The myth of the mad genius


Day 2 and all is well. I woke up to discover that some creature had been on my deck during the night. I am hoping it was not of the carnivorous species. Thankfully, no sign of bear scat.

I had to take a short break this morning to organize all the magnetic words on the fridge. They are now arranged according to basic grammatical categories: nouns, verbs, adjectives, etc.  It may have taken the all the fun out puzzling through a random collection of words, but think how much faster it will be to create poetry while waiting for the kettle to boil!

(And, yes, I do realize how annoying it can be to live with me.)

Thanks to all of you who are sending me  your good wishes every day. Much appreciated.

Here is a summary on today’s work on the myth of the mad genius. Please consider these blogs only as sketches of topics in my thesis – like drawings on the back of an envelope…

So what of the assertion that madness fosters artistic genius?

Although usually associated with the Age of Romanticism, madness has been connected with visionary power from the time of the ancient Greeks. Plato, for example, introduced the concept of “divine madness”, but in a very different context. Such madness was a creative inspiration delivered by the gods, more like a “muse” than a mental disorder. It is argued that Aristotle’s description of melancholia was modified to fit the “mad” stereotype by depressed writers who sought to verify that their suffering was proof of their superiority.

creativity at a priceIn  the 20th Century, studies have explored the connection between mental illness and creative genius. While some research purports to confirm the connection, others dismiss any significant relationship. One vocal critic describes the dramatic presentation of mad geniuses in the media, as the “insanity hoax” presenting information as fact, not theory. She challenges the research as unscientific and anecdotal at best, and self-serving at worst:

Such misunderstandings help perpetuate the mad genius idea, but the romance, the schadenfreude, the comfort, and the alibi of it are all too enjoyable to let anything shatter the myth, including science. And because this madness sells, the media will continue to hammer its connection to creativity… And the bottom line is that society may well be stuck with the idea forever, regardless of what any researchers do, or don’t do.

(Note: the image above is from one of many sites that reference the questionable research.)

There is danger in accepting the myth of the mad genius. First, we view the artist through a warped, generic lens and reduce the creative output to a product of mental illness. Second, the myth becomes a cultural truism; we are so charmed with the idea that we fail to question whether it is based in science or wishful thinking.

van goghVan Gogh is the poster boy for the mad genius. Everyone knows the story of him cutting off his ear (and the self-portrait of his bandaged head). Yet all we choose to remember about him are his unique and magnificent paintings, his mood swings, and his ultimate suicide as proof of his mental illness. What we do not acknowledge are his poverty, loneliness, artistic failure, epilepsy, absinthe poisoning, and tertiary syphilis (with symptoms that mimic the mood swings and psychosis of bipolar disorder). His life circumstances alone would surely lead to grief and despair. Why must we make a posthumous diagnosis of bipolar disorder to appreciate his artwork?

Mental illness is now the “must have” accessory, especially for celebrities who disclose their diagnoses of mental illness in every weekly magazine. Bi-polar disorder is the “new black.” The public has been taught that mental illness is a pre-requisite or by-product of creativity, making that celebrity unique and the condition fashionable. Children have been reported to fake mental illnesses to emulate these celebrities.

bipolarWhy is this happening?  It has been said that media coverage underscores the danger that accompanies creative talent, thus softening the jealousy that inevitably arises from their success. It has also been suggested that “wannabes” intentionally cultivate a wild pose to appear more brilliant than they really are, and to get a pass on the mundane responsibilities of life. As they say, any publicity is good publicity. Does all this disclosure result in stigmatization of mental illness or does it trivialize the very real difficulties of those who suffer from such illnesses?

There is an acrimonious and public debate about a potential link between genius and mental illness. At best, the opponents say the research is unempirical; there is usually no control group and there is no universal definition or measurement of either variable (genius or mental illness). At worst, they say it is provides only self-serving “proof” that one researcher’s bi-polar disorder elevates her to the status of genius. In the end, the critics say, the mad genius myth is far too alluring to give up—it is old and glamorous and shimmers with a pseudoscientific patina.

Acceptance and promotion of the mad genius myth is prevalent in the world of outsider art today, so much so that collection criteria reference that belief. The foundation of many European collections is based on the work of artists with mental health issues (e.g., The Gugging Psychiatric Clinic in Austria). Does our response to and assessment of the art change simply because the artist is “mad”?

I struggle with the desire of some, in the world of outsider art, to scrutinize the artist’s biography for proof of authenticity – a diagnosed mental illness – before granting the work special status. The “aura” of mental illness can trump any other identifying characteristics that define an outsider artist. For example, it is generally accepted that an outsider artist must be self-taught. However, a professional artist who succumbs to a mental illness can qualify as an outsider artist. What does this mean? Does the artist forget or relinquish all his or her professional skills? Does the artist gain special abilities and insight by reason only of that illness? Can outsider art be appreciated only by viewers who also have a mental illness?  Of course not.

zanelliWhether or not one accepts the veracity of the myth, it is accepted as “a given” among many in the outsider art community. I became acutely aware of this point of view at a conference of the European Outsider Art Association in 2013. The Association operates as an umbrella organization for cultural workers devoted to the promotion of marginalized art in Europe. It supports individuals, organizations, or projects that make a significant contribution to reducing the stigma of mental illness, including initiatives that emphasize the dignity of sufferers in a passionate, creative, and innovative way. It appears, however, that artists’ rights are not at the forefront of some undertakings.

The connection between mental illness and creativity was the focus of two conference presentations. A Swiss team set out to collect, document, preserve and exhibit the artwork of psychiatric patients. They had approached psychiatric hospitals in Switzerland, asking to see the artwork in files of psychiatric patients. In their view, “the world had a right to see the artwork”. They reported that some institutions had consented to their request, while others had “unjustly” refused. The team did not recognize the ethical (and legal) issues regarding their research. (I was publicly criticized for articulating the confidentiality obligations of the institutions as well as the privacy and ownership rights of the creators.)

Another discussion focussed on the content of the information cards that are displayed with the artwork. It was decided that an artist’s psychiatric diagnosis would be included only if it was necessary to understand the work. There was no discussion about the accuracy of the diagnosis, the sensitive nature of such information, whether the artist had consented, or why such information would be necessary in the first place, unless it were used as an aid to diagnosis. There seemed to be no discomfort about making posthumous diagnoses or breaching patient confidentiality. Nor was there appreciation for the fact that an artist who lives in a psychiatric institution may not have the mental capacity to consent to such disclosure. This discussion raised only concerns and questions for me. As a lay person, why should I distinguish between the artwork of a paranoid schizophrenic and a person with bipolar disorder?

Unless it involves us directly, what is our motivation in labelling someone – a stranger – with a mental illness? Are we complicit to enhance our own status as “normal”? Many argue that mental illness is a cultural and social construct:

To be ‘crazy’ is a social concept; we use social relationships and definitions in order to distinguish mental disturbances. You can say that a man is peculiar, that he behaves in an unexpected way and has funny ideas, and if he happens to live in a little town in France or Switzerland you would say, ‘He is an original fellow, one of the most original inhabitants of that little place’; but if you bring that man into the midst of Harley Street, well, he is plumb crazy (Jung, 1961).

And, as Foucault said, trying to divide madness from reason is itself a form of madness.