The depressed novelist.
The suicidal painter.
The alcoholic musician.
The bipolar poet.
Such icons are so cliché that we can’t help but wonder if, how, and why, creativity and madness so often come hand in hand.
Is the creative mind more prone to psychic suffering?
Do artists struggle with inner pain more frequently and intensely than, say, dentists or accountants?
Psychologists have always acknowledged the highly emotional temperament of creative thinkers.
Freud saw art and creativity as the healthy manifestations of internal tension.
This mechanism, which he coined “sublimation,” essentially transforms inner pain into outer art.
So, to a certain extent, creativity is not the cause of madness so much as it serves to therapeutically release it. But, be that as it may, there’s an unavoidable degree of pain which the creative process, itself, bears in its wake. Here I’d like to explore some of the elements which combine to create a sort of creative crisis, as it were, for artists trudging this long and winding road that is both deeply rewarding, and yet deeply agonizing, at the same time.
First and foremost, the creative world is a lonely one.
The artist sees things in a unique way, from a unique vantage point, and it is this very uniqueness which makes his or her art so strikingly awe-inspiring. But this can, and often does, lead to bouts of isolation and withdrawal. The very individuality which generates artistic genius, simultaneously degenerates in secluded isolation. Becoming “famous” hardly helps in this respect – to the contrary, it only highlights how pervasive the sense of loneliness can feel. As Janis Joplin famously lamented, “I just made love to over 20,000 people, and now I’m going home alone.”
Then comes the tricky balancing act between eccentricity and public appeal.
If an artist finds favor in the eyes of public perception, he or she runs the risk of being labelled a “sell out” or a “tacky pop star.” It’s as though art is only “artsy” if it remains under the radar and exclusive. The moment it becomes mainstream, it loses its appeal amongst those “in the know.” On the flip side, if the artist remains “undiscovered” – and most artists do – a sense of self-loathing sets in, as though nobody cares, nobody sees the beauty, nobody recognizes my art as even remotely valuable. The artist begins to feel insecure and inadequate, like the world overlooks, and thereby undermines, what he or she believed to be monumental.
So the artist struggles with this balancing act between longing to be discovered and maintaining a sense of ‘under the radar’ ambiguity. A happy medium is not always a simple one to strike.
Perhaps most frustrating and haunting at the same time is the fact that great art cannot be forced. It can’t be manufactured or manipulated, it must evolve – naturally and freely – from a place even the artist can’t concretely articulate. It’s as though artists plant the seed, and wait for something worthwhile to sprout from an unknown force to which they must humbly and patiently submit. As any artist knows all too well, the most creative masterpieces have a tendency to create themselves; the artist is merely a messenger, a channel through which the art finds its final form. This may sound strangely esoteric to many, but creative minds will have little trouble relating to what I’m saying.
Last but not least, the artist is a sensitive soul.
The artist thinks deeply, feels deeply, lives deeply, and this depth is palpable in all creative productions.
Such feelings are not always rosy, and such thoughts are not always cozy, but the artist uses them as creative fuel, to squeeze the juice of these raw emotions into a masterful mix of melodies, colors, or verses. We see the final product, but the stormy emotions which bore them tend to remain unseen.
As a society, we value creativity, but we often cheapen it into some sort of plastic commodity.
We seek to manipulate it, use it to earn followers and fans, to score promotions or raise funds.
But creativity is a deeper experience than any viral video or catchy marketing campaign can portray.
There is a sensitive heart within all art.
And without that heart, we are left with no art.
For better or worse, creativity is only as rich as the inner world of the artist who possesses it.