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Artistic Creativity and Psychological Distress

The belief that artists are predisposed to psychological disorders is invalid.

An imagined “Artistic Geniuses’ Hall of Fame” could include the likes of: Morrison; Cobain and Joplin; Beethoven, Mozart, Tchaikovsky and Liszt; Plath, Hemingway, Woolf and Tolstoy; Warhol, Pollack and Van Gogh; Garland, Monroe and Holliday...and countless others. In addition to their supreme creativity, however, these renowned artists had something else in common: They all suffered from psychological distress and disorders.

Does that mean that all great artists are “disturbed”? Anecdotes and suppositions abound which assume that artists in diverse fields, like painters, musicians, authors, singers, actors and composers, are tortured souls who suffer from a variety of mental disorders like depression, bipolar disorder and anxiety.

When researchers studied this issue "retrospectively," that is, by examining the lives of deceased famous artists who were known to have mental disorders, they would make assumptions regarding the causes and prevalence of these problems. This contributed to the so-called “tortured artist,” which is no more a valid depiction than the tortured doctor, teacher or gardener.

There have been scientific studies to explore this relationship and the results have been either inconclusive, possibly suggesting a loose thread of correlation, or negative, that is, refuting the hypothesis. This hasn’t stopped those with fixed beliefs, which are unfair to the vast majority of artists. The fact is that artists with psychological disorders do not accomplish their best works when they are ill.

Even if there were a clear relationship between artistic creativity and psychological distress, we would still not know what this might mean from the perspective of causation. Whether it could be due to specific genes, or to brain structures or "hard wiring," to family history or common features of their upbringing, or other possible deterministic factors, is sheer conjecture.

Artists do not have more mental illnesses than others, and the probabilities of artists being diagnosed with psychological disorders are very low indeed. Further, there is no valid predictability as to whether an artist (or anyone, for that matter) will or will not succumb to a psychological condition.

Cynics have depicted artists as having "artistic temperaments" (eye-rolling allowed here), by which they mean rapid mood swings (sadness, ecstacy, anger), unpredictability and volatility, dramatic lives and interpersonal conflicts (arguments, break-ups) and frequent substance abuse. They criticize artists for flouting social norms in their personal dress, language and behaviors, and for their "bohemian" lifestyles and values.

As with many stereotypes, this is patently invalid. The truth is that in addition to innate talents, gifted artists show remarkable dedication and fortitude in the face of demands and derision, not to mention scant financial support. They demonstrate a disciplined and tenacious work ethic, which is absolutely necessary to create their exquisite works.

It is clear that some people are drawn to the arts at an early stage in their lives. This predisposition might be spurred by family interests, exciting teachers or mentors, or by their own talents.

Artists may also be acutely sensitive to the ambient moods, sounds, pictures, people and events in their lives. They may resonate to their surroundings at an unconscious and deep emotional level. They not only feel the conflicts and sadness, the romance and joys in their lives, they also have an inner drive – and ability - to express these profound inner feelings in their art form.

These generated intense feelings and fantasies are stimulating, exciting, even roiling internally. There is then a build-up of strongly felt pressure to give expression to these feelings, which are translated through their talents into diverse works of art, like paintings, music, dance, poetry, novels, or dramatic performances.

All art pieces express the personal talents, thoughts and emotions of the artist. They also generate personal responses in their audiences, viewers, listeners and readers are spurred to new concepts and ideas, their privately evoked feelings and moods.

Rather than search for vulnerabilities, we need to study their natural gifts and dedication, and to be appreciative and grateful to the talented artists amongst us. They entertain and educate us, stimulate and captivate us. Their wondrous works contribute to our humanity and civility, and our lives are elevated and enhanced.

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