Vincent van Gogh, Self-portrait with grey felt hat, 1887, Van Gogh Museum, Amsterdam

It is a difficult enough life for artists, who have to cope with dry periods of sales, as well as dry periods of creativity, the vicissitudes of artistic style changes (now you’re “in,” now you’re not), as well as critical praise or damnation, the smirking belief on the part of so many people that their art training has prepared them for a life of unemployment. Still, the most troublesome aspect of their lives and careers tends to be general perception of artists by wider society, which tends to be negative. One finds that view most clearly stated in novels and movies (where artists tend to be cautionary figures, immoral or amoral, often unkempt, always selfish, frequently alcoholic or hooked on drugs, sexually irresponsible), as well as in a number of psychological studies of artists and creativity in general (usually finding neurotic or psychotic disorders as essential ingredients of art-making). These perceptions reflect and give weight to societal biases, which frequently come to the fore during debates over public financing of the arts or censorship. One easily senses anger throughout the United States over who artists are, how they undermine traditional values, and why they should not be supported in their endeavors.

Unfortunately, this negative stereotyping of artists is not a new phenomenon and, in fact, has a long history. What is more unfortunate is when young artists, insecure as to their place in the art world, attempt to look or act the part of the artist as defined by these images (how many musicians, for instance, have acknowledged getting addicted to heroin, because they had heard hard drugs were important to creativity?). It is more surprising that age-old attitudes continue in the present day, obscuring more meaningful discussions of art and the creative process. Having two strikes against you in the public’s mind is one of the most severe pressures faced by artists.

What makes artists do what they do? This is a question that has bothered essayists, philosophers, and psychologists for centuries, with new epochs providing fresh theories. Scorning the apparent irrationality of the artistic process, Plato described the poet as “not in [his] right mind,” possessed by the muse with “reason . . . no longer in him” and, many centuries later, Friedrich Nietzsche wrote that “it does not seem possible to be an artist and not be sick.” Certainly, others have assigned loftier attributes to artists than mental or physical disorders, but artists have tended to be seen through the years as somehow “off,” removed from real-world concerns (except, of course, poverty), and the what and whys of making art have remained a mystery.

Let’s just look at how psychologists have represented artists. (Hint: the sources of creativity are also the wellsprings of something abnormal.) A new multi-authored study in the journal Personality and Individual Differences, titled “Investigating the prosocial psychopath model of the creative personality: Evidence from traits and psychophysiology,” concluded that actors, artists and musicians frequently show similar tendencies to those with “psychopathic traits,” having high levels of “emotional disinhibition,” making them prone to dishonesty and risk-taking. “Emotional disinhibition, in the form of psychopathic boldness, is actually integral to some creative personalities and functionally related to the creative process,” the study finds. “A creative field might not just shape a person into a more arrogant or dishonest personality, it might be actively selecting them, not for the sake of having disagreeable traits, but because such traits meaningfully co-vary with creativity itself.” Those who delight in the idea that artists inherently are transgressive outlaws may be pleased. The rest of us may wonder why artists are so often associated with problems.

This study by Adrianne John R. Galang, Vincenzo Leonardo C. Castelo, Leonardo C. Santos III, Christopher Michael C. Perlas, and Ma. Antonina B. Angeles adds to an already overflowing bookshelf of research. Last fall, Trends in Cognitive Sciences published an editorial titled “Thinking too much: self-generated thought as the engine of neuroticism,” which explored “creativity and nonsituational ‘angst,’” while a June 2015 report “Polygenic risk scores for schizophrenia and bipolar disorder predict creativity” in the journal Nature Neuroscience claimed that “creative people are much more likely to carry genes connected to schizophrenia and bipolar disorder than those who work regular jobs.”

Research into the relationship between mental illness and art-making is extensive, and a regular series of conferences on the subject of Creativity and Madness (http://www.creativityandmadness.com) are scheduled around the world. Papers of all types are presented that purport to demonstrate links between artistic creativity and neurotic and psychotic states, but this area of research extends far beyond the conferences. A 2009 study by the Hungarian researcher Szabolcs Kéri claimed to identify a “schizophrenia gene” that influences creativity and in 2011 Scientific American reported on another finding that sought to explain “Why Creative People are Eccentric.” The preeminent book on the subject is Kay Jamison’s Touched with Fire: Manic-Depressive Illness and the Artistic Temperament, which made a strong connection between “creativity and mood disorders” in general, seeing an “overlap between the artistic and manic-depressive temperaments.”

Jamison stated that not “all writers and artists are depressed, suicidal, or manic. It is, rather, that a greatly disproportionate number of them are; that the manic-depressive and artistic temperaments are, in many ways, overlapping ones; and that the two temperaments are causally related to one another.”

Two questions arise: is this relationship so strong? And what are the assumptions that led to these studies being conducted in the first place? In fact, the two questions merge, as relationship between madness and creativity only can be “found” when one has looked specifically for it and stacked the deck to ensure the results.

Take, for example, a study of fifteen New York School artists conducted by J. J. Schildkraut, A. J. Hirshfield, and J. Murphy, and cited by Jamison, in which it is noted that two of the artists committed suicide. Jamison leaps to the claim that “the suicide rate among the artists . . . is at least thirteen times the general [population] rate.” It didn’t occur to her to notice that this group of fifteen is rather small, specially hand-picked, and is viewed outside of any context. Arshile Gorky and Mark Rothko, the two who committed suicide, for instance, were in the late stages of cancer at the time, and an accident had left Gorky unable to use his right, painting hand. Why not view their suicides more heroically as choosing their own terms for death instead of as somehow inherent in their choice of occupation?

Research in this field is one more academic niche, the road to tenure and promotion. Ernest Hartmann, a sleep researcher and professor of psychiatry at Tufts University School of Medicine, claimed to discover a connection between nightmares and creative activity. Writing in The American Journal of Psychiatry that the subjects in his study “have a biological vulnerability to schizophrenia,” he noted that “nearly all the subjects had occupations or career plans relating to arts or crafts” Not long after, Karl U. Smith, a psychologist at the University of Wisconsin, discovered that people who are more expressive on the left side of their faces are more likely to be creators than others who are “right-faced.” In 1999, the Stanford University psychologist Robert Solso declared that artists have “different inborn brain structures” after having attached magnetic resonance imaging scanners to a portrait painter and a non-artist graduate student and asking them both to draw six faces on a notepad. A weird sideline in psychology, the psychology of artists has now moved into the forefront, with its own body of literature.

In their study, “Creativity & Madness: Psychological Studies of Art and Artists,” for example, Barry Panter, Evelyn Virshup, and Bernard Virshup take the view that creativity is connected to psychopathology, while Stephen Diamond’s book, Anger, Madness and the Daimonic: The Psychological Genesis of Violence, Evil, and Creativity, identifies a strong link between anger, rage, violence, evil, and creativity. D. Jablow Hershman and Julien Lieb, in their study Manic Depression and Creativity, argue that manic depression can be used as a positive factor in the creative artist’s life, and Ludwig M. Arnold, whose The Price of Greatness: Resolving the Creativity and Madness Controversy views art as a successful resolution of madness. In all of these books, van Gogh regularly is trotted out to prove a general point about all artists.

Beyond the analysis of data is a structural problem, that is, the manner by which this data was established. Why only investigate artists rather than a more generalized group? (When you only look at artists, your conclusions could only relate to artists.) How about studying lawyers, doctors, physicists, psychiatrists, and other professionals who are also highly trained, who often work independently, and who need to develop creative solutions to thorny problems? The fact is, artists make their work and—through their work—their lives available for public consumption in ways that few other professions do. We don’t know what lawyers generally think about suicide because it is their interpretation of law, rather than the presentation of their feelings, that is the source of their income.

Perhaps this is just an academic exercise, finding a strain of psychology hell-bent on proving artists to be mentally troubled. Why should it matter to the rest of us? Because associating art-making and mental instability condemns art, presenting an ad hominem attack on art. When you look to sell your art to collectors, you want them to think of you as thoughtful, skilled professionals, not as a crazy person. When you seek financial support for a large-scale project, you want the private foundation or government agency to see you as responsible, not mentally imbalanced. That is a portrait of the artist that needs to be changed.

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