Norwegian artist Edvard Munch, who suffered deeply from anxiety, wrote this in his diary:
“My fear of life is necessary to me, as is my illness. They areindistinguishable from me, and their destruction would destroy my art.”
Munch’s famous painting, The Scream, is believed to reflect the deep anxiety of modern man.
I discovered the above quote by Munch in a fascinating CNN article titled The dark side of creativity: Depression + anxiety x madness = genius? The article lists many famous artists who walked the line “between extreme talent and torment.” Artists like Van Gogh, who famously cut off his ear and later committed suicide.
Are artists more prone to depression and mental illness? Some studies have shown an unusually high number of mood disorders in artists. Consider such luminaries as Ernest Hemingway, Leo Tolstoy, Virginia Wolf, Sylvia Plath and Jackson Pollock.
Or more recently, the writer David Foster Wallace and comedian/actor Robin Williams. What demons did these creatives struggle with, and did their torments inform their art?
From Jim Carrey to Plato’s divine mania
A lot of artists go through a kind of gestational period, where ideas andexpressive impulses swirl in an unformed soup of creativity. It can be a difficult and frustrating time, but the excitement of what might emerge is intoxicating.
Check out this fascinating short film about the actor Jim Carrey’s passion for painting, titled I Needed Color. Even successful actors are not immune to the call of other creative impulses. The muse inside us incessantly whispers.
Blogger Thomas Cotterill explored the artist’s gestational process perfectly in his post Creativity Can Cause Anxiety. An excerpt:
The 15th century philosopher Marsilio Ficino equated Aristotle’s “melancholy” with Plato’s “divine mania.” I think this is off the mark. Melancholy is the quiescent state of the creator, a sort of pensive sadness. The mood is a symptom of the gestation period that so often precedes great creative outbursts. The divine mania refers to the excited state of the creator when he is in the throes of creation. Virginia Woolf referred to this as being in a state of “white heat.” Hermann Hesse often wrote in intense periods of productivity after a long, sometimes depressed, stretch of what one biographer described as “living out his ideas.” Since creators define themselves by the act of creating, the inactivity of a prolonged gestation period generates anxiety by way of cognitive dissonance. That is, what we do and what we think we should do are not aligned.
Many of the creatives I know admit that anxiety fuels their creative process.It’s like they go through creative labor before giving birth to their artwork. The process may be painful, but ultimately it brings joy.
I am blessed to be free of mental illness and clinical depression, but I am not immune to down times. Further, I sometimes succumb to a bit of obsessive/compulsiveness.
For example, if my hand writing in a card or letter is not just right, I’ll tear it up and start over. If a well executed cartoon has a minor mistake, I’ll begin anew. I’m happy to wipe off major passages of my oil paintings until I get it right.
I suspect there’s a small distance between perfectionism and madness. The slogan “Done trumps perfect” is posted on my office grease board, but I don’t always follow it.
I often waste time “perfecting” some written work or piece of art, when I really should move on. Some call this “analysis paralysis.”
Over time, as I navigate these choppy creative waters, the work emerges. I refine, finese, correct and rework. I doubt myself. Then I congratulate myself. Then I second guess. It’s all a tortured dance, but somehow I get there and release my artful expressions into the world.
The collision of ideas
The studies aren’t entirely conclusive, but there appears to be some link between mental illness and creativity. The CNN article from above shared this insightful quote from Scott Barry Kaufman (an American psychologist and writer):
“It seems that the key to creative cognition is opening up the flood gates and letting in as much information as possible. Because you never know. Sometimes the most bizarre associations can turn into the most productively creative ideas.”
Reading broadly and seeking inspiration from varied sources can result in the collision of ideas and new approaches. But it can be exhausting and confusing.
For example, I admire both minimalist and maximalist artists. I love the simplicity of clean, clear design. But other times I like the chaos of disorder, scratchy lines and crazy color. How the heck do I reconcile these contradictory approaches in my own work?
It’s the anxiety of study, admiration, experimentation and practice that helps me reconcile everything. Once I’ve digested all these approaches, my own voice eventually emerges. It just takes fortitude and time.
The poet T. S. Eliot had this to say on the subject:
“Anxiety is the handmaiden of creativity.”
A certain level of creative angst seems to fuel our artistic growth. It’s not always pleasant. We don’t know where this disquietude will take us, only that it seems necessary. We intuit that if it were easy, the result would be unsatisfactory.
So we dive into the deep end, tread water and somehow avoid drowning. The turbulent flow sends us down the creative river. We bob and crash against the rocks.
We thrash and fight the current. But we emerge, and the work reflects this chaotic journey. White water rafting with an easel. Or a typewriter. It’s crazy, but it leads to growth.
Van Gogh on Prozac
My wife once joked about all the artistic geniuses we’ll never know, thanks to the invention of Prozac. If Vincent van Gogh were on prozac, would he have painted the way he did? Hard to say, but I’ll bet he wouldn’t have lopped off his ear!
Fortunately, we have medications today to ease the suffering from mental disorders. With the right calibration, it’s possible to suffer less yet still experience the gestational process of creativity and produce great art.
Some artists reach a comfortable level of creative achievement, and then play it safe. They resist the discomfort of growth, thus denying themselves a deeper level of personal expression.
Please don’t do this.
If you want to keep growing artistically, get comfortable with anxiety. Stop playing it safe. Throw yourself in the white water rapids of creativity. Cast a broader view. Study styles and approaches outside your wheelhouse. Adopt some unexpected changes. See what happens.
The price of admission
I don’t know if T. S. Eliot was right. Is anxiety the handmaiden of creativity? I’ve met plenty of easy going, happy artists who don’t seem anxious at all. They seem to keep growing. But I suspect, if you pull back the curtains, you’ll see their struggles. Their late nights of experimentation, failures and triumphs.
That’s the price of admission. If you’re a creative person, sooner or later, anxiety will come knocking on your studio door. When she does, invite her in. Play some music and ask her to dance.
She’ll insist on leading. Let her. She might step on your toes, but you’ll learn a few things from this visiting handmaiden.
No doubt she danced with Van Gogh. She’s clearly spending evenings with Jim Carrey. I suspect she’ll be calling on you soon. Go ahead and dance with her. It’s how you’ll reach new heights of creative growth.
Before you go
(Originally published in Artplusmarketing.com)