The image of the tortured artist has been a recurring character throughout history. There’s an idea that all great art must come from experiencing pain or suffering; it’s very much ingrained in our perception of creativity. Art itself is a reflection of our own humanity, and when encouraged, we can channel our emotions through hardship to express it. Mental instability is often associated with the great artists, but why is this so, and does creativity rely on some inner torment, or help relieve such internal struggles?
Many a great artist has suffered from conditions ranging from depression, bipolar disorder to schizophrenia. Well-known names include Woody Allen, Mark Rothko, Agatha Christie, Kurt Cobain, William Faulkner and TS Eliot, every one of them a master of their craft, all suffered from some degree of mental illness.
Looking at specific artists more closely, Louis Wain, a prolific artist, whose focus and fame came from his anthropomorphic, often complex representations of cats clearly suffered from inner turmoil, and it was very much evident in his body of work. Ludwig van Beethoven suffered from depression and some researchers believe he may have also lived with bipolar disorder; his sudden changes in mood could be seen to be reflected in his music. Edvard Munch famously painted ‘The Scream’ depicting his relationship with mental illness. He perfectly expressed his depression and agoraphobia, which eventually resulted in hallucinations and a nervous breakdown. A new study has found a genetic link between creativity and mental illness, confirming the concept that has been a theory since the times of the ancient Greeks, and prevailing into the times of the romantics, with Lord Byron exclaiming: “We of the craft are all crazy”.
What are the benefits of artistic exploration? Human consciousness has an innate desire to express ones experiences. Art stimulates our brains, reducing stress levels, enhancing problem solving skills, and increasing the release of dopamine, which results in more motivation and concentration, making you generally more content. This ultimately increases psychological resilience and resistance to stress.
With evidence that art enhances cognitive abilities and memory, it makes it an important tool to tackle both mental illness and dementia. Whether it’s painting, music or performance, we all need artistic expression in our lives; so effectively art is a means of tackling our inner demons. Whether that be an adult colouring book, playing in a band, joining a local drama group or painting to your hearts content, the benefits are numerous.