Ewan Morrison


The Suicidal Artist

Why do so many artists die by suicide? Can they be helped? Part 1

Posted Apr 02, 2019

 Ewan Morrison
Death of Chatterton by Henry Wallis (1856), copy (2018).
Source: Ewan Morrison

Another month goes by and another suicide of an artist occurs. This time not in the news, but closer to home, with the loss of an old associate from our art scene in this city; a man in his early fifties, an actor and performance artist, once famed for his extreme events.

I’ve lost too many artist friends to suicide and more than a few who’ve come dangerously close. I, myself, have spent most of my adult life, as an artist (a writer of fiction) navigating through misdiagnosis and conflicting types of treatment for depression and other mental ills, but also navigating between two conflicting ideas about art and mental health:

On the one hand, there is the idea that art making is a sign of positive mental health. Art makes us well.

On the other there is the idea that art making might not be a sign of mental health at all.  Artists, according to one recent study, are now considered to be 25% more likely to carry genes for mental illness. And artists can become dependent on the anti-social practice of art making as a substitute for socialised behaviour and mental health. Art making can, in fact, become a dangerous surrogate and addiction, one that can lead to burn-out and suicidal ideation.

Alongside this duality there is the danger that if an artist undergoes therapy, or finds the right medication, then becoming mentally healthy might destroy their ability to make art.

To my knowledge there is no data on the number of artists who have killed themselves after being ‘cured’, but such suicides are well known, and feared, in artistic circles. The renowned postmodern author David Foster Wallace, who suffered from crippling depressions, often commented upon his fear of losing his ability to be creative if he was made well; and his suicide came about after an artistically barren period in which he was trying out different SSRIs and therapies. As Foster Wallace told us - and I concur from my own experience - mild depression can be a creative place where introspection can lead to the creation of art, but deep depression is a creative desert. Foster Wallace also confirmed that no-one can be creative while they are taking anti-depressants. Even trying to be well, he seemed to believe, destroyed his creativity.

For many, including myself, making art first developed as a ‘secondary gain’ from being a social outcast. Although it is hard to tell what came first – being outcast for having an artistic temperament or discovering art making as a solution after being cast out; for me, art making evolved as a way to build self-esteem and self-mastery. But, as secondary gains tend to, over a lifetime, it morphed into something socially isolating and obsessive.

So can art making become a dangerous addiction? Even a pathology?

There are a number of simplistic ideas that circulate around art that obscure this question. These exist in many different therapies, most probably because therapists do not understand the psychology of artists and also because people with artistic temperaments can make difficult patients to study.

First there is the idea, common in Art Therapy circles, that art can and should be used therapeutically. Art therapy is generally a state-sector funded activity, and is applied in communities that are not in themselves artistic. So, we see Art Therapy used with prison inmates, in failing schools and in economically struggling communities. It is often criticised as being a “sticking plaster over a disaster”, i.e. art is used as a form of ad-hoc social work, papering over the cracks in the social fabric. There is, I have to admit, something to be said for using art therapeutically, especially among “those who do not have a voice”, but the problem with art therapy is that it tends to operate only on an amateur level and it rests upon the idealistic egalitarian myth that “everyone is an artist”. It also is based on the overly simplistic 1960s belief that “self-expression will make you well”. This may seem the case for amateur artists making their first attempts, or for art viewers, but holding art up as some kind of emblem of mental health, is easily dispelled by looking at the lives and deaths of famous artists. It would be a foolish Art Therapy session that advocated that the participants modelled themselves on Jackson Pollock, Jean Michel Basquiat, Amy Winehouse, Jimi Hendrix, Nick Drake, Janis Joplin, Billie Holiday or Truman Capote, all of whom were creatively obsessive and who died from substance abuse. The link between suicide and self-harm blurs here.

In other schools of therapy such as that of renowned psychiatrist R.D.Laing, there is an outright romanticization of art and madness. As if the madness of the artist and the art of the insane merge on some higher plane that stands above the everyday consciousness of "normal people". This is part of a tradition that sees Van Gogh, Virginia Woolf and Sylvia Plath as visionary seers, and which glorifies their suicides as an extension of their artistic rebellion against the everyday. It is possible that such romanticization has led to a lowering of taboos around artist suicide, which in turn has facilitated, in my generation, the deaths of artists such as Chester Bennington, Chris Cornell, Kurt Cobain and Ian Curtiss. Cobain often commented upon his fear of drying-up artistically, and he romanticised the idea of dying for art.

Jungian therapy, also tends towards romanticisation of the role of the artist. “Art is a kind of innate drive that seizes a human and makes him its instrument,” said Carl Jung, “The artist is not a person endowed with free will who seeks his own ends, but one who will allow art to realise its purpose through him.” As someone who has undergone Jungian analysis, I can claim that there is some use in Jung’s reduction of stigma around artistic introversion, there is also value for artists in ‘discovering one’s own symbolic repertoire’.

Jungian psychoanalysis may recognise the specificity of the artistic personality type, but it’s vision of the artist as a kind of timeless seer, while inflating the artist’s ego, does not protect the artist-addict against the one thing we dread most – the collapse of artistic energy. This is the point reached in the lives of so many artists; the point we saw with Cobain, Foster Wallace and Virginia Woolf. The point before suicide.

Jung’s fastening of the artistic impulse onto a quasi-supernatural force, only reduces a person’s agency. And when a person is feeling suicidal, to be told that they are not endowed with free will only increases their sense of powerlessness. Worse still, as the primary driver for artist suicide is the feeling that they have "dried up", then to be told that one must wait around for the "innate drive" to "seize them" can greatly increase passivity and sense of hopelessness. Such ideas are really little more than metaphors about creativity, not timeless or scientific truths.

Other very different therapies have fundamental problems with artists and "artistic temperament".

Continued in Part 2.