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.

Doing Something Good When Something Bad Happens

Freud originally conceived sublimation as a defense mechanism, a healthy redirection of “unacceptable impulses.”   Maybe you’re thirteen and have only one parent. Despite how important your father is, you feel incredibly angry at him for the various ways in which you think he neglects your needs.  If you acted on this rage, you might jeopardize the relationship.  So your “psychic” compromise is to vent those feelings elsewhere.   Perhaps you choose boxing as your after-school sport.  In this way, you may never fully recognize or even acknowledge the anger you feel towards your dad, but you’re able to release some of it by boxing in the ring.

I think of sublimation in the broader sense.  When something horrible happens, as in the death of a close friend, how do you transform that pain into something bearable and perhaps productive?  If depression and suicide is as hereditary as hair color in your family, how do you cope? 

I saw two films at the wonderful Full Frame festival this weekend in Durham:  “Which Way to the Frontline From Here?” in which Sebastian Junger pays tribute to a close friend who died while photographing the violence in Libya … and then “Running From Crazy”—Mariel Hemingway’s exploration of the inherited depression and suicidal tendencies that run rampant in her family.

In their on-screen appearances, both Junger and Hemingway seem tortured with grief and in Hemingway’s case: anxiety, as well.  (She clearly worries about whether the family predisposition to substance abuse and suicidal depression will afflict her daughters.)  Yet, both have chosen to construct something positive from this.   Although very different in delivery, these documentaries honor and explore their experiences while at the same time stretching beyond them, feeling their way towards the prevention of similar tragedies. 

Junger focuses his film’s attention on Tim Heatherington, a friend and former collaborator.  At the end of the movie, we discover that Heatherington bled to death after having been hit with shrapnel from a mortar.  Sadly, had those around him been trained in first aid, he might have survived.  Heartbroken after learning that information, Junger took a proactive approach to the problem.  He opened a training school to teach freelance journalists how to manage critical health situations in the field.  Now, he can follow every film screening with a Q&A in order to highlight the importance of the problem and a potential solution.

For her part, Mariel Hemingway has acted as a spokesperson for various mental health treatment facilities and prevention organizations.   In the documentary, we see her give speeches at McLean Hospital in Boston and then at a Suicide Prevention event.  The problem of ameliorating mental illness and the dysfunction that frequently travels down generations has a less clear solution than injured freelance journalists; however, Hemingway is able to use her family’s cultural prominence to help combat the stigmatization that frequently derails conversations about mental illness and treatment. With admirable honesty, she offers up a complicated portrait of herself and her family, one that’s blessed with seminal artistry but plagued with devastating psychiatric problems. In “Running from Crazy”, the filmmakers underscore the importance of talking, looking, and trying to find answers to the prevention of suicide and the treatment of concurrent mental health problems.  Ultimately, they’ve spring-boarded from grief into proactive behavior.

While telling these tragic stories clearly helps those suffering, it also offers support to those with similar experiences.  There’s a balm in knowing you belong to a community.  Yet, even more important, by finding a public forum for these voices, these filmmakers have proffered a model of how we can all make a difference.   Something good can come from something bad.  We just need to challenge ourselves to act.