has been sustained over the years. Perhaps a connection exists in that the two concepts must be close, but not quite touch; that the greatest level of creativity is achieved by accessing the subconscious on a deeper than average level, but in a way that is controlled and not overwhelming. Rather than going hand in hand, creativity and serious mental illness actually serve to inhibit one another. The greatest art, therefore, is both the product and perhaps the source of psychological balance, not bedlam.


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