The Artist as Tortured Soul

by Lydia Makepeace

As I revealed earlier this year, I live with a mental illness called bipolar disorder. One of the reasons I’ve come out is the desire to confront some of the stigma and misinformation surrounding mental illness. I’ve received a variety of reactions over the years when revealing my struggles. These include an outright denial that mental illness is a legitimate illness, unconditional love and support, curiosity, and insinuations that it’s merely a character flaw.

Of the many reactions there are two I find to be the most dangerous. The first, a denial that what I experience is a legitimate illness worthy of compassion only feeds the shame and anxiety I feel about being such a mess at times. For far too long I maintained relationships with people who made me feel as if my illness was a character flaw. I was told that I wasn’t praying enough, being grateful enough, that I had sinned against God, or that I was simply being lazy and needed to “snap out of it” or pull myself up by the bootstraps. I was discouraged from seeking life saving treatment such as medication and therapy.

The second dangerous reaction has come from within the artistic community. There is a common belief that mental illness is simply the fate of all truly great artists and geniuses - that to be an artist is to suffer, indeed something to be embraced. Mental anguish intermingled with genius is revered.

van Gogh, Self-Portrait, Spring 1887 Oil on pasteboard, 42 × 33.7 cm Art Institute of Chicago

van Gogh, Self-Portrait, Spring 1887
Oil on pasteboard, 42 × 33.7 cm
Art Institute of Chicago

Probably the most well known and celebrated artist as “tortured soul” is Vincent van Gogh. (Songs have even been sung about the beauty of his pain and suffering!) Theories abound that van Gogh was brilliant because he was crazy and suffered for his art, that his illness (whatever its cause) was a major and important contribution to his genius. I’ve even heard it suggested that if van Gogh were alive today perhaps we wouldn’t have his beautiful work because he would have been medicated. These theories argue that his beautiful soul would have been snuffed out and van Gogh would have been unable to access the creative madness required for great work.

I’m calling bullshit.

I would like to propose that we’d have MORE of his beautiful work (not less!) if he’d had access to modern treatment options. It is illness that incapacitates, not effective treatment. Tragedy, illness, life challenges, they all have the potential to INSPIRE great work; they DO NOT create great work. A talented, able, productive, dedicated individual creates great work - a person healthy enough to work. Mental illness is not a requirement for genius, nor does genius cause mental illness.

A certain amount of pressure or the right challenge can provide the impetus for truly innovative, creative solutions and ideas. But apply too much stress and we break. Extreme illness incapacitates. There are recent studies indicating a higher incidence of mental illness among creatives, but we are still learning exactly why that is. We do know with certainty though, that the most prolific creatives are those that manage to avoid extreme illness. 

I can speak to this truth from a place of experience. My struggles and triumphs with mental illness have inspired work but they are not the reason I’m creative, nor are they the greatest source of my creative energy. If I am too ill, I am too ill to work. With proper treatment of my illness I am able to work more, make more, do more, be more. I am also a much happier, healthier person. I am able to be the person I want to be for myself and for those I hold nearest and dearest.

You won’t ever lose your creativity.

I am happy to be alive at this point in history when there are more treatment options than ever before for mental illness. My grandfather had schizophrenia and it destroyed his life and his marriage to a woman he loved dearly. There was very little understanding and little to no treatment then. He was seen as a substance abuser and a degenerate without the understanding that substance abuse is one of the symptoms of schizophrenia and bipolar disorder. My heart aches for the grandfather I never knew.

The brain is the most complex organ in the human body and we’re just now beginning to scratch the surface when it comes to understanding this extraordinary organ. It stands to reason that with something so complex it’s quite possible that things can go awry at times. Yet we consistently shame those living with mental illness. We don’t tell someone with a broken arm to suck it up and forego a cast, or berate a diabetic insisting it’s an imaginary illness and that they can live without those silly insulin shots. 

There are no definitive blood tests we can administer to determine the presence of a mental illness - yet. Think on this, throughout history there have been many illnesses misunderstood and vilified due to ignorance and a lack of knowledge about their root causes. Tuberculosis and epilepsy were once thought to be the result of demon possession! How's about we maintain an open mind about mental illness, without jumping to conclusions and judgment of individuals. Let’s learn the facts and put an end to the stigma. Mental illness is not something to be rejected or revered.