Do You Have to be Emotionally Off-kilter to Be a Good Artist

Apparently, it’s a discussion that will never die.  As a psychologist and writer, I frequently hear it:  “You have to be at least a little crazy to be a good artist.”  And out on Saturday night with friends, the debate began again.  A music lover asserted that creativity derives from an emotional “imbalance” or mental “unhealth.”  …  Sure, we can all think of famous artists who abused alcohol (Hemingway, F. Scott Fitzgerald, and Jackson Pollack) and of ones who suffered from a major mood disorder (Anne Sexton, Robert Lowell, and Van Gogh).  Does that mean, though, that everyone who struggles for emotional stability becomes a great artist?  (You wouldn’t assume that if you’d ever worked in a psychiatric hospital.)  Does it then mean that if you’re normal and love writing, you should hang it up and opt for banking?  Or basic journalism?  Not in my opinion.  I can think of many celebrated artists who have no history of mental illness. 

Personally, I believe that artistic greatness stems from a devotion to craft and an ability to convey universal emotions or themes while delivering them in a unique, fresh style.  Think of Monet, whose impressionistic paintings embodied a different kind of realism.  Picasso too. Think of Frank Gehry’s architecture: designs that play with boundaries to deliver buildings recognizable and compelling?  What about the Latin American writers who veined emotions through magical realism? Ray Bradbury and Frank Herbert?  They shifted our perspective on true human experiences by creating alternative worlds.

Literature is what I know best, and my most ready examples hail from there.  Still, I don’t think that other art forms are any more inherently correlated with psychological dysfunction.  No doubt, emotional upheaval can spawn the intensity necessary for a dramatic piece, but it is never enough.

Ironically, research suggests that there might be a different connection between creativity and health.  As it turns out, almost everyone has the urge to create, and individuals tend to be happier when they have time to innovate or express themselves in novel ways.  That doesn’t have to mean painting on canvas or choreographing a dance routine.  Instead, it might be gardening or cooking or improvising to fix a pesky problem in the tool shed.  If viewed from a 180-perspective, maybe writing poetry or painting is what helped Vincent Van Gogh and Anne Sexton live as long as they did.

We can all find personal satisfaction in actively using our skills and resources to produce something new, and there can be an invigorating sense of self-discovery along with it.  Whether our experiments become valued art is irrelevant.  I can’t even count the number of times I’ve met someone who on learning that I write poetry, immediately said, “I wrote a poem once.”  Typically, it’s someone who doesn’t read poetry or even literature very often, but that smile is memorable.  The process of writing that poem made the person feel happy and proud.  All kinds of art matter, and you don’t have to have problems to create it.  Let’s separate what art does for us personally from the interpretation of its greatness and then again from our assumptions about the person who makes it.