TW: Mention of Vincent Van Gough’s ear mutilation and themes of mental illness throughout.
We see time and time again, throughout the history of the artistic community that it is undeniable that mental illness is romanticised. The purpose of this essay is to ask why do we seem to accept this toxic notion, and why do we diminish our art or indeed ourselves through a toxic cycle of believing that we as artists need to be ‘messed up’ to create art that is ‘good’ or is ‘meaningful’?
Mental illness and creativity are often viewed as connected, perhaps innately as expressing ourselves in any outlet is an exploration of our deeper self. I guess the main question I want to present is as such; is suffering for our art a myth?
I suppose the answer is a lot more complicated than what it might seem at a surface level. It isn’t as black and white as yes or no. A lot of the time, artists can often find themselves marginalised and even disrespected, being placed not only in to hypothetical ‘boxes’ or ‘categories’ in not only the way that they create, but ultimately the face that they present through their oeuvre.
However, the notion that artists must be ‘messed up’ to create meaningful work seems somewhat redundant. To put it bluntly, creating art alone doesn’t make you mentally ill. Artists suffer with mental illness in the same capacity as the general population; landing at 1 in 4 people. Of course, there are external driving features that innately come from presenting your work/yourself to the public eye. (i.e. being constantly placed in a mythical competition against other artists, criticised for your work or beliefs you present through your work and becoming scrutinised for your ability…). It is a hard career to partake in, and should be respected as such. How can we as a community romanticise the mental health issues surrounding historical artists (such as Van Gough) but stigmatise the same mental health toward people today?
Ultimately, it is innate to ‘read in’ to paintings and search for answers; especially if we know any context behind the artist’s psyche. In saying this, it does present the further question of why must we diminish an entire person or body of work to be down to solely mental illness, when there is so much more surrounding it.
Why is it depicted that we as artists must ‘burn out’ to become ‘great’? I have personal experiences of producing art to let go of experiences, and admittedly some of my ‘best’ work has been created through manic episodes or my darkest moments. The potential of cathartic and therapeutic art is astounding, and could have so many incredible benefits. I suppose the problem arises once we take away the context of the person behind the work, undeniably wiping away the rest of the person or the reasoning’s behind the work that they create. Of course, mental health will forever be a driving motivation to create work, but I believe there needs to be more conversation and knowledge widespread in to the topic.
It becomes a safe guarding issue. What if potential artists with a brilliant talent feel as if they no longer have the space to be appreciated within the community? What if people start to actively search for ways to suffer in order to be able to create? What if we develop a fear of progressing positively in our mental health, in thinking that what we create is no longer valid?
In my personal experience, it seems that there are two driving factors to be able to talk about mental health with external parties. It almost feels as if there’s someone saying ‘we must either fear or have a romantic notion toward it’. I don’t feel as if I can say ‘I’m struggling today’, but instead must create a piece of work which shows this.
It almost seems backward; why can’t I tell someone privately but feel comfortable showing the world? If I show my feelings through my work, it almost doesn’t feel real. Nobody seems to check in with me when I showcase my dark moments through my work. Perhaps because they feel that because I’m showcasing it; I’m now comfortable and over it. It isn’t a linear struggle, and there is no easy answer. I think I, alongside many artists feel more comfortable presenting a vague image of our current psyche, knowing many will see and feel the exact same than reaching out to someone directly. Although there may not be a mass of interrogation in to it (in my personal experience), it feels comforting to know that how I feel is no longer just in my head anymore, and that people might resonate with the feeling I have captured – I’m no longer alone.
I think that this ties in to the generally accepted mentality that we must be singular and deal with our problems on our own. ‘I don’t want to bother them’. ‘I don’t want anyone to worry’. However, I still feel that this is a flawed concept and genuinely don’t believe anyone truly wants other people to feel this way and even wish their loved ones would open up more. I believe that this is an issue that has personally been instilled in to myself forever, which I am trying to undo. Logically, I can see that reaching out is infact a better option.
Again, from a personal standpoint I see myself as a multi-disciplinary artist and consider myself lucky that I love branching out in to different medias and subjects of work. I do however, because of pressure from external factors, worry that if I ever specialise in one media and dedicate myself to that fully, I would become even more compared to other artists who ‘struggle’ and turn in to a ‘cliché’. Why is this the case? It is so frustrating to see the same cynic cycle repeat itself time and time again throughout history. Why can’t we see people and their art for the beautiful talent that it is, without blurring it with negative forces?
I believe that it’s also important to note that in my experience, art education completely fed in to the rose-tinted glasses and longing for mental illness depicted in art. It was almost as if we, as young and impressionable children were expected to strive to be like ‘the greats’ who suffered and dedicated their entire selves to their art… instead of teaching us different techniques and how to open up to one another. I really do hope that this notion has been corrected as time has moved on, but I couldn’t help but notice many students feeling as if they ‘had’ to focus their work on tragedy within their lives, as if the happiness wasn’t valid somehow.
The people’s artist
Vincent Van Gough is a perfect example to depict some of the questions that I’ve been asking. Van Gough lived through 1853-1890, spending most of his life striving to live a working life amongst working people. Many times, Van Gough is described as a ‘failure’ or a ‘tragic’ artist for only selling one body of work within his life. What many fails to mention is that he was successful for what he wanted from life.
There is so much curiosity surrounding Van Gough, especially in to his psyche and what made him tick. At just 26 years old he was completely alienated from his middle-class parents, unemployed and living in poverty. In 1888, he had the first of what he called ‘crises’, with seven more to come over the years. He tragically committed suicide by shooting himself in 1890 and died two days later.
Of course, there is undeniably so much tragedy within Van Gough’s life which he depicted beautifully throughout his oeuvre. His painting technique changed from what seems to be his decline in mental illness, his brushstrokes becoming more chaotic and free.
Juxtaposing, imperfectly perfect, unison.
Van Gough stated “I want to reach the point where people say of my work, that man feels deeply and that man feels subtly” (Van Gough, 1882). Which after death, he has somewhat achieved. Undeniably, there are features of himself which propel people’s opinions on his mental state, such as arguably his most iconic painting ‘Self-Portrait with Bandaged Ear’ (1889). This act shows no subtly, but perhaps the painting does. Van Gough infamously cut his own ear off during an argument with fellow artist Paul Gaugin, offering it as an apology and sent off the remains to a maid in a brothel Gabrielle Berlaiter.
Vincent Van Gough, ‘Self-Portrait with Bandaged Ear’ (1889).
The painting itself is immortalising his torment of legendary status forever, juxtaposing the obvious excruciating pain of self-mutilation to the extent he carried it out and the serene colour pallet with controlled and calm brush strokes. There is so much to unpack in this painting, turning a horrific experience in to an iconic painting which will be now studied for centuries; somewhat redeeming his prior statement of feeling deeply. There is an argument for feeling subtly, perhaps not in his actions but within the underlying chaos of the painting itself.
Van Gough stated “work distracts me infinitely better than anything else, and if I could once really throw myself in to it with all my energy, that might possibly be the best remedy” (Van Gough, 1890). I suppose this sentiment is somewhat bittersweet, knowing that Van Gough ultimately dedicated his adult life to creating art and at some point – his work could no longer distract him. However, there is comfort in knowing that it helped for so long.
A point that a lot of people seem to either miss, not know or simply gloss over is that although Van Gough suffered a lot throughout his life, he also did experience true happiness. This is seen throughout many of his letters; showcasing a lot of joy that he felt within his life which is often overlooked to distinguish him as a tragic person and nothing more. “Things are going well for me here, I have a wonderful home and it’s a great pleasure for me to observe London and the English way of life and the English themselves, and I also have nature and art and poetry, and if that isn’t enough, what is?” (Van Gough, 1874)
He saw “madness as an illness like any other” and full heartedly rejected that his mental health was what made him a great artist. This is a highly important statement to take in to account here – Van Gough himself accepted that mental illness is real, as real as any other illness, but should not be able to be used as a driving motivation to diminish a person to solely that; such as a person with a broken leg will never forever be solely known as ‘the guy who broke his leg’.
I think perhaps the most tragic experience in Van Gough’s life was that suicide was a crime at the point in time that he had committed it, meaning even in death he was buried quietly, making it hard to feel as if he was yet again diminished to only his mental health in his send off.
Art as therapy
Using art as a remedy for negative or unsettling thoughts or feelings is an absolutely brilliant way to motivate release. It gives us a healthy outlet to express our feelings and ourselves, where there are no right or wrong answers; only what we feel and how that translates in to how we create. In response to a beautiful documentary “I Remember Better When I paint”, Megan Carlton suggests that “studies have shown that expressing themselves through art can help people with depression, anxiety, or cancer, too. And doing so has been linked to improved memory, reasoning, and resilience in healthy older people. The beneficial effects of creating aren't dependent on a person's skill or talents. "It's the process, not the product." (Carleton, 2017). Art as therapy is allowing our thoughts and feelings to escape, when we may not have the words yet to do so. There are countless studies and statistics showing how beneficial art therapy can be! Not even as a private activity, it can help broaden your community…” Through getting involved in arts programmes, people in later life can rebuild their social connections and extend existing support in their creative communities. Getting in touch with others helps in alleviating loneliness and isolation. This is also true for care homes, where arts activities can help increase social interactions between residents and residents and staff which can improve mood and wellbeing.” (Bungay, H, 2018). Of course, there are examples of it not being the ‘right fit’ for everyone, such as everything… But this doesn’t mean that it doesn’t offer substantial relief to many. “If you've tried something and it hasn't helped, try not to blame yourself. There are other options you can try.” (Mind, 2021).
This is my exact point; if art is so brilliant for remedying our issues, why are we so quick to diminish someone in to being what they’re trying to release from?
I conducted a quick questionnaire consisting of 49 participants, all anonymous with the right to withdraw at any time.
I asked 8 questions, 7 of which being “yes or no” questions. It starts “do you enjoy art/being involved in the artistic community?” The majority, being 96% said yes among only 4% saying no. Interestingly enough, the second question asking if “you class yourself as an artist?” came back split straight through the middle; giving us an account from either side pretty bang on! I then asked if “how you’re feeling influences how you create or what art you enjoy?” With a majority of 93% of participants saying yes and only 7% saying no. I believe that this only solidifies more that how we feel does implicate our output in to what we create or take in more; what we feel makes it easier to perceive feelings similarly. This presents itself in art in complicated subject matters being so popular with our next response; “do you find autobiographical or emotionally raw work more relatable to yourself?” with a massive 77% agreeing and 23% not.
I started to think back to my previous post, in which I explored a little in to whether or not autobiographical work is made for a financial gain. In turn, I asked “are you more inclined to buy this work?” with 64% saying yes and 36% saying no. I believe that we enjoy things that are relatable and comfortable to ourselves; not only do we feel less alone but it comes with a familiarity that someone who suffers with the same expressionism does too. My penultimate question was “do you feel this work is motivated as a form of therapy or by money?” with 86% stating therapy and only 14% financial. This shows to me that the people that took part in my questionnaire were very understanding and progressive in understanding that it’s a form of release, one response stating art therapy “can be a brilliant way to express how you feel if you can’t find the words, it’s helpful”.
Emin, I love you
It is no secret that I am a humungous fan of Emin’s and respect not only her, but her oeuvre greatly. She is a classic example of showcasing time and time again that using trauma and feelings to motivate creation is beautiful. However, she never hides that it’s painful.
There is a longstanding theme of exploring feelings, spilling her guts, saying ‘fuck you’ to people and experiences that have hurt her and trying to move forward somehow through all of this in her art. Although she is a huge inspiration to myself and many others alike, I don’t feel the need to strive to be like her or have her experiences to create something meaningful and beautiful too.
Emin is fiercely controversial through her work (I’ve already analysed my bed, something wrong and I’ve got it all in great depth in my prior post if you want to look in to it more).
But it doesn’t mean that she is any less of an artist or person through this. I think Emin is a great example of someone who has tried to be labelled, diminished or pushed in to one box for people to understand her or her art more. In reality, she can be (and is) everything that she wants to be, and her work only pays credit to this.
The main point I wanted to put across in this post is that my issue is to stop generalising illnesses as black and white – for example not every person who has a specific mental illness needs to be creative and vice versa. Just because I, and many others alike suffer with a mental illness to some capacity, it shouldn’t define who we are and what we create; it’s simply not about suffering, it’s about creating. I believe that there is still some kind of block in the art community, stemming from out of date perspectives or feeling that we must strive to be like those before us. Ultimately, artists should be supported within our society – we need to find a way to respect them for more than what is currently. My final stance is:
Do not reduce an entire person, an entire body of work and an entire soul solely to their mental health and suffering – it does not solely define who we are.
’Bungay, H. (2018). ‘How prescription creativity can improve mental and physical health’, Medical Xpress, 5 April [Online]. Available at: https://medicalxpress.com/news/2018-04-prescription-creativity-mental-ph...
Carleton, M. Publishing, H., 2017. The healing power of art - Harvard Health. [online] Harvard Health. Available at: <https://www.health.harvard.edu/mental-health/the-healing-power-of-art#:~:text=Studies%20have%20shown%20that%20expressing,a%20person's%20skill%20or%20talents.> [Accessed 25 February 2021].
Mind.org.uk. 2021. About arts and creative therapies. [online] Available at: <https://www.mind.org.uk/information-support/drugs-and-treatments/arts-and-creative-therapies/about-arts-and-creative-therapies/> [Accessed 25 February 2021].
Van Gough, V., 1874. 017 (017, 13): To Theo van Gogh. London, beginning of January 1874. - Vincent van Gogh Letters. [online] Vangoghletters.org. Available at: <http://www.vangoghletters.org/vg/letters/let017/letter.html> [Accessed 26 February 2021].
Van Gough, V., 1882. 249 (250, 218): To Theo van Gogh. The Hague, on or about Friday, 21 July 1882. - Vincent van Gogh Letters. [online] Vangoghletters.org. Available at: <http://www.vangoghletters.org/vg/letters/let249/letter.html> [Accessed 26 February 2021].
Van Gough, V. 1889. Self-portrait with a bandaged ear.
Van Gough, V. 1890. To Theo Van Gogh.