Here are two frequent questions that come up when discussing this topic:
- Does pain and trauma fuel “artsiness”?: There is a theoretical approach suggesting that high levels of creativity and unique artistic expression are triggered by painful life experiences. As artists try to confront or heal from trauma, they access sources of inspiration leading to extraordinary results. For example, Christopher Zara's book Tortured Artists (2012) provides a series of case studies of famous musicians, poets, actors and singers whose traumatic or abusive childhood experiences where linked to their need to turn to art. Though it is impossible to know if these artists would have achieved such great results without the emotional turmoil, Zara's readers can observe the patterns with which a traumatized child sees art as the “only way out”. When one has gone through emotional pain, they may be more likely to seek out art in order to process and express the impact of their experiences. This need for artistic expression may begin at an early age. In a study conducted by Young, Winner and Cordes (2012) adolescents with higher levels of depressive symptoms attended after-school art activities more frequently than non-depressed students. In a study by Metzl (2006), originality and flexibility -which are two important components of creativity- were found to predict resilience from trauma such as in the case of a natural disaster. The more pain, stress and trauma one has experienced, the more inclined they may be to demonstrate creative thinking as a way of healing and “bouncing back”. Furthermore, art-making may improve one's mood due to the process of venting and also due to the distracting effect of spending time on art (Drake and Winner, 2012).
- Does psychosis manifests through artistic flow?: The notion of an “artistic temperament” has often been explored. In Kay Jamison's 1996 frequently cited book, Touched with Fire, some of the affective experiences demonstrated by many artists are very similar to symptoms of a condition such as bipolar disorder. In fact, many artists who have been diagnosed with bipolar disorder, consider their manic or hypomanic states to be moments of intense productivity and creativity. Artistic individuals are often seen as having a different way of thinking, feeling and perceiving the world. The idea is that during moments of intense creativity and “loose associations” a person's thought process starts to change (i.e. racing thoughts, with no apparent coherence, less rigid and less prone to reality-testing). According to cognitive psychologist Kaufman, transcending reality is a prerequisite for creativity. A recent Swedish study (Kyaga et al, 2012) confirmed the hypothesis that bipolar disorder, schizophrenia, anorexia nervosa and, to some degree, autism, is more prevalent in certain professional groups such as dancers, researchers, writers and photographers. In a meta-analytic study by Acar et al (2012), the relationship between creativity and psychoticism was large. Of course, psychoticism may have varying definitions -in this case, Eysenck's personality theory was used to define and measure this trait. To sum up, according to this approach on the connection between mental illness and creativity, disorganized thinking can be viewed as useful, valuable and even necessary for artistic expression.
To say that all artists “suffer” or that all “sufferers” are artists, is to create a potentially harmful stereotype that leads to careless generalizations. But to say that “suffering” may affect artistic individuals in different ways than it would affect non-artists, is to pay attention to complexities and intricacies which could lead to a better understanding of those seeking mental health care. In addition, it is hopefully a way of encouraging non-creative individuals with mental illnesses to incorporate creativity into their treatment as a way of venting, healing, expressing themselves, distracting themselves and feeling better overall.
- Acar, S., & Runco, M. A. (2012). Psychoticism and Creativity: A Meta-analytic Review. Psychology of Aesthetics, Creativity, and the Arts. Vol. 6, No. 4, 341–350
- Drake, J.E. & Winner, E. (2012). Confronting Sadness Through Art-Making: Distraction Is More Beneficial Than Venting. Psychology of Aesthetics, Creativity, and the Arts. Vol. 6, No. 3, 255–261
- Gilbert, E. (2009). Your Elusive Creative Genius. Ted Talks http://www.ted.com/talks/lang/en/elizabeth_gilbert_on_genius.html
- Jamison, K.R. (1996). Touched With Fire. New York: Free Press
- Kaufman, S.B. (2010). Schizotypy, Flow, and the Artist’s Experience. http://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/beautiful-minds/201006/schizotypy-flow-and-the-artist-s-experience?page=2
- Kennedy, A.L. (2012). Why I hate the myth of the suffering artist. http://www.guardian.co.uk/books/booksblog/2012/apr/02/myth-of-the-suffering-artist
- Kyaga, S., Landen, M. Boman, M., Hultman CM., Langstrom N., Lichtenstein P. (2012). Mental illness, suicide and creativity: 40-Year prospective total population study. Journal of Psychiatric Research. Vol. 47, No. 1, Pages 83-90
- Metzl, E.S. (2009). The Role of Creative Thinking in Resilience After Hurricane Katrina. Psychology of Aesthetics, Creativity, and the Arts. Vol. 3, No. 2, 112–123
- Young, L. N., Winner, E., & Cordes, S. (2012). Heightened Incidence of Depressive Symptoms in Adolescents Involved in the Arts. Psychology of Aesthetics, Creativity, and the Arts. Advance online publication. doi: 10.1037/a0030468
- Zara, C. (2012). Tortured Artists. Avon, Mass: Adams Media. ISBN 1440530033.