By Sally Alexander
A connection between artistic creativity and “madness” has long existed in the popular imagination, and can be traced back to ancient times. Plato, for example, saw poetry as an irrational art, and inspiration as a form of divine madness: “And as the Corybantian revellers when they dance are not in their right mind, so the lyric poets are not in their right mind when they are
composing their beautiful strains: but when falling under the power of music and metre they are inspired and possessed….For the poet is a light and winged and holy thing, and there is no invention in him until he has been inspired and is out of his senses, and the mind is no longer in him.” Similarly, Aristotle asked the question in the fourth century BCE: “Why is it that all men who have become outstanding in philosophy, statesmanship, poetry, or the arts are melancholic?”
Many artists throughout history have shown signs of eccentricity or melancholy; some have even revelled in it. The Romantic movement of the early nineteenth century prioritised intense emotion and individualism over the prevailing scientific rationalism of the era. Lord Byron expressed it well: “We of the craft are all crazy.
Some are affected by gaiety, others by melancholy, but all are more or less touched”.
From a scientific point of view, little is understood of the neural basis for creativity, but researchers have noticed that it often appears in conjunction with mental illness. Neuroscientist Nancy Coover Andreasen writes that, “Studies of creative individuals….indicate that they have a higher rate of mental illness than a noncreative comparison group, as well as a higher rate of both creativity and mental illness in their first-degree relatives. This raises interesting questions about….the predisposition to both creativity and mental illness.”
Some scholars have dedicated themselves to retrospectively diagnosing historical figures. Ashley Robins’ 2010 book Oscar Wilde – The Drama of His Life put forth the idea that the famous author had Histrionic Personality Disorder. As part of his research, Robins undertook an unusual and innovative experiment: he asked a group of Wildean scholars to complete a psychological questionnaire as if they were doing so for Wilde himself.
Professor Michael Fitzgerald’s 2005 book The Genesis of Artistic Creativity explored the lives of twenty-one famous writers, philosophers, musicians and painters whom Fitzgerald argued met the criteria for a diagnosis of autism. Having
diagnosed hundreds of individuals during his professional career, Fitzgerald examined the eccentricities of figures such as Hans Christian Andersen, Immanuel Kant, Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart and Andy Warhol. Fitzgerald has since been criticised for the subjective nature of his conclusions, but, as Dr James McGrath acknowledges, “In celebrating autism and creativity, Fitzgerald’s work presents a vital counterpart to dominant assumptions that autistic people lack both empathy and imagination.” Moving away from the common association of autism with STEM subjects, Fitzgerald makes the case that autism offers a unique perspective on the world leading to the creation of new and ingenious ideas and artworks: “These persons with autism reject received wisdom and are emotionally immature….autistic intelligence is unconventional, unorthodox, akin to the intelligence of true creativity.”
Psychologist Peter Chadwick’s 2001 book Personality as Art suggests that what the world calls mental illness is in fact a necessary component of artistic creativity. Advocating an artistic rather than a scientific approach to psychology, he suggests that the modern world’s “obsessions….with therapeutically engineered normalisation, integration, mood stability, impulse management and rational living have….made us now quite pale
and tepid” in contrast to the larger-than-life artistic personalities of the past.
Although mental illness may have shaped many artists and helped them reach their full creative potential, there are of course many on whom it also had a devastating effect. Numerous artists have died by suicide – among them Vincent Van Gogh, Virginia Woolf and Sylvia Plath – while others have suffered as a result of poor impulse control, mood instability, disordered eating, or substance abuse. Of course, stigma and ostracism have also played a role: feeling at odds with the world might inspire creativity, but it can also lead to isolation, depression and despondency.
Creativity can, however, also be used as a way to improve mental health. “Expressive therapies” refers to the use of the creative arts as a form of therapy, in which therapists help their clients to use various artistic mediums for self-discovery and healing. There is a wealth of evidence both anecdotal and empirical for the mental health benefits of practices such as journaling, creative writing, painting, sculpture, and crafting. Oscar Wilde said that “mere expression is a mode of consolation” – perhaps creativity is the mechanism by which the brain attempts to counteract the suffering of mental illness.
Sally is a thirty-year-old woman living with autism and ADHD and also in the process of recovering from a long-term eating disorder. Her own experiences and those of her neurodivergent friends and family have made her passionate about neurodiversity, mental health and recovery.
She can be found on Instagram at @shazdolls, where she pursues her hobbies of toy photography and writing.